The first French phrase I taught myself was “I am sorry for being an American.” Je suis désolé d’être un Américain.
For someone traveling out of North America for the first time in his life, there’s no better place to be torturously self-conscious about American identity than the Cannes Film Festival. Logistically, it’s not that bad at all; almost everyone speaks passable English, all the programs and screenings offer subtitles for English-speakers, and the festival grounds aren’t difficult to navigate, centralized in the ritzy Grand Palais. But walking the screensaver-perfect Croisette, a U.S. citizen can’t stave off the inkling that every aspect of this experience has been calibrated to make them feel vulgar. There are the expected foreign eccentricities, sure — nobody in this country puts ice in their drinks, which is insane, obviously — but in a larger sense, it’s impossible not to feel poorly-dressed and just, well, poor.
Everyone is fabulously good-looking, to the point where a member of the visiting press might begin to entertain suspicions of some kind of Stepford Wives situation going on behind the scenes. A playground for yacht-owners, the Croisette area is almost entirely devoid of homeless people, and the only one that I did happen upon was slugging Prosecco and had a more stylish haircut than me. And the festival itself takes up glamour as its defining aesthetic principle, outfitting even the beefier security guys with tuxes stretching under the strain of bulging muscles.
As this international inferiority complex took hold, it even colored my perception of the screenings I caught. My first day at the festival (technically the second overall — my first rookie mistake was booking a flight that landed the evening of opening night, which meant I missed Woody Allen’s Cafe Society premiere, a goof I am now trying to rebrand as an act of silent moral protest) consisted of a French picture, an American picture, and a British picture. The vast disparity in quality between those first two took on a national significance as I wandered around various winding rues while reflecting on them. Like an Olympics of cinema, these films are called upon to represent their country of origin when they converge on Cannes, and the day’s screenings neatly encapsulated the defining qualities of France and the good ol’ U.S. of A.