Cannes Kicks Off Three-Day "Special Festival" Under Strict COVID-19 Rules

Cannes Special Opening NIght
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Cannes Director Thierry Frémaux, Cannes President Pierre Lescure, and Cannes Mayor David Lisnard at the opening night of the Special Cannes 2020 festival

After coronavirus forced the world's leading film festival to cancel its official edition in May, Cannes this week launched a mini version with four films.

The sky is still blue, and the carpet is still red, but nothing else is quite the same.

The Cannes Film Festival, a version of it anyway, kicked off Tuesday night, with a mini-event, called Special Cannes 2020, that will screen four films across three evenings, alongside a competition selection of shorts and film school features.

The official Cannes festival was forced to cancel this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Films that would have graced the Croisette in May were instead given a Cannes "2020 Official Selection" label and screened elsewhere — including at the Toronto and San Sebastian festivals.

But that wasn't enough. At least not for Cannes festival director Thierry Frémaux, festival president Pierre Lescure and David Lisnard, the city's mayor, the trio responsible for this week's mini-Cannes. After seeing Official Selection titles screen elsewhere, Frémaux said at the opening ceremony Tuesday night, they knew they had to find a way to hold a festival in Cannes.

So here we are. Around a thousand of us, all masked and socially distanced, in the spacious Louis Lumière auditorium (built for 2,000 plus) of Cannes' Palais des Festivals, to open Special Cannes 2020 with The Big Hit!, a French comedy from director Emmanuel Courcol.

Like all four films screening here this week, The Big Hit!, was an official Cannes 2020 selection. The others include True Mothers from Cannes regular, Japanese director Naomi Kawase; Beginning from first-time Georgian filmmaker Déa Kulumbegashvili, the big winner at San Sebastian this year; and Bruno Podalydès' The French Tech, another Franco-comedy, which will close Special Cannes on Thursday evening.

Frémaux playfully scolded the audience for their hesitant applause when Courcol and his cast were first introduced — "we are at 50 percent capacity but you have to applaud at 100 percent" he joked — but was otherwise upbeat, obviously pleased to have pulled this thing off.

With COVID-19 numbers rising sharply in France — the country has logged a record 52,010 new coronavirus infections overnight Monday — it looked like this mini-Cannes could be shut down before it even began. France has already extended its 9 p.m. curfew — a measure designed to reduce the virus' spread — to most of its cities, affecting 46 million of the country’s 66 million citizens. That includes Cannes, where the four premiere galas were brought forward an hour — 6 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. — to ensure guests could get home in time for the enforced shutdown.

Frémaux is obviously ready to do whatever it takes to keep this Cannes show on the road. Safety measures go beyond the expected — masks and social distancing — and nearly enter the realm of science fiction. To access the Cannes red carpet, guests had to pass through a portal — an arch similar to a metal detector — which sprayed the visitor with a disinfectant mist while simultaneously bathing them in purple ultraviolet light. I almost expected to be teleported to the bridge of the USS Enterprise.

Where Cannes has loosened up a bit, is the dress code. It's black-tie of course — classic Cannes — but it isn't being enforced. A French man ahead of me, in jeans and a sports jacket, strolls right past security. You wouldn't get away with that at the "real" Cannes Film Festival. 

Fashion, however, isn't the reason we're here. The purpose of Special Cannes 2020 is to keep people talking about cinema, even, or especially, as a possibility of a second lockdown looms large. Cinemas might be mostly empty worldwide, but Cannes doesn't want us to forget about Cinema.

So Frémaux, Lescure and Lisnard are hyping up their mini-festival, which will even have a mini-awards ceremony and a mini-Palme d'Or, in the form of a best short film honor. It might be a pale imitation of the real thing but, at times like these, the film industry needs all the help it can get.

Which is why everyone in the Palais applauded — at 100 percent — when Mayor Lisnard summed up the spirit of the event: "Viva Les Cinemas! Viva Les Cultures! Viva Les Cannes!"