Bill Murray in New Worlds: The Cradle of Civilization, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival Credit: © Dorn Music

I was standing at the front of the security line for the premiere of The French Dispatch when I saw, on a jumbo celebrity monitor overlooking the red carpet, the outline of that unmistakable grin below a golden mask and white broad-brimmed panama hat. It was then that I decided I wasn’t allowed to leave Cannes without meeting Bill Murray.

That hadn’t been the plan. Whatever I came to the festival to do—besides give the photographers a fine rented tuxedo and clip-on bowtie to look at, in case they got tired of shooting allegedly more famous people—I sure wasn’t there to stargaze. My motives were more mundane, more rigorous, I thought. See as many films as possible. Attend interview panels. Time permitting, examine the sand and water temperature of one or two beaches, for research. As a junior member of the press, I’d sworn my implied oath, way back in Chicago, not to try and get anyone to sign any part of my body, even though, as it turned out, Tilda Swinton was in attendance.

And then Bill Murray arrived, throwing my whole deal out of whack.

Everything about Cannes reinforces the impression that your credentials somehow aren’t high enough to obtain the full experience. The Palais des Festivals et des Congrès looms at the center of the action, rising up from its maze of barricades like a kind of fortress. A horde of townies and other onlookers throng the Boulevard de la Croisette, thickening and dissipating with the tide of stars across the red carpet. They’re even there when nothing’s happening, taking pictures of the empty stairs, muttering in French and Slovene and Bahasa under the Dior and Dolce & Gabbana storefront decals. Uniformed festival security personnel hold the perimeter alongside gendarmes in full fatigue with semi-automatic rifles. Entrance, for the fortunate few, is tied to an official color-coded accreditation badge and, this year, a negative COVID-19 test or EU-approved vaccine pass.

The fortress element registered with Alexandra Milic, who is from Cannes originally, and was attending the festival for the first time. “I wanted to see from inside how it is,” Alexandra said. “I spent my childhood here. I would say the festival, Cannes, the city, the Croisette, everything, it’s very special to me. But even still, I’m a bit like an outsider.”

If the festival is a fortress, Bill Murray is an anti-fortress. This year, I held the yellow rookie badge. Bill Murray didn’t seem like he would care what color anyone’s badge was. In the distance, day and night, quadruple-decker yachts glinted on Cannes Bay, haunting the horizon line, figments of power and impossibility. Even the most determined cineaste was liable to gaze out beyond the confines allotted to their badge, whatever color it bore, and wonder what flavor of dipping sauce had been put out with the calamari today on those far-off decks. But Bill Murray shows up at your party. He is the insider-outsider, exploding the distinction. It’s no use trying to get in touch with him; he gets in touch with you.

Access seemed like a topic especially worth getting to the bottom of now. Whether or not I could get to the bottom of it with one of the world’s most famous actors remained to be seen. But the more time went by, the more it seemed like Cannes’s brand of heightened exclusivity, its bread and butter, was being called into question as never before.

The main factor was the pandemic, which took a significant bite out of the festival’s attendance compared with past years, due mostly to ongoing public health restrictions. Official visitor figures are forthcoming from the press office, but prior to the opening ceremonies, 28,000 festival-goers were accredited; 40,000 were accredited in 2019.

Diminished attendance led to strange scenes of exclusivity gone awry. As the festival went on, clearance mattered less and less. Tickets to evening screenings in the Grand Lumiere Theatre, Cannes’s majestic 2,200-seat auditorium, with its strictly black-tie dress code, remained elusive to all but the most-“I” of VIPs. But rumors started circulating of empty balconies, extended visitor passes, and other extenuating weirdness. Finally, I caught wind of a last-minute line for the Lumiere, twisting out of sight of the red carpet through labyrinthine stanchions on the hot cobblestones between the Palais and the marina. Everyone who stuck it out there, I heard, regardless of credentials, was getting seats.

That seemed too absurd to be true, but the situation amounted to a crisis of access. Cannes wouldn’t be Cannes if its barriers and restrictions were set any lower, but the only thing worse than letting the under-credentialed riff-raff into your royal ballroom would be a half-empty ballroom. Turns out, it worked. I gave the last-minute line a whirl, then another, then another, and got into every movie.

“Dernière minute,” said the sign. It was a way of life. It was a place to fudge the insider-outsider blockade. This line was a saving grace for the likes of me and John Thompson, who graduated from Georgia Tech in the spring and came straight to Cannes on a three-day pass with friends and fellow cinephiles Mara Bernstein and Ethan Guglielmo. I complimented John on his cummerbund, which he said was his dad’s from the 80s; the shoes, glossy but comfortable-looking, used to be a doorman’s, according to the for-sale display at the same Ridgefield, Connecticut thrift shop where John secured the rest of the ensemble.

“The jacket was approximately $14, the shirt and bowtie were $10, the pants were $2, and the shoes were $3.50,” John said. It was in no other duds than these that John strolled down the red carpet to see Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta at its world premiere. “It was cool being five feet away from” the likes of Leos Carax and Annette star Adam Driver, Mara said, and “not being able to talk to them, but still being that close to so many talented people.”

This was, I had to admit, how it’s done. Get in where you fit in. Work the fringe. I had one chance left to track down Bill Murray and, I hoped, square the insider-outsider circle. Way down in the program, showing on the festival’s last full night, was an out-of-competition film called New Worlds: The Cradle of Civilization. It didn’t say so up front, but New Worlds is a Bill Murray concert movie. He recites choice pages from classic American literature, and even sings in a sort of baroque lounge lizard way to the accompaniment of a cello, violin, and piano trio from the stage of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens. I scanned into the premiere and saw him immediately, there in his panama hat again, having a drink in the lobby with the musicians and crew behind a security fence.

During the screening—I loved this film, and who wouldn’t?—I was seated about ten feet from Murray. When it ended, he stood up, filed over to the stage, and did an encore with the full band, including a rendition of “Aline” by the late singer-songwriter Christophe, in French, that brought the house down. Murray was handed a bouquet of roses, which he tossed out to the audience from the aisles. I caught one. When the encore ended, he made final bows, signed some autographs, and exclaimed, “The night is young, let’s go to the bar and have some fun!” I saw him one more time in the lobby, even initiating a slight lunge in his departing figure’s general direction that a guard with a baton immediately shot down: “Allez-y, allez-y, monsieur.”

He didn’t say which bar the young night would be getting old at, if there was one. Twirling his rose between my fingers, I poked my head into a couple of hotels along the beach walk. No sign of the Murray party. Oh well. Yachts shimmered in the middle distance, all illuminated for night cruising. Private beach bars spread their umbrellas; searchlights pillared the warm air above Hotel Martinez. In three days of fevered ruminating, I hadn’t thought of a single actual question for Murray. Access and aura had put a spell on me. I could finally admit that I’d been living a rookie’s fairy tale. I wasn’t a star, or a reporter to the stars, but I wasn’t about to take pictures of the vacant red carpet either. My place was in between. I was a movie critic with a hot tip on how to finesse the last-minute line at Cannes and 11 days in the dead center of world cinema under my belt that I will be thinking about all year. The next morning, I saw another film, swam in the bay (for research), hightailed it to the train station with salt still in my hair, and bid the fortress goodbye.  v