It feels like a near-riot at a soccer game, except here everyone's in black tie. Unpleasant, to be sure, but you wouldn't trade this moment for anything. Because you're one of the lucky ones: You have an invitation to Johnny Depp's party.

Soon, if your lungs aren't crushed in the press of the crowd, you'll be eating mediocre cocktail sandwiches with Winona, with Sigourney and with the moody Johnny himself.OK, they won't actually be WITH you - you'll see them in the distance. But no matter. You got in, and when you come out, the crowd outside will stare, and paparazzi will snap pictures of you - just in case you're Somebody, too.

Welcome to Cannes.

For 12 days each May, this wealthy but otherwise unremarkable Riviera town becomes its own world. In one sense, it's about glitz and star power - imagine the Oscars lasting 12 days. It's also about money, of course, and sometimes even about art. But in a primordial sense, it is about access.

At 8 a.m. on a Sunday, there's already a line at the red-carpeted steps of the festival palace. People approach: "An extra invitation, please?" It seems odd to need an invitation for a movie. Even odder: Why would anyone want to see a movie at 8 a.m.?

About 200 movies will be screened this day in Cannes, but this is Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful," which opens tonight. Unless you have a ticket to the premiere (unlikely), you'd better catch it now.

After the film, take a stroll on the beach. It isn't much of a beach, frankly; just a thin strip of sand brought in to cover up the rocks. Starlets used to come here and flash their magic, but now it's more often porn stars, who flash other things.

But the boardwalk, the Croisette, is an experience. People who otherwise would draw stares look normal here. That's why Dorian Milo, a struggling French actor, has a booth selling bright sequined U.S.-flag thong bikinis and bustiers.

"People need something special to stand out," he says.

Running out of money? Join the tourists outside the film palace for a picnic lunch. Duncan Salada of Cleveland, 24, is there, and he's already noted a riddle of Cannes: "It's nice and all, but what is there for, uh, normal people to do?"