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At Cannes, the Dogs Were Good Again This Year

On the morning the Cannes Film Festival opened, Messi, the canine hero of last year’s Palme d’Or-winning “Anatomy of a Fall,” was practicing climbing the stairs of the Grand Lumière Theater. The majestic entry is typically reserved for stars dressed in their finery, but the official red carpet had not yet been rolled out. Messi’s owner and trainer, Laura Martin Contini, coached him to bound up to the first landing and pose. He wasn’t quite hitting his mark, stopping just one step below, but he eventually got the hang of it. Contini rewarded him with coos of “Oui, jolie” and “Oui, bravo” and a squeaky soccer ball toy he seemed to particularly enjoy, his blue eyes growing even more intense at the sight of it.

Messi was rehearsing for the opening credits of his new talk show, “Messi: The Cannes Film Festival From a Dog’s Eye View.” In the series of shorts for French TV, the star was going to interview talent (using the voice of a human actor).

His presence was proof of an incontrovertible fact about the festival, now in its second week: Cannes loves dogs. You could see that as Demi Moore, star of this year’s “The Substance,” brought her Chihuahua, Pilaf, to the photo call. And you could see it as Messi went through his paces, occasionally carrying a camera in his mouth, and onlookers just outside the barricades took photos. “It’s like if I had George Clooney with me, but it’s just a dog,” said Tim Newman, a producer who came up with the idea for Messi’s program.

The talk show is something of a victory lap for the pooch, who emerged as one of the biggest stars of the 2023 festival, even receiving the Palm Dog Award, given annually to the premier canine performer, though he couldn’t make that ceremony. “Last year we were not able to climb the famed steps of the Cannes arena, so this time we are returning and we are able to be at the red carpet and to support all of the dogs that will be considered for the Palm Dog,” Contini said, speaking through a translator.

So why is this particular festival so friendly to pups? “Cannes is a good place for dogs to get a showcase because the French have a very sensible approach to dogs,” the Palm Dog founder Toby Rose said, explaining, “They are always pretty much without exception welcome to join in restaurants, which I know to the Anglo-Saxon American and Brits is almost heresy.” (Indeed, on the first day of my stay in Cannes this year a regal greyhound tottered in and out of a creperie while I ate.)

Rose established the Palm Dog in 2001, inspired by his own fox terrier, Mutley, who appeared in an entry screened in the festival’s Short Film Corner. The first Palm Dog winner helped create an air of prestige around the prize: Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-directed and co-starred (with Alan Cumming) in “The Anniversary Party,” accepted on behalf of her canine lead, Otis.

“Dogs have become increasingly prominent in film since, and their roles in film have become more significant,” Rose said. “We’ve now got to the point where Messi was so integral to ‘Anatomy of a Fall.’ You can’t even imagine it without a dog.”

There’s also a promotional aspect to the Palm Dog, which is decided by a jury of film critics and handed out near the end of the festival: Having a Palm Dog winner is another chance for a film to get noticed, and Rose said a number of movies this year have already been flagged for “significant dog roles that are over and above the normal level of fabulous.”

Those include two in the Un Certain Regard section: the French-Swiss “Dog on Trial,” a comedy (yes) about a canine whose life is on the line after biting people, and the Chinese “Black Dog,” about the bond between an unruly pup and a former convict who gets a job clearing strays from an overrun town near the Gobi Desert.

The four-legged stars of those films — Kodi, who plays Cosmos in “Dog on Trial,” and Xiao Xin of “Black Dog” — had ventured to the South of France along with the human filmmakers. After posing for a photo shoot with Kodi, Laetitia Dosch, who directed, wrote and plays his lawyer in “Dog on Trial,” said in an interview that she wanted the 9-year-old mixed breed to be as prominent in the credits as any human actor.

“I think the Palm Dog was first made as a joke, because Palm Dog, Palme d’Or, very funny,” Dosch said. “Now for two or three years it’s starting to be something very important actually.” She added, “It’s beautiful. I think it’s a great prize and I hope all the dogs will win, because I don’t want any competitiveness between dogs.”

The next day, I caught up with Eddie Peng and his co-star, Xiao Xin, on a terrace in the Palais, where the sleepy whippet napped and an entourage doted on him. Peng adopted Xiao Xin, as well as two other dogs from the production, and as soon as he heard about the Palm Dog he knew she had a chance of winning. After fulfilling the requirements to avoid quarantine, Peng and Xiao Xin made the journey from Taipei to France. (He also consulted a dog whisperer to make sure she was OK with the trip.)

There are potential competitors: Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Kinds of Kindness” has a number of pups and includes a sequence about a dog-controlled world. There is also a significant canine moment in Andrea Arnold’s “Bird.” “Furiosa” features some ferocious beasts, while a companion named Brad the Pit has a role in the horror comedy “The Balconettes.” The hounds in both of those films end up with human limbs in their mouths, though they are still good dogs.

Messi is not the first pooch to walk the red carpet: Carrie Fisher’s French bulldog, Gary, joined his owner in 2016 when she was promoting “Bright Lights,” the documentary about her and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. And it’s not a free-for-all. Peng did arrange for Xiao Xin to go onstage for the “Black Dog” premiere, but the festival would not allow her on the carpet. Messi had received special treatment.

It’s hard to imagine a future canine star achieving Messi’s level of fame. He can even flout the strict dress code, which requires black-tie attire. Newman was emphatic that Messi would not follow protocol when he walked the red carpet of the Grand Lumière. “We’re not going to make him a clown,” Newman said. “He’s a dog. No dog has a bow tie. No collar. No bow tie. No disguise. He’s Messi.”

Meanwhile, I had to put on formal wear just to stand on the red carpet on opening night and observe as Messi posed for hordes of cameras. When you’re a star, you don’t need a collar.

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