It’s always been easy to feel unfashionable at Cannes. To learn you haven’t worn the right shoes or been invited to the right party. But on Monday evening at a jubilant gathering of filmmakers, agents and buyers in a suite overlooking the Croisette, wearing a pair of espadrille wedge sandals that were miraculously both comfortable and appropriate to the festivities, I found a new way to feel like an oddball: I wore a KN95 mask.
Out of about 80 in attendance in the packed suite, the overwhelming majority of whom had just flown in from crowded airports around the world, I was one of three in a mask, and one of the others was a THR colleague. People looked at us like we were quaint artifacts from a long bygone era — we may as well have been wearing hoop skirts or powdered wigs, rather than the personal protective equipment that had been legally required indoors in most countries until quite recently, including in France on public transportation until the mandate had lifted that very day. One male reveler even asked my colleague why someone “so attractive” would be wearing a mask. Now, I, too, once thought COVID-19 couldn’t infect beautiful people, but then I read about Idris Elba getting it and I actually started taking the pandemic quite seriously.
So I packed my trusty KN95s and some home tests in my suitcase along with my espadrilles as I got on a plane to attend an event that will draw more than 35,000 people from around the globe. What I didn’t expect was how dated my mask would feel once I landed here. At the opening night ceremonies, even as my paper ticket suggested wearing a mask and a voice over the P.A. announced, “We strongly recommend you keep your mask on during the screening,” I found myself nearly alone, among less than 5 percent of the 2000 people seated at the Lumiere Theatre to do so.
How quickly things change! Just 16 months ago, the Palais itself had been converted into a mass vaccination site for the city of Cannes. And just 10 months ago, non-European attendees at the much smaller-than-usual 2021 Cannes festival had to spit in a tube every 48 hours to prove they didn’t have COVID before they could enter the building.
This year, the festival is requiring no proof of vaccination, no masking and no testing. There are buttons affixed to our festival credentials with cheeky quotes in French, and one reads, “Oh, was that you in 2021? I didn’t recognize you without the mask.” The message is clear — COVID is so last year.
I can certainly sympathize with the desire to move on, particularly in Europe where there is the more frightening and proximate threat of the war in Ukraine. Just how many historic potential ways of dying is a person supposed to account for before leaving the house in the morning? And with a national vaccination rate of around 80 percent, certainly, the French have reason to feel safer than they did last year.
And yet COVID is still with us, and is still impacting this year’s festival, masks or not. South Korean actress Doona Bae’s film The Next Sohee is playing Critics’ Week, but she can’t attend because she’s shooting the Zack Snyder Netflix movie Rebel Moon in the U.S., and the producers of that film don’t want her catching COVID in France and having to quarantine and miss shooting days. India is the country of honor at the Marche this year, and Bollywood star Akshay Kumar was supposed to attend the festival, but he just tested positive and has had to bow out. Festival attendees from the United States will need to test negative to return home after the festival is over, or risk staying and quarantining in their hotels. And there are still among us people who are immunocompromised, parents of children too young to be vaccinated and caretakers for others who are at-risk, including the workers who are cleaning our rooms and serving our espressos.
Even though masks are scarce at Cannes this year, I’m still going to wear mine inside the Palais. Because taking care of each other will never be passé.