The red carpet: Cannes’ great big bonfire of vanities

Two or three times each day, stars from the world of cinema and beyond strut their stuff at the entrance to the Palais des Festivals, in a parade that attracts huge investment from major fashion and jewelry firms

Heidi Klum on Wednesday on the access steps to the Palais des Festivals in Cannes.Daniel Cole (AP / LAPRESSE)
Gregorio Belinchón

Every morning, and at different times later in the day, two cleaners methodically vacuum the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. The section that suffers the most wear and tear, taking a particular battering from stiletto heels, is the ‘rosso’-red central area (the sides are in another shade, known as ‘teatro’ red). This main section is replaced every day and re-used locally. Two or three times a day, come rain or shine, the covered entranceway leading up to the Palais des Festivals, where spotlights ensure the stars are perfectly lit as they are photographed, hosts a red-carpet walk: an event that’s a blend of performance, posturing and modelling, with big investment by major fashion and jewelry firms. Sometimes, it’s about cinema, too. It’s a 60-meter-long parade without which the festival would never get the attention it has enjoyed for two weeks every May since 1946.

Aerial view of the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.
Aerial view of the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. Andreas Rentz / POOL (EFE)

The Cannes red carpet, which only became an official staple of the festival in 1984, has a layout reminiscent of a bottleneck. It begins with a wide area, where cars laid on by the organizers drop off the stars ahead of an in-competition screening – a showing involving a contender for the Palme d’Or – or, in some cases, one of the festival’s special sessions. Every other film on the program must share its carpet walk with the in-competition movie screened closest to it. As the VIPs emerge from their vehicles, they are met by a grandstand packed with fans who have lined up for hours, and who seek autographs and selfies. There is also an initial group of photographers standing on stepladders of differing sizes.

Coco Rocha, pictured in Cannes on 24 May.
Coco Rocha, pictured in Cannes on 24 May.Scott Garfitt (Associated Press/LaPresse)

The stars then head down a narrower walkway, where the true red carpet begins, with 400 photographers snapping them from both sides. This is their moment to shine, to strut their stuff. As a journalist announces over a loudspeaker who is approaching the 24 steps leading up to the Palais doorway, a disc jockey pumps out the beats: half of the tracks have been chosen by the DJ; the other half, by the director of the movie about to be screened. On the opening day of this year’s festival, Maïwenn’s choice of Should I Stay or Should I Go by The Clash felt like a declaration of her state of mind. What with all the shouting, the music, the pile-up of A-listers and the eye-catching haute-couture outfits, it can all be quite overwhelming.

Pedro Almodóvar (center), in Cannes with actors from his short film 'Strange Way of Life.'
Pedro Almodóvar (center), in Cannes with actors from his short film 'Strange Way of Life.'Vianney Le Caer (AP / Lapresse)

“I look for expressions, gestures,” says Fabrizio de Gennaro, a veteran Italian photographer who, however, has only been coming to Cannes for two years. He shows off a spectacular shot of Robert De Niro at the premiere of Killers of the Flower Moon. De Gennaro covers all the red carpets and photocalls at the festival. “I take about 4,000 photos a day, and around 50 of them are good enough,” he notes. He has a spot in the center of the grandstand – “I’m lucky,” he acknowledges – and all his shots at Cannes are for Cineuropa, an online media outlet that is very popular in the industry. Standing beside De Gennaro in the festival’s media center, the German video journalist Christine Bluhm downloads the clips she has filmed that afternoon. The pair have struck up a rapport, sharing jokes in Italian, although Bluhm, who is much younger and is based in Munich, comes from a different world. “This is my first year [in Cannes] and I’m really enjoying myself,” she says. “I specialize in luxury real estate, jewelry, and fashion shows in New York and Paris. I’m freelance; I’ve been hired to cover Cannes by Vogue Thailand.” Both Bluhm and De Gennaro are decked out in their finest: a dinner jacket is obligatory for men on the red carpet, while women must be in an evening dress – but no longer have to wear heels.

Ester Expósito on the red carpet for the screening of 'Lost in the Night.'
Ester Expósito on the red carpet for the screening of 'Lost in the Night.'LOIC VENANCE (AFP)

The red carpet is also a place where statements can be made. In the past, Cannes has seen Brazilian filmmakers protest against the impeachment of the country’s former president, Dilma Rousseff, and has witnessed a sea of green scarves in support of the legalization of abortion in Argentina. This year and in 2022, the war in Ukraine has also been prominent. On Friday, police arrested an activist who tried to gatecrash the red carpet wearing a dress in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, with the message: “Fuck you, Putin.” Earlier this week, another Ukrainian influencer, Ilona Chernobai, was pulled off the red carpet after pouring fake blood over herself. One individual who was allowed at the event is the Russian model Victoria Bonya, who has sent out several messages in support of her country’s president, and has posted photos of herself posing in Cannes in a bathing suit bearing Vladimir Putin’s face and a slogan in support of the leader.

A protester with a message against Vladimir Putin attempts to join the red carpet before the screening of 'The Old Oak.'
A protester with a message against Vladimir Putin attempts to join the red carpet before the screening of 'The Old Oak.'YARA NARDI (REUTERS)

Every morning, 17,000 free copies of the magazine Croisette Gala are handed out in Cannes. A special edition of the French publication Gala, it is produced at the Hotel Majestic, located near the Palais des Festivals. There, a team of 30 journalists publish a 96-page daily that fills its readers in on what happened on the red carpet the day before. It also offers movie news and interviews, and reports on the nighttime parties held at the festival. Croisette Gala’s editor, Carlos Gomez, explains: “The magazine’s opening pages are dedicated to photos of the red carpet, because it’s what people find the most entertaining. We started out in 2010, in a shorter, 30-page format. The magazine really grew by covering cinema; advertising from fashion and jewelry brands rocketed. In Croisette Gala, you can see the best images from each day.” What does the red carpet mean for the festival? “We talk about the movie industry, right?” Gomez replies. “Well, the red carpet is at the heart of that industry: beautiful people in expensive clothes, sponsored by labels that want it all to look great. The best movies have been shown here for some 75 years now, but the event needs this red carpet to have the impact that it has.”

Thierry Frémaux (right) welcomes the director and stars of 'May December.'
Thierry Frémaux (right) welcomes the director and stars of 'May December.'GONZALO FUENTES (REUTERS)

Croisette Gala’s pages offer an infallible indication of who is at the very top of the movie and fashion worlds. Its photos are a mixture of figures from the film business (Elodie Boichez, Elle Fanning, Iris Law, Laura Harrier, Adéle Exarchopoulos, the stars of Pedro Almodóvar’s short film Strange Way of Life, Viola Davis, Alicia Vikander, Aishwarya Rai, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Salma Hayek and dozens more); models (Thayna Soares, Sara Sampaio, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Naomi Campbell, Gigi Hadid, Coco Rocha, Irina Shayk and the ubiquitous Alessandra Ambrósio); and all kinds of famous individuals (Carla Bruni, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Heidi Klum, Charlotte Casiraghi, Adriana Karembeu and a couple that has shone in Cannes: Romain Gavras and Dua Lipa). And that is to name only a few. Of all the stars that have walked the red carpet this year, who has thrived the most? “Lily-Rose Depp, without a shadow of a doubt,” says Gomez. “She has it in her blood. On one of the days, she posed for what has been our best front cover so far.”

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan on the red carpet before the screening of 'Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny' on 18 May.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan on the red carpet before the screening of 'Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny' on 18 May.Mohammed Badra (EFE)

And how does it feel to take to the red carpet in Cannes? The Spanish actress Ester Expósito appeared on it for the first time in 2021, thanks to her partnership with a fashion label. Now, she has returned as part of the cast of Lost in the Night, by the Mexican director Amat Escalante. “My whole time in Cannes has been one big injection of energy,” Expósito says, adding: “I wanted to come back to the red carpet as an actress. Who would have thought two years ago that I’d achieve that goal so soon?”

The central section of the Cannes red carpet is replaced.
The central section of the Cannes red carpet is replaced. Guillaume Horcajuelo (EFE)

For the Spanish director Pablo Berger, whose movie Robot Dreams premiered in a special session, this year was his debut on the Cannes red carpet. “Every carpet is similar in its dynamic, but in Cannes it ends with those stairs that are like the ones in Battleship Potemkin,” Berger says. “So you’re just concentrating on not tripping over, and at the top of the stairs the biggest influencer in the world of cinema, [Cannes Film Festival chief] Thierry Frémaux, is waiting for you. I got to the top without making myself a laughing stock or becoming the subject of a viral video, and Frémaux gave me a really nice welcome. I came in the same way that De Niro, [Martin] Scorsese and [Leonardo] DiCaprio did an hour later, and I’m sure we all felt the same emotion: the emotion you’re filled with when, after years of hard work, you see your movie on the big screen.” A regular on the red carpet, the Spanish actor Paz Vega was back this year, although her focus has been on promoting her first film as a director, Rita, which begins shooting on Monday. “I’ve been walking [the red carpet] for two decades, and in and of itself, there isn’t too much to it. It is what it is: it’s a space for sponsors. It’s like what happens in sport.”

Lily-Rose Depp on the Cannes red carpet before the premiere of the series The Idol.
Lily-Rose Depp on the Cannes red carpet before the premiere of the series The Idol.ERIC GAILLARD (REUTERS)

It’s hard to gauge the financial impact of the red carpet. But, Vega acknowledges, “it has an effect in terms of publicity. It catches brands’ eyes and boosts the festival’s image.” Gomez concludes: “The Cannes Film Festival couldn’t survive just with great movies that you may never see again in your life. It needs this walk of fame.”

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