THE heart of the Cannes Film Festival is the Palais du Festival, a modernistic maze of auditoriums, screening rooms, lobbies, and lounges that squats between the traffic jams of the Rue de la Croisette and the inviting waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
It is perhaps the most important film-related building in the world. Yet not everyone who goes to Cannes is headed for the Palais, and some visitors to the city may never have heard of it.
True, the city's most celebrated event is its annual May filmfest, which attracts movie professionals in gigantic numbers - some 30,000 in a typical year, by one estimate.
Cannes is a beautiful and sophisticated urban area quite apart from its cinematic appeal, however, and clever vacationers have been known to travel there when not a movie can be found - except standard entertainment films in ordinary commercial theaters, which proliferate in Cannes just as they do everywhere else.
Then too, people who aren't connected with the film industry but just love movies may schedule a French vacation during festival time, and spice their sojourn on the Riviera with a few of the Palais screenings that are open to the public.
What is often forgotten about Cannes is that it's a seaside resort first and a movie capital second - and only for about two weeks out of the year, at that. I discovered this during my first festival trip in 1974, when I found that the man sitting next to me on the airplane was a British antique dealer on his way to a week's relaxation in the Cannes sunshine. He was dimly aware that some sort of festival was going on, but couldn't have cared less. I'm sure he was taken aback by the crowds in areas of the
city near the Palais; but I'm equally sure he had a wonderful time without venturing anywhere near a movie screen.
Attractions of the city include excellent beaches, an enormous array of restaurants, and hotels of every shape, size, and price. One can spend tremendous amounts of money on exotic meals, if desired, or one can dine on pizza and pasta in one of the narrow alleyways that branch unpredictably off the main streets and avenues. The weather is usually warm and sunny in the customary vacation months, and the Mediterranean shore offers everything from old-fashioned carousel rides to leisurely strolls around a v enerable yacht-filled port.
So who needs movies?
Well, some of us do, every now and then - and if they have a major hold on your imagination, a trip to Cannes during festival time could be a memorable treat. Special care is in order, though, when planning a vacation in a place as crowded and sometimes chaotic as Cannes during its mid-May pinnacle of activity.
The most important thing to realize is that centrally located hotels are booked long in advance; many of them have long-term arrangements with yearly visitors who occupy every available room during festival time. This doesn't mean a stay is impossible, however, even on fairly short notice. Smaller hotels situated some distance from the Palais require a hike to the nearest movie screen, but may have plenty of available space - and may also be more dignified than their downtown counterparts, precisely beca use they're not in the center of the festival's circus-like atmosphere.
Accommodations outside Cannes itself are also a possibility. When friends visited my wife and me during the 1988 festival, seeing movies was the last thing on their priorities list - so they stayed in a little town a few miles away, and made day trips to Cannes. Parking is no worse than in most modern cities, and traffic is usually manageable if you stay away from the Croisette and its perpetual congestion in the shadow of the Palais.
Whether you arrive during or after the festival, things on a not-to-be-missed list include a ferry trip to the nearby Mediterranean islands with their rocky beaches and peaceful views; dinner overlooking the Vieux Port with its mixture of modest and luxurious boats; a couple of hours on the pleasant, grassy mall between the Croisette and the beach; and at least one afternoon in Le Suquet, the centuries-old hilltop neighborhood that boasts the oldest buildings, the highest church, and the city's most croo ked streets.
And yes, a pilgrimage to the Palais, whether to view a film or just to contemplate the sprawling (and not very appealing) architecture of Cannes's most famous edifice. If you do decide to take in a movie, buy your ticket hours in advance, and remember that evening shows require formal attire - which means traditional tuxedos for men, although women can get away with more varied outfits.
Formal wear for moviegoing may seem eccentric, but it's one of the oddities that make this festival the most festive of its kind. And if the film bombs, at least the audience looks great!