Friday Night in Cannes: Aesthetics Count, On-Screen and Off

A colleague and I spilled out of our last screening for the evening at 9:30, insanely hungry after eating nothing all day but what my friend calls "squirrel food" -- that would mean nuts, fruit and biscuits, a staple of festival sustenance for critics on a budget. We marveled at the throngs of people crowding the sidewalks and open cafes. Cannes is bustling during the festival, but it had never looked this crowded. Then we realized what everyone else had figured out hours ago: It was Friday night. Days and nights filled with movies (and writing in between) can turn you into a creature of the perpetual night. Daylight hours rush by in a blur, seemingly with little demarcation in between.

One of the most delightful things about people-watching in Cannes is the number of people dressed up, seemingly for no reason, particularly on a Friday night. We passed a twentysomething gentleman, in full evening dress, stepping off his motorbike. When he removed his helmet -- did he really sort of toss his head like a guy from a '70s men's cologne ad, or did I just imagine it? -- I was stunned to see how absurdly handsome he was, like a European John Kennedy Jr. Movies are often the stuff of fantasy, but film-festival programming can be pretty heavy on realism. Sometimes you have to get out of the theater and onto the street to see movie-star good looks.

It's also jarring to be in a place where even casually dressed men are so well put-together. Whether they're out and about with their dates or roving in packs, their shirts are always pressed; their pants don't trail the ground. I love my fellow critics, but the standard uniform of badly hemmed trousers, rumpled shirts, schleppy windbreakers and ratty Strand tote bags makes me weary. How can people who are so astute at making aesthetic judgments about what they see on-screen fail to grasp the difference an iron can make? But they're hardly the only guilty party: Back home in New York, my husband and I always marvel at the sartorially mismatched young people we see out on dates. More often than not, the girl has put on a dress and heels, or jeans and a sparkly top; she's lucky if her beau has even bothered to put on a fresh T-shirt.

I suspect the women of Cannes would have none of that. I've seen them strolling the Croisette, in little groups or with their dates, wearing dresses that aren't necessarily expensive (and that aren't always draped on perfect bodies), but the extra effort always shows. All along the Croisette, street photographers troll for movie stars or just great-looking people; they might scan you and -- in my case, alas -- reject you, but I still like to think they're looking for some whiff of old-style Festival de Cannes glamour, some remnant of Brigitte Bardot or Sophia Loren sparkle. Whatever it is they're looking for, they'll know it when they see it.

Read more of Stephanie Zacharek's Cannes 2011 coverage here.