Anthony Peregrine, The Daily Telegraph, April 9, 2014
It is time once again to consider the key question about Cannes, viz: why would anyone in his right mind ever go there? The subject crops up annually in spring, when the Côte-d'Azur resort is in the spotlight. The MIPCOM international television festival has been on all this week (April 7-10), bringing together TV producers and the planet's TV companies, essentially to trade new reality-TV concepts. (These include, for 2014, a Spanish show featuring competitors singing in on-stage showers. As the audience votes, so the water gets hotter or colder.)
The more famous Cannes Film Festival kicks off next month (May 14-25) with the official selection announced on April 17. And the Côte-d'Azur resort gets coverage, too, in The Love Punch, an Emma Thompson and Pierce Brosnan caper movie opening in Britain on April 18. The film - which centres on an attempted Riviera jewel heist - sounds altogether too jolly to have been chosen for the film fest. Festival films must weigh a ton and, if British, be directed by Ken Loach.
But, when The Love Punch does finally arrive in ordinary Cannes cinemas, it will doubtless play ambiguously in a town where real jewel raids reached epidemic proportions last year. This is typical of the place. Along the coast in Marseille, gangsters slaughter one another with kalashnikovs over drugs deals. In the bars of Toulon, you don't shake hands with anyone, for you don't know who they've just been stabbing. In Nice, corruption used to be so ingrained that the mayor ended up in Uruguay.
In Cannes, by contrast, a lone fellow with a handgun sauntered into a diamond exhibition at the Carlton Hotel last summer, and sauntered out again with €100 million (£82 million) in rocks . Earlier, during the 2013 film festival, thieves were perhaps surprised to find €1 million worth of jewels stashed in a room-safe at the Cannes Novotel. Then came another mega-raid of watches from a shop on La Croisette, the celebrated sea-side promenade.
And that's what's so annoying about Cannes. Even the crime, though expensive and noteworthy, seems insubstantial. The place in general always struck me as rootless bling, all fur coat and no knickers. Its sole triumph was to eke out over a full year the glitter generated by the festival fortnight.
Naturally, there were sun, sea and palm trees - but these aren't scarce in Mediterranean areas. Of the big-name hotels, only the Carlton looked half-way noble. (The domes at each end of the Carlton's roof were, incidentally, inspired by the breasts of a Belle Epoque courtesan. She must have had a gifted seamstress; the domes are terribly conical.) I once spotted Sean Connery in the bar of the nearby Martinez hotel - he was alone and perhaps dreaming of an independent Scotland - but that didn't make the place exceptional to look at.
There used to be nothing to be gained by visiting Cannes during the film festival. The place was a Sodom and Gomorrah of IQ-free security guards. Photo: Getty
Nor were La Croisette's posh boutiques - YSL, Dior, Cartier - notably impressive. One wondered: do the rich never tire of finding exactly the same shops wherever they go? Indeed, how do they know where they've gone, when astro-priced handbags iron out the differences? Private beaches here, as everywhere else, were also a con: from £21 per person per day for a lounger three rows back from the sea on La Croisette beach. Lord knows why anyone ever paid that when, beyond the port and west along the Boulevard du Midi, there were (are) acres of sand for free.
And there was nothing to be gained by visiting Cannes during the film festival. The place was a Sodom and Gomorrah of IQ-free security guards wallowing in the free rein that protecting Sharon Stone bestowed, evening parties to which you'd never gain entry, and pavements crowded beyond reason with airheads craning for a glimpse of Bruce Willis. On one of my infrequent festival visits, I spotted Rosanna Arquette's back as she mounted the festival palace steps. Then I went for a hot dog. Then I got food poisoning. Forty-eight hours sequestered in a hotel bathroom didn't enhance my appreciation of Cannes any.
More recently, though, I've been returning to the place in a mellower frame of mind. I've also been told to grow up and be fair: Cannes is not as I conceived it. It is a good place. There are things to see and do there, I am informed. And so there are. One might trot from the Festival Palace - now painted white and so looking much less like a coastal defence installation - to the pleasure port, and onto the Suquet hill. This is where the Cannois used to live, tight and steep, when fishing, rather than films and fashion, was their business. The streets are of medieval narrowness, now coated with bars, restaurants and other improvements. Up top, what's left of the medieval castle houses the Musée de la Castre ( cannes.com, £5) into which Cannes has chucked anything which came to hand - musical instruments (including a flute made from a human femur; someone left his body to music), landscape paintings, primitive artifacts. The views from the castle tower are outstanding, not least to the two Lérins Islands out in the bay.
One of Cannes's talents is stretching out the glamour of a two-week festival into a year-long tourist attraction. Photo: AP
For reasons too daft to go into, you may not visit these islands in a round trip. You must go to one, then return to Cannes before making out for the second, if you can be bothered. Sainte Marguérite is bigger and has a fort where the Man in the Iron Mask is said to have been imprisoned. St Honorat has been run by monks for upwards of 1,500 years, the unworldly fellows clinging to what is one of the primest bits of real estate in France. These days, it's Cistercians who do God's work of making wine and spirits. Cheapest wine in the monastery shop is £21 a bottle, the most expensive £160. Clearly, the assumption is that, if you're on the Côte-d'Azur, you've not made vows of poverty.
Back on the mainland, one might lollop to the Croix-de-Garde hill - where aristocratic Britons, led in in 1834 by ex-Lord Chancellor Lord Brougham - established their villas, thus kick-starting Cannes' glam career. And that's about your lot. There have indeed been things to see and do, but they take a day, a day and a half, topside.
But that, I've at last realised, is the seductive thing about Cannes. There's not actually much to do - which leaves you guilt-free to do exactly what you want: eating and drinking, swimming, sunbathing and strolling La Croisette, where, you'll note, not everyone is a beautiful person. There are sweating joggers, families, fat tourists, shuffling old fellows, walnut women with dogs the size of clutch bags and much international flotsam, all revelling in spin-off glamour. You're going to fit right in.
And then there's the shopping. If this is your thing, please listen up: the weekend of April 18-21 sees Cannes devoting Easter to the Cannes Shopping Festival; cannesshoppingfestival.com ). This features fashion events, fashion shows in the Festival Palace and many other things with "fashion" in front. "It's mega," a young Cannes lady told me. "Everyone from Paris comes." Clearly, no-one in his right mind is going to go near the place for those four days. The festival fortnight's a no-no, too. But, for the rest of the year, I can now envisage worse places. We'll talk about them sometime.