Cannes: Anatomy of a Standing Ovation for ‘The French Dispatch’

CANNES, France — Wes Anderson has been waiting a long time for “The French Dispatch” to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

A star-studded comedic anthology about the final issue of a literary magazine, “The French Dispatch” was meant to debut here last year until the pandemic prevented the festival from being held. Instead of putting his movie out in the interim, Anderson held on to it for another year, and at Monday night’s glitzy Cannes premiere, he finally got his wish.

So did the film festival. Cannes runs mainly on auteur worship and movie stars, and “The French Dispatch” offered heaping helpings of both. Cast members, including Timothée Chalamet, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Benicio Del Toro and Owen Wilson, all turned out in support of Anderson’s film, contributing to what is almost certainly the biggest movie premiere that has been held since the pandemic began.

Cannes responded in kind, and the audience at the Grand Théâtre Lumière offered “The French Dispatch” a nine-minute standing ovation after the closing credits rolled. These epic-length orgies of applause are one of the festival’s best-known quirks, but to outsiders, the ovations must be baffling: Does the audience really stand up and clap for that long? Wouldn’t that get old fast?

Let me explain how a Cannes standing ovation works, using last night’s standing O for “The French Dispatch” as the minute-by-minute model. It’s an ovation that Anderson must have been anticipating for over a year, even if it appeared that he wanted it to end as soon as it began.

1 second in: The credits end, the lights go on, and the cheering audience gets to its feet. A cameraman scurries toward the middle of the theater, where Anderson and his cast are sitting. As he films them, the image is simultaneously broadcast on the Lumière’s big screen, which gooses the crowd’s applause even further.

6 seconds in: Though Anderson has risen from his seat, the rest of his cast pointedly stays seated. Nervous, he tries to coax them to stand alongside him, but the actors hold fast: They want Anderson to have his own moment where he can be singularly applauded for his work.

36 seconds in: A half-minute of adulation is about all the visibly uncomfortable Anderson can stand. To his right are Chalamet and the actress Lyna Khoudri, who play French revolutionaries in the film, and Anderson pleads with them to stand up. They begin to, but when Chalamet looks around and sees that no other actor has risen, he stays in his seat.

45 seconds in: Murray stands up and waves to the cheering audience. You can see the rest of the cast doing mental calculations: “Well, if Bill Murray is going to stand, then I guess it’s time to get up.” They all rise.

1 minute and 10 seconds in: Murray pulls out a fan and begins to whip cool air at his director. Hey, if the standing ovation is going to go on for several minutes, you might as well sprinkle in some comic bits to pass the time.

1 minute and 30 seconds in: The actor Mathieu Amalric pulls out his iPhone and starts recording a video of the cast. Fitting, since everyone else in the Lumière has an iPhone trained on them, too.

1 minute and 50 seconds in: Swinton goes down the line of her co-stars, giving del Toro and Adrien Brody double kisses on the cheek. Let me attempt to describe Swinton’s outfit, which consists of a satiny pink blouse, glittery green sleeves and an orange skirt: She looks like the most glamorous fruit plate you’ve ever seen.

2 minutes in: How can a standing ovation at Cannes possibly sustain itself past two minutes? Here’s the trick: The Lumière cameraman, who has previously been recording a wide shot of the cast, now moves to sustained close-ups of each actor. This allows the audience to give each of the performers their own round of applause, and it’s also why Cannes films with a large ensemble tend to get longer ovations.

2 minutes and 20 seconds in: While the camera is panning from a close-up of Amalric to Khoudri, Brody races from his place at the very end of the cast lineup and heads to where the action is. He hugs Amalric, who is near the front of the line, and the camera pulls back to cover him.

2 minutes and 37 seconds in: Now Chalamet gets his close-up. “Thank you,” Chalamet says as the audience applauds wildly. He then points to Anderson, encouraging the cameraman to film him instead.

2 minutes and 55 seconds in: Anderson is standing with Wilson and seems wholly uninterested in enduring another half-minute of the audience’s prolonged attention. The camera instead locates Swinton, a Cannes veteran who is in three films here this year. Though she is a seasoned pro at accepting a standing ovation, Swinton shakes her head no and points to her director. Eventually, she takes the initiative and pushes the camera toward Anderson herself.

3 minutes and 23 seconds in: The cameraman lingers on a close-up of Anderson, which whips the tired crowd into another round of whoops and cheers. But it’s clear the director doesn’t know what to do with himself when he’s the sole focus of the frame. He’s saved by Murray, who comes in for another hug.

3 minutes and 53 seconds in: Brody leans in to kiss Anderson on the cheek and tousles his hair. We are not even halfway through this thing.

4 minutes and 30 seconds in: Swinton takes the taped “Tilda Swinton” placard from her seat and affixes it to the back of Chalamet’s silver jacket. We have reached the improv-comedy portion of the night.

5 minutes and 25 seconds in: After locating del Toro at the end of the lineup of actors, the cameraman has now fulfilled his obligation to let each of the performers have their own solo session of applause. So what will keep the ovation going? Cast mischief. The camera drifts back to Chalamet, who hides his face with the “Tilda Swinton” sign. Swinton snatches it from his hands and tapes it onto his back again, where it belongs.

5 minutes and 50 seconds in: Now hugging Brody, Chalamet turns to the camera and makes the “L.A. fingers” hand gesture. Brody blows a very serious kiss to the camera.

6 minutes and 5 seconds in: Yes, we’re going into Minute 6. Anderson pulls out a pink handkerchief and wipes his brow. He appears to be teary-eyed.

6 minutes and 35 seconds in: Chalamet turns to Anderson and bows in an “I’m not worthy” salute. The applause is starting to flag a little. It’s time to pull out the big guns.

7 minutes and 7 seconds in: Anderson is handed a microphone. He winces and tries to turn it away, but Cannes officials press it into his hands anyway.

7 minute and 15 seconds in: Anderson, who lives in Paris, begins to speak to the audience in French. He calls the premiere “un honneur pour moi,” but after seven seconds of that, he turns to Chalamet and cracks in English, “I don’t know what else to say.” The audience laughs and Anderson adds, “I hope we come back with another one soon. Thank you so much.”

7 minutes and 30 seconds in: Anderson’s short speech was enough to resuscitate the crowd, and the applause surges back to its initial levels.

7 minutes and 50 seconds in: Several French-accented cries of “Bravo!” are heard as Anderson tucks his long hair behind his ears and scans the audience.

8 minutes and 24 seconds in: Murray goes over to Anderson and suggests that he’s ready to leave. Anderson could not possibly agree more, racing up the aisle so quickly that he bumps into the cameraman, who is still filming him.

8 minutes and 40 seconds in: It appears the cameraman has blocked Anderson’s path. He won’t get away that easily! Instead, Anderson is forced to stand in the aisle and absorb even more applause and encouraging whistles from the crowd. The expression on his face is somewhere between an awkward grimace and pure, stunned joy, which is what nearly nine minutes of a standing ovation will do to you.

9 minutes in: The cameraman relents and allows Anderson to move forward. As the director and his cast leaves the theater, the ovation finally subsides. The French rush outside to smoke, the Americans rush outside to tweet, and in a few different languages, I hear one plaintive question: “Is there an after-party?”

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