For a town that derives its very essence from its annual May celebration of world cinema, the cancelation of the Cannes Film Festival in 2020 due to the pandemic came as a big blow. But thanks to falling infection rates and rising vaccinations, Cannes' red carpet and its iconic festival have returned with couture glamour and cinematic ambition.

"Oh my gosh, it's such a pleasure, a real emotion," Pierre Lescure, president of the Cannes Film Festival tells NPR in an interview from his office overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. "Yes, Cannes is back," says Lescure, "but more importantly cinema is back."

There will be 24 films in the official competition this year, a few more than usual over the festival's almost two-week duration. There are dozens of additional films from around the world being screened out of competition. A new section called Cannes Premieres has also been organized to show selections from a year's worth of cinema that were missed because of the pandemic.

The opening night film is Annette, a highly anticipated musical by filmmaker Leos Carax, or as some have described it — a modern-day opera. It stars the acclaimed French actress Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver as lovers. Originally slated to make its debut at the 2020 edition, Annette was kept on ice for a year out of loyalty to Cannes, says Lescure.

A celebration restored with precautions

The day before opening night, technicians checked the sound systems and put finishing touches on the entrance to the Palais des Festivals, where movie stars from around the world will walk up the iconic red carpeted stairs this evening to kick off the 74th edition of the iconic festival.

"This is a great moment for us, and we've been waiting for it and needing it," says taxi driver Olivier Ralaud. "It's a great, great event that swells the size of Cannes to about 300,000 people – and usually we're a small town." Ralaud notes that it is a bit strange to have the festival in July, instead of May, where he says it usually kicks off the tourist season.

Organizers waited until France's pandemic restrictions were lifted to hold Cannes. But COVID-19 has made for a somewhat different scene this year. People wear masks on the "Croisette" the famous boardwalk that runs along Cannes' beaches. There are also testing sites and temperature checkers in front of popular venues like the casino.

Film critic Lisa Nesselson is in the city covering her 33rd festival. "I don't think anybody will argue with the notion that Cannes is the biggest, most significant film event on the planet," she says. "Some say the Oscars give it a run for its money, but in my humble opinion that's ludicrous.

Nesselson says Cannes assembles tens of thousands of people and shows films that are carefully curated and chosen by people who eat, breathe and think film year-round. "And of course it is the most important film market in the world," she says. "There are people who are buying and selling movies that are just one line on a sheet of paper, or a finished script, or halfway done. Enormous amounts of money change hands from the market. So there's the artistic portion and there's the business portion and of course it has a reputation of being a spectacularly glamorous event."

You can already feel the star presence, as music streams from swanky beachfront restaurants and private parties. This year a giant screen and chairs have been set up in the sand by the sea, for an outdoor nightly cinema experience.

Visitors take selfies in front of the famous red carpeted stairs. And then there are the regulars like Joseph Morpelli, who has set up his ladder across from the stairs, as he does every year. "We love cinema and we love the actors that go with it," he says.

Morpelli's is one of dozens of ladders chained to palm trees and poles, glinting in the sun. The ladders are part of Cannes folklore and it's all in pursuit of a better view and a chance to call out to the movie stars as they arrive. "Sharon Stone is my favorite, but we haven't seen her in a few years," Morpelli says. "But we're going to see Jodie Foster this year." That's because the American actor and recent star of The Mauritanian is set to receive a lifetime achievement award.

A historic jury for a new era

As always, posters of the festival decorate the town, from storefronts to the Croisette.

This year's poster features jury president Spike Lee looking out ironically through his large black glasses, framed by two palm trees. It's not only the first time a Black filmmaker presides over the jury, it's also the first time a jury head appears on the official festival poster.

Jury member Mati Diop also made history in 2019 when she became the first woman of color to have a film in competition at the festival with her feature Atlantics. This year's jury, which awards the the festival's highest honor the Palm D'or, also includes more women than men. At the opening day press conference, Diop and her fellow jurors emphasized the importance of greater equity and inclusion in legacy institutions like Cannes. When asked about her fellow jurors, American actor Maggie Gyllenhaal said, "I'm so curious to see what happens with this new formulation."

Cannes President Lescure says Spike Lee's presence over the festivities in such a moment — amidst a pandemic and worldwide calls for racial justice — is particularly meaningful. "Because of his filmography, because of his talent because of his political and social actions, because of who he is," says Lescure. "It seemed to us he was the right man, in the right place, at the right moment."

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