Wednesday, August 06, 2003
The big places
Cannes. The Film Festival.
OK. That’s it. On to Nice.
That is so much the impression that you get from outside France and so much the impression that, I think, seriously, Cannes would like you to have. There is worry that the Film Festival could go elsewhere. If so, I think Cannes will commit a sort of social suicide. But Cannes is actually fascinating to anyone who likes to figure out how towns work.
The Film Festival used to be more accessible for locals and, of course, for tourists. The first time I was here during the festival, I recall, you could see film people, even stars, on the Croisette (the English-style promenade along the front) and the buzz was palpable.
Now the festival is a trade show like any other. People come to it because not to come to it might hint at your demise. People come to make deals, to sign and to commit. They come to evaluate and to judge. You, me and Joe and Joanne Public have no rôle in this performance.
Even the facade which always was just a facade has diminished. The intense visual show that used to get the news cameramen down to the Croisette consisted (and still does to a lesser extent) of a plywood layer tacked to the fronts of some otherwise beautiful, elegant frontages: the Martinez, the Carlton, the Majestic. All the hotels would gladly deck themselves in this tawdry bill-posting just for the fortnight.
Along at the end of the Croisette is the Palais des Festivals, which is, for the rest of the year, as for the Festival, just an exhibition centre no posher than the UK’s National Exhibition Centre and similarly appointed as a vast void. During the Film Festival it is, of course, laid entirely to red carpet.
Last year, Renault negotiated the rights to deliver the stars to the end of the carpet. This meant a fleet of about six Velsartisses, their huge saloon, cruising round in a sufficiently large circle that the cameras caught no sight of them picking up actors just along the road and dropping them almost immediately at the cinema. The public hanging around for a glimpse (I saw Sting from about 200 metres! Yay!) can see this charade in full. The crowds are not large and they are mainly foreign tourists. Many French stars of the sub-Depardieu, sub-Paradis roster can be seen to pause, as they are dropped off, for adulation which does not come from an unrecognizing public. They shrug and go off to enjoy the movie. This sort of cynicism is easy to catch in Cannes during this fortnight. It is not typical of the town and I regret even relaying it to you.
The Croisette is indeed a facade. It is, of course, a crescent running around a pretty bay from the Palais to the Pointe Croisette where sits the Palm Beach Casino. For more than half of this run, the latter half, it is a smart, quiet residential district. For the first part it is the front which transforms itself for the Film Festival but which is normally a very elegant series of hotels in the very best of modest good taste. Nestling between the hotels are shops, some just tourists post-card shops, some just ice-cream, but mostly very, very expensive, belonging to the major Paris and Rome fashion marques.
But Cannes, like most coastal towns fits itself to the sea and grows its thick skin in layers against the glare of the sea and international publicity. Just behind the Croisette starts the real town.
The Rue d’Antibes, layer number two, has the normal shops, banks, pharmacies, FNAC, etc. The prices drop by 50% and life is normal.
Layer number three between d’Antibes and the railway is where Prisunic are, most of the boulangeries and the fruit market. Prices are now even further down and life is frantic.
Then there’s the railway and the station and the slightly transformed RN7 - calling itself the Voie Rapide (and they say the French have no irony).
Behind the railway, Cannes shrugs off the pretence, takes control and stops arranging itself like the flats on a stage. The Boulevard Carnot plunges into the hinterland at right-angles to the coast and the area around République, relatively poor and distinctly urban takes over with its hundreds of small roads, its immigrant population and its supermarkets and flea-markets.
Nobody hoping to make the traditional bomb renting out their apartments to directors and producers for the Festival but located further back than Rue d’Antibes or further west than the Palais or further east than the Martinez - nobody outside this zone need apply. This area is Cannes as she wants to be seen - but not the real town we know - and, I must say, love dearly.
West of the Palais is Cannes old town. As befits the old, this part feels no need to emulate its younger neighbour and drapes itself over a handful of small hills with almost complete irregularity. This is where the restaurants you really need are to be found.
They even had a Planet Hollywood until America’s recently discovered agoraphobia struck them dead.
Nice is nice.
Well, having got that out the way… No, I really mean it: Nice is a fine, fine town.
If your idea of Nice is limited to the Promenade des Anglais and the elegant sea front, you might find Nice a bit of a surprise.
For one thing, it is big. About 350,000 people live in greater Nice which stretches way back up the valley and round behind the hills to accommodate them. Everything about Nice is bigger than you think. The Promenade des Anglais itself is about seven kilometres long. Starting at the very centre of Nice it has its elegant part in the first kilometre, up to and past the Negresco - which is a very expensive hotel and probably deserves its fame. The P des A carries on getting gradually less and less salubrious before ending up at the botanical gardens and the airport. For most of its length, it’s a six or eight lane highway, still looking very urban and urbane but packed with humble Renaults and Citroëns.
Nice has the shape of a city on a river mouth but the river was covered over years ago; so now it is a city with an axis consisting of (counting back from the sea) a public park, a public car park, a bus station, a modern arts centre (with theatre) and an exhibition venue. Behind this the river appears again but is hemmed in by urban motorways in not the most attractive part of the town.
Back down at the sea, one bank of this river-that-isn’t is the old town which has a splendid food market - the sort that everyone remembers France for and which still thankfully exists here - and some of the best restaurants.
The other bank is the modern centre. The main axis is Jean Medecin which has the main big shops. When we first came here it had a reasonable Marks & Spencers (bigger than the branch in Marseille and bigger than the one room basement they seemed to occupy in Vienna). Then came the year that M&S had to admit that they were finding life hard (less hard in their foreign branches than in the UK but ssshh, don’t say that); so they closed down their foreign branches. This had an interesting effect. In their Paris site, all that could be seen last time I was there was temporary cladding announcing that a French shop chain had taken the site and would, surely, be opening something there real soon now. In Nice, the site has just been closed and abandoned and bears the largest collection of artless graffiti in Nice. It is an eyesore of the worst kind because it still looks quite simply like an abandoned M&S and, in that manner, rather like an English insult to a handsome French street.
Forgetting this little ex-patriot grief, let’s go on to say that Nice is where you go to get anything - well anything that can be got in the region. It is still rather short on big book shops. It doesn’t have anything like a PC World either (which I find annoying). In the general line of department stores, there’s only Galleries Lafayette. It’s certainly no Paris. There’s not a lot of culture.
Recently, Nice Matin, the excellent local paper, carried reports of the two really big, well-attended concerts in town. Johnny Vegas, the sosie (or look-alike) of Johnny Halliday (the undying love for whom is still a complete mystery to the non-French) and another guy (whose name escapes me) who is the sosie (and revival) of Claude François (a pop-star of France’s yé-yé days in the 60s). We get the fakes.
Still, I like Nice. It’s big, well laid out and has a lot of good urban design about it. Not least of which is its very natural partition by the river-that’s-not-there.