With audiences having spent such a lengthy, tumultuous period away from cinema auditoria, returning them to familiar ground is an understandable desire for festivals, an impulse evident in the programming of both the Cannes Official Selection and the independent Directors’ Fortnight sidebar. For all the latter’s talk of new visions, this year’s selection was notable for how closely it hewed to recognisable formats, whether for better or worse. While anyone looking for major innovation was thus likely to be frustrated, breathing new life into established forms is still no small virtue.

French director Emmanuel Carrère’s Between Two Worlds ticked all the necessary boxes as an opening film, not least owing to the obvious draw of Juliette Binoche in the lead role. Based on a true story, Carrère’s drama casts Binoche as Marianne Winckler, a famous Paris-based writer who goes undercover to gather material for her new book, posing as a Caen cleaning lady to learn about and thus reveal the precarious conditions of the profession. Crusading intentions aside, she still needs to lie to the new colleagues who welcome her with open arms, an increasingly untenable moral conundrum that serves to drive the plot.

As a star vehicle, Between Two Worlds offers the French acting legend predictable opportunity to dress down, have the growing strain of the situation play out across her face and hit all the right dramatic notes once her deception is inevitably revealed, although sympathising with Winckler is something of a struggle given that she can return to Paris and her normal hair and make-up routine at any time. Even if the film and the celebrated book Winckler presents at its close are certainly interested in the plight of those on the lowest rungs of the professional ladder, it’s hard to escape the feeling that both are equally celebrating what can be gained from slumming it.  

The well-worn genres of the road movie and the coming-of-age film also made an appearance in the Directors’ Fortnight selection in the form of two debut features: Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road and Luána Bajrami’s The Hill Where Lionesses Roar. The former sends a four-person family on a car ride across Iran, its mood gently shifting from wry to melancholy once the true reason for the journey is revealed. The curmudgeonly father is nursing a broken leg, the mother’s karaoke-style singalongs to the car radio can’t quite mask her sadness, the adult son is taciturn and seemingly preoccupied, and only his little brother is in high, occasionally hyperactive spirits.

Hit the Road (2021)
© JP Production

Iranian cinema has a proud tradition of extracting drama from the confined space of a car, including the last couple of films by Panah’s father Jafar Panahi, which his son also worked on, and Hit the Road proves a competent addition to the genre. Although the film’s adept, frequently intricate camerawork and winning grasp of landscape need fear comparison with the oeuvre of Panahi the elder, several of the dramatic episodes that make up the script feel overdetermined, or even a bit workshopped at times, particularly those that involve the cutesy younger brother, whose forced perkiness too often acts as a narrative crutch to keep things moving. Stepping out of his father’s long shadow can hardly be a straightforward process, but on this evidence Panahi is well on his way.

Franco-Kosovan director Bajrami is only barely into her twenties but she is no stranger to the film world, having already acted in Céline Schiamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and been nominated for the Cesar Award for Most Promising Newcomer. Directing a feature at such a young age is an achievement in itself, but The Hill Where Lionesses Roar suggests that Bajrami she still has to find a voice of her own, particularly taking into consideration the ongoing ubiquity of coming-of-age stories in festival programmes far and wide. The film’s titular “lionesses” are three moodily attractive young women who live in an isolated village in the middle of the photogenic Kosovan countryside and dream of a better life, their frustrations at the lack of possible perspectives and the pressures of tradition eventually boiling over into a series of robberies.

For all the comparative novelty of seeing Kosovo and hearing Albanian on the big screen, however, there is little about the trio’s exploits in terms of either shooting style or script that hasn’t already been done to death in any number of other, similar films set in equally pretty yet dead-end locations. Even the scene in which the three protagonists complain to Bajrami’s character, a Kosovan girl who has grown up in France, about the specificity of their situation sounds familiar at best.

The Hill Where Lionesses Roar (2021)

The Legend of King Crab, the fiction debut by Italian-American documentarians Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis, doesn’t slot into one single genre so easily; it’s at once a love story, recapitulated folk tale and magic-realism-tinged landscape film. A group of elderly hunters in present-day Italy start to reminisce about Luciano, a wandering drunkard whose exploits at the turn of the 20th century have long since passed into legend. This legend is then duly visualised, showing a hapless, hirsute Luciano railing uselessly against the arbitrary rulings of the local prince and trying to win the heart of a young woman, who has also captured the ruler’s eye. The legend may end in tragedy and exile, but the film is happy to spin the yarn further once the hunters reach the end of their story, sending Luciano through the austere expanses of southern Patagonia with a magical crab for company, although escaping one’s past is no easy task, even at such a remove.

While The Legend of King Crab carries distinct, perhaps even derivative echoes of the same somnambulant, 16mm, semi-experimental brand of cinema already mined by, say, Pietro Marcello or Lisandro Alonso, this doesn’t distract from the film’s many charms: an innate grasp of how light and celluloid can render nature pastoral or ominous by turns; an editing style that gives each well-crafted image room to breathe; and, perhaps most importantly, a sincere interest in and affection for its characters, which is what gives this tale of thwarted possibility its melancholy charge.

In a different context, Jean-Gabriel Périot’s Returning to Reims (Fragments) doesn’t feel out of the ordinary, as essay films that bring voiceover to bear on archive footage are two a penny outside the Cannes bubble. Yet Périot’s adaptation of Didier Eribon’s bestselling memoir of the same name wasn’t just the only documentary in the Directors’ Fortnight selection, but also the only film to explore the pressing political issues of the current era with intellectual acuity. The “fragments” which Périot extracts from Eribon’s tract place a deliberate focus on the experience of class and politics within his family rather than his sexuality, a logical decision based on the considerable denseness of what the film already addresses: the profound shift in the ideological affiliations of the working class between the post-war era and today, which has gone hand-in-hand with an increasing erosion of the traditional distinction between left and right.

Returning to Rheims (2021)

These fragments are spoken by Adéle Haenel and illustrated by snippets culled from documentaries, fiction films and, in the second part, newsreels and political speeches. “Illustrated” is perhaps an inadequate term here, though, as Périot selects archive material in such a way that each snippet serves to broaden and complicate the already complex themes yet further. When Haenel talks, for example, of the working life of Eribon’s mother, other women from documentaries of the time chime in with their particular experiences of work, which are similar to hers but by no means the same. This incorporation of ever more external accounts into an individual memoir is what ultimately turns Returning to Reims (Fragments) into more than mere adaptation: mediated by Périot, Eribón’s voice becomes Haenel’s, which is constantly interrupted by countless other voices in turn, all with their own specific perspectives and contexts. With key elections now looming in Europe, what primer could be more politically vital than a choral chronicle of its recent political past?