The Cannes dispatch: notes from the riviera

With the 2020 event cancelled due to the pandemic, expectations were high for a film-packed extravaganza like no other – and Cannes didn’t disappoint.

4 August 2021

By Isabel Stevens

The French Dispatch (2021)
Sight and Sound

The look on Spike Lee’s face on the Cannes 2021 poster aptly summed up how I, and I imagine many other attendees, felt on arrival: wide-eyed and awestruck, tempered with little stabs of anxiety.

After the pandemic forced the all but total cancellation of the 2020 edition as the festival said non merci to a Cannes by Zoom last year, an instance of its longstanding refusal to kowtow to the small screen, the high temple of the seventh art was open again. Here was an opportunity, after more than a year of siloed streaming diets, to dine out on more than two years’ worth of films – and to discuss them with people in person. For 12 days and nights, there were more movies on offer than it would be possible to watch even if you never slept or ate.

I’m not sure what was more surreal: the throng of the Croisette; dribbling into a tube in a 300-metre square tent-lab on the seafront where rosé would usually be guzzled; wandering around the Marché du Film in the Palais, normally a scrum, now empty, as deal-breaking meetings happened en plein air at hotels and restaurants; or sitting elbow to elbow with strangers in a cinema.

While the pandemic has undeniably affected some more than others, the lack of the big screen has touched every cinephile.

Unlike in Venice and San Sebastián last year, there was little to no social distancing in Cannes. But 3ml of your drool was required every 48 hours to compensate and masks were mandatory at every festival venue. The exception was the red carpet, which filmmakers shimmied along mask-free before climbing the steps to the stage of the hallowed Grand Lumière theatre. There, many had mixed reactions: on the opening night, juror Maggie Gyllenhaal looked visibly shocked at the sight of a crowded theatre after more than a year of enforced hibernation. Others, like head juror Spike Lee, wearing a raucous pink suit, relished the spotlight. “Fort Green Brooklyn Iz In Da House” was Lee’s jubilant reaction on Instagram. Finally, after a year of being muted, filmmakers as larger than life figures were back.

Annette (2021)

“It’s so nice to see you all in a cinema,” was Andrea Arnold’s greeting to the audience on the opening night of the Un Certain Regard strand (this year thankfully distilled to just films by emerging directors rather than the mish-mash of the old days). Arnold, who headed the UCR jury this year and whose bovine portrait Cow played at the festival, confided that since March 2020 her movie(not)going experience involved just her, her dog and her laptop. It was one of those instants where the momentous nature of this Cannes hit home. While the pandemic has undeniably affected some more than others (such as the have-yachts of Cannes), the lack of the big screen has touched every cinephile.

Back with a bang

“So may we start?” sang Marion Cotillard, Adam Driver and a chorus in the opening scenes of the christening film of the festival, Leos Carax’s English-language debut, Annette, co-written with the band Sparks. That exhilarating sequence wasn’t the only part of the rock opera that made it a fitting opener. Carax’s love of fantasy and spectacle was on display, with dreamy Cocteau-scapes that only the big screen can do justice to. The story of a doomed romance between two performers – Driver’s enfant terrible stand-up comedian and Cotillard’s angelic soprano – is Carax’s version of Beauty and the Beast for the celebrity-obsessed 24-hour news cycle. While the film’s invocation of #MeToo goes underdeveloped, along with Cotillard’s character, it has so many inspired touches (the marionette baby Annette is one) that it’s impossible not to be entranced in some way, even if the relentless middle act spends rather too long with Driver’s acerbic character.

Benedetta (2021)

Maximalism was in fashion this year. Nothing less was expected from Paul Verhoeven, of course, whose nun romp Benedetta, like Annette, was held over from last year’s non-edition. Naturally, there were boobs and bloodshed galore in this tale of a real-life 17th-century nun who was exalted for her divine visions and then hounded for her lesbian affair with another nun. Virginie Efira, in the title role, makes sure Benedetta and her visions remain ambiguous, keeping us guessing about her mystical abilities, while Verhoeven succeeds in jerking the tone of the film all over the place, from erotic dildo drama to serious power study to gleeful torture caper. It may not be as riotous as Verhoeven at his peak, but it is a riot nonetheless.

Verhoeven, Cannes’ chief court jester, tried to stoke a scandal off screen, railing against puritanism and any attempt to interpret the film as blasphemy, but the world’s media were more hung up on the festival’s Covid restrictions or lack thereof to really care. Some critics compared Benedetta unfavourably to Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) but that film was made out of rage against the Catholic church; here, the bawdy revelry and the satire of church corruption sat alongside an earnest belief in religious faith and made me think Verhoeven is the nearest thing contemporary cinema has to Chaucer.

As the festival went on, so too did the stream of positive reviews, making you wonder if everyone was just so happy to be back that they had abandoned any critical faculty. And yet the films bore the reviews out. Japanese director Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s Murakami adaptation Drive My Car was that one Cannes film the consensus settled around. For three hours, the story of grief, betrayal and the mystery of other people unfolded delicately: a theatre director loses his wife, who he has secretly discovered was unfaithful, and shuts himself away from his grief by travelling to Hiroshima and putting on a production of Uncle Vanya. A burgeoning friendship with a young driver assigned to ferry him around the city provides this cool minimalist film with a delicate third act in which emotions rise to the surface, while Hamaguchi’s ability to make the rehearsals for the play so intriguing is an art in itself.

Drive My Car (2021)

There was some sleepwalking into the Competition: films by Nanni Moretti and François Ozon in particular proved underwhelming, but one filmmaker who was undoubtedly back on form was Asghar Farhadi, who in A Hero offered a suspense-filled ethical drama revolving around an imprisoned man who parades as a do-gooder to secure his early release and is gradually exposed. Amir Jadidi perfectly pitches his prisoner as a slippery mix of equal parts charm, connivance and haplessness, giving his character an ambiguity that anchors the film as Farhadi expertly widens the narrative web by bringing social media and the wider Iranian justice system into his investigation of honour.

Catherine Corsini’s The Divide was a welcome surprise; an about-turn in subject matter (police brutality and societal divisions) and style (a delightful mix of slapstick, banter and high-octane drama) after her softly told 2018 melodrama An Impossible Love. Sadly, her portrait of a Parisian hospital in meltdown went rather under the radar, picking up no awards despite Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Pio Marmaï excelling as two bickering, wounded patients from opposing ends of the political spectrum; him a gilet jaune, her a middle-class illustrator. If the drama slips into ER overdrive as the film culminates, it still packs a considerable punch – and you don’t need me to tell you that its detailed look at a national health service under attack both politically and financially is a timely one, not just in France.

The French Dispatch (2021)

After a long stay in serious social commentary, it was time to swing the cinema pendulum back to full-blown fantasy: sitting just after half-way in the festival’s programme was one of its most anticipated films, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. Some critics accused Anderson of peddling more of the same old whimsy, with this breathless ode to analogue journalism stamped with his own unique brand of francophilia; but how could they not feel wonder at the imagination, wit and experimentation on display?

It was hard not to wish for a second viewing of The French Dispatch to peer again into each intricately crafted frame.

Comprising an obituary, a travel guide and three features, Anderson’s anthology film is structured as if it were an issue of The French Dispatch, the New Yorker-inspired weekly supplement (to the fictional American newspaper, the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) which is published in the so very Andersonian fantasy city of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The exhilarating and, at times, overwhelming experience of watching it (imagine the helter-skelter pace of the chase sequence in The Grand Budapest Hotel non-stop for 108 minutes) felt like a speed-read marathon. At one point the action dissolves into animation as if we’re being whisked away into a comic. The stories are, as you’d expect, wild capers full of fanciful characters played by an ensemble cast of every imaginable Anderson trouper, with the journalists inspired by real life New Yorker scribes such as Mavis Gallant and James Baldwin. Dazzled after the breakneck tour of Ennui-sur-Blasé, it was hard not to wish for a second viewing to peer again into each intricately crafted frame to try to unpick just how this marvel was put together.

Film on film

After cinema’s annus horribilis, it was fitting to see so many films about filmmaking in the programme this year – although many were made before the pandemic. Even Todd Haynes’s playful music-doc homage The Velvet Underground took pains to explore the 60s New York cinema scene the group was intertwined with. “A drug” was how Lou Reed saw the movies, and Haynes, as well as providing a riveting portrait of the band, did his best to live up to that, injecting much life into the moribund talking-heads format with his use of hypnotic split-screen footage.

Ahed’s Knee (2021)

The angriest film on the Croisette – and with a visual explosiveness to match – was Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee. The film is named for Ahed Tamimi, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl who in December 2017 slapped an Israeli soldier – an Israeli MP argued she should be punished by being shot in the knee. The film is seen through the eyes of a boorish but brilliant filmmaker (Avshalom Pollak), railing against Israeli censorship of culture, who at times is a clear standin for Lapid (his mother is his editor, just as Lapid’s late mother was, and there’s a sly reference to his last film playing in Berlin, where Lapid’s Synonyms won the Golden Bear). But the comparison gets murkier and the film more interesting as it becomes clear our righteous narrator may not be as reliable as he first seemed. Lapid wrestles with the dilemma of how to make and present art in the face of an oppressive government in a curious, often abrasive and sometimes outright bizarre manner, but a singular one nonetheless.

These issues were all too real for another film at Cannes: the Palestinian cast members of Let It Be Morning refused to attend the festival due to the Israel Film Fund’s insistence that their film, which is set in Israel, be called an Israeli film. Otherwise, compared to the normal ferment of politics at the festival it was a Cannes with little protest – the insurgency that a lone critic tried to raise before a screening against the new online ticket system (which actually made the festival a much more egalitarian experience for all attending) amounted to nothing.

Bergman Island (2021)

Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island was another meta-filmmaking narrative. Vicky Krieps plays a director named Chris who is suffering from writer’s block while on a residency at Ingmar Bergman’s home on the island of Fårö with her more famous filmmaker partner, Tony (a very amiable Tim Roth). The first half was too laden with awe at the Swedish auteur for the story to grip, and Hansen-Løve’s English script was a tad clunky at times; but the film within a film, about an ongoing affair between two lovers, added complexity and intrigue to Hansen-Løve’s delicate portrayal of the faltering relationship between Chris and Tony (it’s hard not to see it as inspired by Hansen-Løve’s former marriage to the director Olivier Assayas).

One film about filmmaking towered over them all: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II. It starts just after the first film ends, with student filmmaker Julie embarking on her thesis film, but I don’t think you need to know the backstory of her troubled relationship with heroin addict Anthony to appreciate this tale of grief and its exploration of the struggle to bring autobiography to life creatively. It has all the hallmarks of Hogg’s cinema – her exquisite knack for dialogue and for the negative space of what is left unsaid; her delicate visual storytelling – while also being more flamboyant. The magnificent Powell and Pressburger-inspired meta scenes at the end left many questioning why it wasn’t in the main Competition – although Hogg’s lack of profile in the French industry, which holds such a grip on the main slate, may be the culprit.

Perhaps the measure of a vintage Cannes is not how many great films by known auteurs are in the programme, but how many new, interesting voices are discovered. This year there were plenty – most noticeably The Innocents, Eskil Vogt’s eerie Norwegian horror, which so expertly captured life from a child’s-eye view; Patrick Imbert’s Everest saga The Summit of the Gods, which managed to render in animation the dangers of mountain-climbing, as well as the beauty of the peaks, and which deserved better than a screening on the beach; and last but not least, Unclenching the Fists, Russian director Kira Kovalenko’s mysterious domestic drama about a cloistered teenage girl, shot with remarkable attention to her point of view, which deservedly picked up the Un Certain Regard award.

Titane-ic achievement

With the decompression chamber of quarantine beckoning for British attendees at the end of their trips, the last film you saw had more importance than usual. Mine turned out to be auspicious: Titane, by Julia Ducournau, won the Palme d’Or and it was quite the finale. Ducournau’s Cronenbergian tale follows a serial killer (a menacing, sad-eyed Agathe Rousselle) who is impregnated by a car but then, as she goes on the run, disguises her pregnancy and gender to masquerade as the long lost son of a lonely fireman (a wonderfully vulnerable Vincent Lindon).

Titane (2021)

Amid the body-horror and lurid cinematography, Ducournau also added humour, queerness and dance sequences, and although it was a thoroughly enjoyable wild ride which demands to be seen on the big screen – who wants to be alone when watching a character use the edge of a public bathroom sink to conduct a transfiguring nose job? – I did wonder how much was going on underneath the metallic sheen.

Titane was a thoroughly enjoyable wild ride which demands to be seen on the big screen.

As only the second film by a female director to clinch the Palme, Titane illustrates something of a changing of the guard at the festival – one that’s been a very long time in the making. (Indeed, along with the Palme, the Un Certain Regard and Camera d’Or prizes went to women filmmakers). Ducournau’s win also demonstrates the ascendency of genre film in the hallowed circles of art cinema, Titane being the second genre film in a row to scoop the hallowed prize after Parasite in 2019.

Cannes, which has so closely aligned itself with the big screen in its duel with Netflix, highlights more than any other festival a film industry in flux. Yet, in the wider landscape of franchise cinema and the endless intellectual (or not) property content churn, Cannes’ programme, stuffed full of world cinema with original visions, felt this year more than ever like an oasis. There was little news of Netflix buying films this year; instead, it was arthouse streamer Mubi which collected the spoils – and which thankfully releases films on the big screen rather than burying them in labyrinthine libraries.

Returning from the festival and thinking back to this time last year, when picturehouses were shuttered around the world, and many were looking to blockbuster films like Tenet to save cinema, such an ominous vision of the future for the seventh art felt like a relic of a bygone age.

Reports from the Cannes sidebars

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