CANNES, France — “Woody, Woody, Woody! Please, please, please!”
One of the familiar sounds of the annual Cannes Film Festival, blended with the roar of the crowd, is that of the pleading paparazzi. Each year, several hundred photographers and many more television teams descend on this festival to immortalize the newest red-carpet immortals, who are sometimes, in this auteur-driven event, the old immortals. Such is the case with Woody Allen, a festival veteran who was back on Wednesday night, this time with “Café Society,” a middling entertainment that features enough famous names to make it a perfect opening-night diversion.
Mr. Allen traded in his customary sneakers for dress shoes and a tuxedo for his latest tour on the carpet, where he was joined by his wife, Soon-Yi, and his stars, Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. After putting in the requisite smiles (wave, turn, repeat), the team joined the black-tie throng for the premiere, followed by the official dinner and more photo ops, even among rising chatter about a critical article written by Mr. Allen’s son, Ronan Farrow. This year’s dinner was more subdued than those in the past and took place inside the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, the official headquarters, where a fleet of police and guards mingled with politicians, stars like Catherine Deneuve, the writer Jean-Claude Carrière (“Belle de Jour”) and waiters rushing plates of veal to tables.
Cinema gives Cannes its reason for being, but it is celebrity that keeps it going. Now in its 69th year, the festival has survived assorted jolts, including television, the transition to digital and World War II, which led to the cancellation of the inaugural edition, in 1939. When it got underway in 1946, its slate included Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast.” A quotation from Cocteau on the festival website asserts that Cannes is “an apolitical no man’s land, a microcosm of what the world would be like if people could make direct contact with one another and speak the same language.” The apolitical part has always been nonsense, as the event’s history of protests and policing show.
Certainly, it is still nonsense, given that France remains under a state of emergency, following the deadly November attacks in and around Paris. Festivalgoers arrived amid competing dramatic headlines — “Bomb sweeps and bag checks as terror threat looms over Cannes,” The Guardian announced on Tuesday — that suggested that attendees could expect to endure the paramilitary-like rigors of an Academy Awards ceremony or even a big Hollywood premiere. (I passed through several metal detectors for the premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”) Yet entrance to the Palais remains much the same as before and largely involves personnel peering in bags, confiscating water bottles (and apples and sandwiches) and scanning attendees with electronic security wands.
And, so, it’s on with the show, with all its glamour, gowns, parties, high-ticket hookers, trolling Lamborghinis, incessant Euro disco and the push and pull between the dream world onscreen and the one outside the Palais. Cannes is nothing if not in touch with its history, including its commitment to protocol, and it is apparently not going to let the threat of terror get in the way of some 30,000 souls who are here to screen, to see and be seen. The players, including the juries, have convened (the head of the competition jury is George Miller, here last year with “Mad Max: Fury Road”); the first reviews have already been written, read and forgotten.
The selections run the usual gamut, from noncompetition titles, like “Money Monster,” which are clearly here to help fill out the red carpet, in this case with its director (Jodie Foster) and star (George Clooney). These boldfaced names are especially important, given that the first few competition movies to play are star-free zones. Later in the festival, the paparazzi will be crying out, “Steven, Steven, Steven!” when Steven Spielberg appears with his latest movie, “The BFG” (set to open in the United States in July), followed a few days later by shouts of “Ryan!” and “Russell!” (for Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe), the stars of “The Nice Guys” (opening next Friday in the States).
It will probably take longer for “Sieranevada,” from the Romanian director Cristi Puiu, to make its way to American screens. A movie about cinematic time, historical memory and camera movement (among other things), “Sieranevada” takes place largely in a cramped apartment, where an extended family has gathered to commemorate a dead relative. There, as doors open and close, and the camera pans right and left, Mr. Puiu creates a complex multigenerational portrait of a post-Ceausescu Romania in which discussions about the attacks on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo take place in one room, while in another, the talk turns to Romanian Communism, God and belief.
Mr. Puiu likes to take his time, and, at three hours, the movie feels about 30 minutes too long. Still, even when he dawdles, he keeps you hooked with his filmmaking and his characters. Their engagement in the world offers a vivid contrast with both the Jewish caricatures in “Café Society” and the tedious eccentrics populating Alain Guiraudie’s “Staying Vertical,” about a filmmaker who raises his baby alone after the child’s mother understandably splits. Mr. Guiraudie’s characters are art film creatures and as artificial as the wisecracking stereotypes in “Café Society,” where none of the men and women appear remotely aware of the world, much less post-1933 Germany.