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The title always felt noncommittal, to the point of being derisory: Un Certain Regard sounds like a fallback section for films with some undefinable je ne sais quoi.

In fact, UCR has often been a revealing platform for discoveries, and this year was supposed to sharpen its focus. In the past, the section would often feature works by established auteurs, but the introduction of the new Cannes Premiere sidebar for known names meant that Un Certain Regard could once again become a showcase for new directors and new visions.

In the event, Un Certain Regard 2021 wasn’t entirely the desired blast of fresh air: while the names were new, many entries offered familiar art cinema tropes reworked in ways that felt at best dependable. A case in point was the film awarded the section’s top prize by a jury whose president Andrea Arnold could well be imagined connecting with its brand of emotive realism. Unclenching the Fists, a second feature by Kira Kovalenko – a student of Alexander Sokurov – was about a young woman struggling to escape from family restrictions and the trauma of the past in a claustrophobic valley in Ossetia. Its heroine is mentally and physically damaged, oppressed by a despotic father and caught in dysfunctionally tight bonds with her two brothers.

Unclenching the Fists (2021)

This was one of several films in Cannes with a shooting style that has become a ubiquitous standard in the wake of the Dardenne brothers: Kovaleva’s camera holds tight on her characters’ bodies, her close-ups hanging oppressively in their faces. This enables her to crank up the emotional discomfort – but the effect quickly becomes tiring and overbearing, and the film stands as an example of a 21st century cinema of emotional intensity that has become an international default approach.

By contrast, someone who transformed that style into something absolutely his own was Bangladeshi writer-director Abdullah Mohammad Saad. His drama Rehana Maryam Noor (also known as Rehana) is about a female doctor in a Dhaka medical college, trying to balance work with domestic pressures and with an absolute – possibly pathological – commitment to justice. Her conflicts come to a head when she discovers her male boss is guilty of sexual harassment; the ensuing drama of ethical and personal conflict is made all the more powerful by the style, with its elliptical editing and action strictly limited to the school’s corridors and offices. All of it is steeped in a clinical blue light that places a unforgiving forensic focus on the motives of the heroine (superbly played by Azmeri Haque Badhon, pushing her performance to its highest intensities when Rehana is silent or unreadable).

The section’s most enjoyable offering was a second film that delivered wonderfully on the promise of the director’s first. After Yang comes from video essayist and sometime Sight & Sound contributor Kogonada, following the promise of his debut Columbus (2017). Set in a future US heavily influenced by Asian culture, it stars Colin Farrell as a paterfamilias trying to secure repairs for Yang, the android he and his wife (Jodie Turner-Smith) bought as an artificial brother for their Chinese adopted daughter.

Visually gorgeous, with a sleek futuristic gloss, After Yang belongs to that select class of science fiction films that promise genre pleasures as a way to draw us towards a rich field of philosophical complexity. An inquiry into cultural and ethnic identity, the lures of lifestyle and the nature of the self and memory, it’s a film of captivating elegance and gentle wit, with Farrell further exploring the seam of frazzled bemusement that he first opened up in The Lobster (2015).

Onoda, 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (2021)

Differently ambitious was Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, a bold but ultimately over-reaching drama by France’s Arthur Harari, about Onoda Hiroo, the Japanese soldier who refused to accept that World War Two had ended, staying at his post in the Philippines until 1974.

At a time when the phrase ‘the wrong side of history’ is a prodigally over-used mantra, Onoda is a reminder that it’s possible to find yourself outside history altogether. The film went some way towards exploring the misguidedness of Onoda’s fanaticism, while also presenting him as arguably heroic, even noble. There is a powerful, somewhat Herzogian drama here, not fully excavated from its 165 minutes; like his hero, Harari couldn’t help staying too long.

Let There Be Morning (2021)

Other films shone by merit of lightness and modest ambition, like Israeli offering Let It Be Morning by The Band’s Visit (2007) director Eran Kolirin. By contrast, Kolirin’s film – adapted from a book by Palestinian novelist Sayed Kashua – wryly evoked the demoralised confusion of his characters, middle-class Israeli Arabs trapped in a village under army siege, in a political variant of The Exterminating Angel.

Along with Kogonada’s film, this was one of the few moments of lightness in a section that seemed committed to intense statements and gazes into the abyss (one much-praised title I missed, I should note, was Sebastian Meise’s German gay prison drama Great Freedom, which won the Jury Prize).

Prayers for the Stolen (2021)

Two Mexican-set dramas, both by former documentarists, went for the abyss option: Tatiana Huezo’s Prayers for the Stolen and La Civil, by Romanian director Teodora Ana Mihai. While they had confidence, integrity and a clear raison d’etre, neither showed anything cinematically new.

Set in a rural community maintained by its poppy crop, Prayers for the Stolen is a coming-of-age drama set against a background of army presence, cartel abductions and the constant threat of violence, seen through the eyes of a young heroine – and, for all its brutality, oddly lyrical in its tone.

La Civil (2021)

La Civil again showed the Dardennes’ influence, and indeed had the brothers themselves as co-producers, along with Cristian Mungiu and Michel Franco – but Mihai spins their camera style for more purposeful dramatic effect, so that you can well imagine Hollywood (or Netflix) snapping her up.

Arcelia Ramirez is outstanding as a woman whose daughter is kidnapped, and who sets out to find her; although based on fact, the film heads a little uncomfortably into the outskirts of thriller territory. It’s involving, if overlong but, like Prayers for the Stolen, it doesn’t extend the thematic repertoire of Mexican drama, or build on the innovations that the country’s boldest cinema has offered this century.

Lamb (2021)

Two films persuasively balanced on the edge of art cinema and genre horror. Lamb was an Icelandic fantasy directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson, co-written by novelist Sjón and improbably executive produced by Bela Tarr.

The latest of those films that use Iceland’s stark rural landscape to variously eerie, imposing or whimsical effect, it stars Noomi Rapace as a woman who runs a sheep farm with her husband. They get a new chance at parenthood when they discover something not entirely ovine in their barn.

Cannily negotiating a zigzagging course between black comedy, cuteness, myth and the Cronenbergian bizarre, Lamb reduces dialogue to a minimum, using telegraphic visual language to keep us unsettled and, against the odds, emotionally engaged, only falling flat with an ending that slaps its cards on the table with CGI overstatement.

The Innocents (2021)

In a more aggressively nerve-jangling mode, The Innocents was a second feature by Norway’s Eskil Vogt, best known as co-writer with Joachim Trier, as in this year’s Cannes competition entry The Worst Person in the World.

Vogt’s supernatural chiller is about a group of children who discover that they share telepathic or telekinetic superpowers, which they’re not always able or willing to control. Powerfully suspenseful, shamelessly manipulative, the film places both children and adults in peril, to sometimes breathtakingly cruel effect: nervous parents of hard-to-handle young children probably deserve a trigger warning.

Playground (2021)

But the absolute highlight of the section, and one of the outstanding films of the festival overall, was Playground, by Belgian first-time director Laura Wandel. Its French title Un Monde (A World) suggests that a school is a self-enclosed universe with its own laws, customs and abuses, set apart from the adult realm; but also that it is a microcosm of the horrors and injustices outside.

At the start, nervous seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque, nothing less than mesmerising) arrives in a new school, desperate for the protection of her older brother. As it turns out, she quickly finds her feet, while it’s her brother who faces bullying – and when Nora tries to help him, his ordeal worsens. Playground is a triumph in terms of focus and concision – a mere 72 minutes — with the action rigorously restricted to the school premises and the camera always held exactly at Nora’s child’s-eye height.

While the Dardennes’ style has widely been diluted into an unquestioned cinematic lingua franca, Playground and Rehana are two examples of film-makers learning from their approach, but pushing it in the direction their narratives and worldviews demand. Here are two films at least with a regard that is bracingly certain. 

Further reading

Directors’ Fortnight: round-up

By James Lattimer

Directors’ Fortnight: round-up

Onoda, 10,000 Nights in the Jungle gets lost in the Filipino wilds

By James Lattimer

Onoda, 10,000 Nights in the Jungle gets lost in the Filipino wilds

After Yang finds gif-sized glimpses of life after AI death

By Jessica Kiang

After Yang finds gif-sized glimpses of life after AI death

Sight and Sound November 2021

50 years after its release, we reveal the untold stories behind A Clockwork Orange, as seen through the relationship between author Anthony Burgess and director Stanley Kubrick + Edgar Wright on Last Night in Soho, Jeymes Samuel on The Harder They Fall, Małgorzata Szumowska on Never Gonna Snow Again, Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground, the best of Venice and much more…

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