JUST AS, FOR MANY, the pandemic’s repercussions on the movie industry weren’t fully accepted as fact until the Cannes Film Festival canceled their 2020 edition, so too were international film events in physical space not considered a reality until director Thierry Frémaux announced the festival’s return earlier this year. And return it did, belatedly and somehow bigger than ever, with new dates (July instead of the customary May), a new section (Cannes Premiere), new health protocols (mandatory Covid tests every forty-eight hours for non-Europeans), and a handful of films (most notably Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta) that were widely known to have been ready for last year’s edition but whose handlers decided to delay their premiere for whatever a 2021 festival might look like. That it mostly resembled a typical Cannes is not surprising from a festival that, for better or worse, is almost begrudgingly beholden to tradition. What is impressive is that they managed to pull it off at all, and with so few concessions to the new normal of filmgoing. (Face coverings: yes; social distancing: optional!) When the cast of Annette sang out the refrain of “So May We Start” at the beginning of Leos Carax’s opening night musical, it was as if the masked masses responded in unison: “Oui!”
Annette, which won Carax a well-deserved Best Director prize, was one of a number of adventurous films in this year’s competition. Judging by the number of ties among the awardees, there was much debate among the Spike Lee–led jury, and indeed, only in a competition as diverse as this could Julia Ducournau’s body horror thriller Titane be considered a consensus pick for the Palme d’Or. (With the win, she became only the second woman to take home the festival’s top prize.) Ducournau’s follow-up to the cannibal coming-of-age fable Raw (2016), Titane stars model-actor Agathe Rousselle as Alexia, an accident-survivor-cum-dancer with a titanium plate in her head who, in an early scene, inexplicably becomes pregnant after writhing around on the hood of a Cadillac. Eager to outrun her trauma by confronting her transgressors, Alexia embarks on a murderous rampage before deciding to erase her identity for good by posing (with the help of some self-inflicted bruising and body tape) as the missing son of a grieving father named Vincent (Vincent London), who seems willing to suspend his disbelief over the situation if it means making a flesh-and-blood connection with another human being. While not as conceptually daring or provocative as some of its forebears and influences—namely David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and the photography of Nan Goldin—it’s nonetheless a visceral and vividly composed exploration of queer family-making.
Neither critics nor the jury knew what to do with Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, the eighty-three-year-old Danish director’s third straight film made in Europe following an extended run in Hollywood. In many ways a return to the satirical genre stylings of his American productions, Verhoeven’s latest very loosely adapts Judith C. Brown’s 1986 book about the life of seventeenth-century abbess Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), whose lesbian love affair with a young nun inspired panic and persecution in an Italian convent. A risibly bawdy depiction of homosexuality—one running gag involves a wooden dildo carved from a figure of the Virgin Mary—the film bypasses realism in favor of a heightened sense of passion whereby every look, gesture, and utterance is transformed into either a come-on or double entendre. Couching a critique of religious hypocrisy in absurdist trappings, Verhoeven baits naysayers into the sort of parochial assessments of storytelling that he sees as anathema to a truly free and untamed cinema—the kind that, indeed, rarely wins awards. (See also: Bruno Dumont’s France, a mercilessly funny sendup of bloodthirsty corporate media and another left-turn in a career defined by them; Kirill Serebrennikov’s Petrov’s Flu, an uneven but undeniably bracing vision of urban Russia; or even Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, a thrillingly unpredictable high-wire act of a film about an ex-pornstar who sees in a soon-to-be legal Texan girl a way back into an industry he’s been exiled from—all of which went home without a major prize.)
A noncompetitive section for festival regulars, Cannes Premiere featured several films that could’ve easily vied for a prize, including Arnaud Desplechin’s elegantly constructed Philip Roth adaptation Deception and Gaspar Noé’s Vortex, a split-screen, near real-time portrait of an elderly couple approaching death. The program’s strongest entry came from South Korea’s Hong Sangsoo, whose In Front of Your Face turns its possibly terminal principle (Hyeyoung Lee) into a paradox of motivations and emotions over the course of a few conversations and an extended afternoon of drinking. With the addition of Cannes Premiere, the festival’s two main sidebars, Un Certain Regard and Directors’ Fortnight, were free to look beyond the expected names and renew their curatorial philosophies. As a home for less established filmmakers, UCR was an understandably mixed bag, though the section’s jury did award its top prizes to the two best films on offer—Kira Kovalenko’s unnerving family drama Unclenching the Fists and Sebastian Meise’s tender prison picture Great Freedom—while impressive new work by Romania’s Radu Muntean (Întregalde), Portugal’s Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro (The Tsugua Diaries), and Italy’s Jonas Carpignano (A Chiara) upheld the Fortnight’s dedication to idiosyncratic and outsider voices in its second year under delegate general Paolo Moretti.
In the end, two much-anticipated competition titles stood tall with both critics and the jury. Winner of the Best Screenplay prize, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation (cowritten with Takamasa Oe) of Haruki Murakami’s short story Drive My Car, expands the Japanese author’s tale about a male theater director’s emotionally revealing road trips with his female chauffeur into an expansive, three-hour exploration of its protagonist’s personal and creative headspace. As in the original story, Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” is a key reference point; Hamaguchi, whose films are born of lengthy rehearsals and often feature tactics of doubling and duplicity, sagely utilizes an onscreen production as a symbolic device around which to center the film’s moral ambiguities, which are eventually put into literal conversation with its two main characters (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tōko Miura) in extended driving passages that upend our sympathies with each successive revelation.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, which split the Jury Prize with Nadav Lapid’s assaultive Ahed’s Knee, is built around a reveal that has little precedence in the Thai director’s work—appropriate, perhaps, for his first film made outside of Thailand and with professional actors. Set in Bogotá, Columbia, and starring Tilda Swinton as Jessica Holland, an orchidologist suffering from a strange condition in which a gong rings at random in her head, the film reorients the director’s preoccupations with dreams, nature, time, and the spirit world into a distinctly sonic environment of inner frequencies and subatomic transmissions. (Few recent films attest as persuasively to the necessity of theatrical projection and sound.) As Jessica, who suggestively shares a name with the comatose wife in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943), searches the city and eventually the far reaches of the jungle for answers to her affliction, the narrative unlocks temporal pathways for her to engage the past—her own as well as that of those around her—and confront the future. After a year away from festivals, Memoria offered a truly transportive experience, broaching the unknown through an abiding faith in cinema’s most elemental tools.
The 74th Cannes Film Festival took place from July 6 to July 17.