Cannes 2021: L’empire contre attack

By Mark Peranson

So may we stop (talking about COVID yet)? If, like me, you were fortunate enough to spend some time in the south of France this past July, the answer is a resounding “no.” And thankfully it was a sweltering summer, for if an event like the one Cannes mounted was to take place mostly with indoor dining, the film world would see numbers the size of Florida. That’s because, in France, many viewers and all the locals put COVID aside and behaved as though the pandemic, if not being over, at least took a pause for a Fortnight. I lost track of the number of times the Trumpian claim was advanced from the stage of the Debussy by the ruling dictatorship that “There is no COVID in Cannes,” as if that was in any way possible. So, yeah, it felt good to be back.

For Cannes, the new normal was close to the normal normal. Any discussion of a public festival in 2021 must begin, for better or worse, with a pandemic-related aside/analysis. The French, who invented the word “protocol,” did the bare minimum required by government regulations to ensure the safety of its festivalgoers. Despite all the hoopla surrounding the gross spit tests for non-EU-vaccinated attendees, the mask requirement went completely unenforced (at literally every single screening I attended, someone in my immediate vicinity had his or her mask below their noses or removed entirely), promised social distancing was non-existent, and the main cinemas were potential Petri dishes of germinal spread, with no requirement for tests or vaccination for a screening at the 2,000-plus-seat Lumière cinema, as that was the letter of the law.

Tests and vaccine passes were only needed to enter the Palais to attend the “conference,” which was even less necessary as the market was a ghost town—which meant I spent much of the festival inside the Palais in the Bazin, a safe space. By festival Monday, with numbers escalating on the Côte d’Azur and an impending public address by Macron, a rumour (partially promulgated by yours truly) had spread of a possible shutdown, or at least new restrictions, which indeed were conveniently put in place the week after the festival ended. I guess it was good enough, though as far as I’m aware only one Competition filmmaker contracted COVID during the festival (and he was asymptomatic, so no harm, no foul). In summary, to cite a Semaine title from this year, Zero Fucks Given.

But at Cannes, one should always expect the expected. I speak from a lofty position because, for the first time perhaps ever, I saw every single goddamned one of the 24 films in Competition (or parts thereof). This was easier to do on the ground, with cinemas half-empty much of the time and an online booking system that ended up working just fine. That, along with the increased availability of links (which, if anything, is the new normal) and my other professional previewing over the past two years, upped the number of total films I saw from all sections to around 80. Both an exercise in endurance and futility, this was not an experience I ever hope to replicate; but, God willing, it could be another 20 years before Catherine Corsini makes another film that’s invited to screen in Competition, and most of us could be dead by then.

Call it Cannes 2021: the empire strikes back. Or rather, l’empire contre attack, as this iteration of the greatest show on Earth outdid itself for its wall-to-wall Frenchiness. In Cannes, a nationalist festival in its founding and current practice (like all others), cinema is first and foremost French, and the decision to go all-in for 2021 was a calculated one. If you think I’m being over the top in order to further lessen my chances of ever being awarded a Chevalier des arts et des lettres, indulge me. In the Competition Expanded, rather than the typical five there were a total of eight French films, which surely must be a record—not counting co-productions (which boosts the number to 17, and included Joaquim Lafosse’s Les intranquilles, which you could consider French), and not counting The French Dispatch, even if that’s a France that is wholly a product of Wes Anderson’s cartoon-filled mind. There was even a film literally called France! I mean, c’mon!

Hell, Cannes even created not one but two new sidebars in the Official Selection to fit in room for more French films, because, as Thierry Frémaux stated, “Everyone wants to be in Cannes!” a statement which is hard to argue with. “Cannes Premiere” (five French films and a UK film made by a Frenchwoman) was established to show films that couldn’t fit into the Competition but in many cases should have been there, such as Hong Sangsoo’s In Front of Your Face and, arguably, Mathieu Amalric’s Serre moi forte (as compared to most of the French films that made the cut for a Lumière screening, including the other one with Vicky Krieps); there was also an Andrea Arnold film about a cow. These films didn’t fit the new, young, hip profile of Un Certain Regard, which turned out to be a total, nonsensical mess. A climate section was added, ostensibly to find somewhere to program a Louis Garrel film (along with three other French films nobody saw). Add to that the typical Out of Competition slate, which included six French films, plus the Canada-France co-production Aline (2020), which actually premiered at last year’s super-spreader Lumière Festival in Lyon (and which, judging from the trailer—which is all I will ever see—is a totally bonkers Céline Dion biopic), and Stillwater, which actually did premiere at Cannes, and takes place almost entirely in Marseille. The total numbers: 84 films in the Official Selection, 29 “French” (a cautious assessment), and 41 including co-productions.

There are a number of acceptable arguments that could explain this greater than normal French representation in Cannes this year. It is an acceptable argument that, after a year of shuttered cinemas and industry hand-wringing, Cannes provided a launching pad for French films that could use the push for their theatrical release, which did happen for many after (if not during) the festival itself (e.g., Annette, Benedetta, Titane). But to be fair, France’s shooting output was not as adversely influenced by the pandemic as, say, Latin America’s. Nor should anyone really be concerned about Cannes cannibalizing the French output, because (a) hardly anyone outside of France wants to see many of the 50 or so French films that premiered across all sections, and (b) there are many more in the pipeline, as France produced a whopping 239 feature films in 2020. But how good is it for the films that nobody even remembers two months later to have had a “Cannes premiere?” Wouldn’t most of their makers actually prefer to wait for another festival? Or does everyone, genuinely, just want to be in Cannes? This year I can certainly understand that desire, but I think my point has been made: too many French films, and even the French agree with me.

But what about the quality? Even if it basically took two years to put this one together— a number of the best films were ready in 2020 and passed on the “Cannes label,” such as Benedetta, Annette, and Memoria (a third of the Competition could have premiered last year)—Cannes came up with a typical Competition, only arguably worse because there were more films than usual and, percentage-wise, fewer films by women. (It was stated before the festival started, and I kid you not, that the current Cannes policy is that in the case of a tie, the slot goes to the woman; I guess there weren’t many ties.) Any assessment of merits or demerits are irrelevant, as the Cannes Competition is always exactly what we expect—anticipated films from known filmmakers, some better than others—and this all serves its place in the grand scheme of things. And it’s still better than Venice. In other words, what I think about the films doesn’t matter. Not only that, the most interesting ones are covered in other pages here, or will be in future issues, and I have precious little to say about most of the rest. But a piece such as this requires something other than institutional criticism, so even if I’m less than eager to be your critic monkey, here goes.

The festival began with the bold choice of Annette—and while you can make of its up- and downness what you will, never before has an opening film shown so much gleeful disdain for its audience—and it peaked with Memoria, a great film that completely makes its audience experience cinematic time and sound in a different way, but, hélas, there was not to be a second Apichatpalme. The bulk of the others were made by the aged, often white-male Cannes-anointed auteur, be they good (e.g., Verhoeven) or bad (too many to mention in a parenthesis). Make no mistake, these films do have their fans, and maybe something’s wrong with me if, say, I don’t care about watching another infuriating Asghar Farhadi variation on the same scenario (a much more inventive Iranian film, Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road, could be found in the Quinzaine), or Three Floors, a Nanni Moretti film completed in 2020 that looks and feels like it could have been made in 1980.

Just as disappointing was Lingui, the Sacred Bonds by French-based Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, a poorly plotted film about illegal abortions and female circumcision that smacks of pandering to liberal Western audiences, regardless of how good-looking and colourful Haroun makes the outskirts of Chad’s capital of N’Djamena appear. And speaking about good-looking people, I have absolutely nothing to say about Jacques Audiard’s Les olympiades, other than that I preferred Mi Iubita, mon amour, the feature debut of Audiard’s lead Noémie Merlant, which you probably didn’t realize screened as a “Séance Speciale.” François Ozon…well, a 7 p.m. Lumière gala is always needed with French royalty in attendance. And history tells us that Sean Penn is also eligible for this illustrious grouping: Flag Day must have just edged out Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir Part 2 for that 24th Competition slot. (Better luck with the tie for Souvenir 3, Joanna!)

Then there were auteurs who aren’t specifically guaranteed a Competition slot, but got them this time because their previous films were successful or were held over from last year. Debuting were Nadav Lapid (at last) and Juho Kuosmanen (too early); returning combatants included Kirill Serebrennikov (not a film for me), Joachim Trier (much better than the last one, which premiered elsewhere, for good reason), and the far-from-Frémaux-favourite Bruno Dumont, who, along with neophyte half-countrywoman Mia Hansen-Løve, may very well have been selected in order to block their films from Venice. If I remember correctly, Justin Kurzel has been in Competition before, and, for what it is, Nitram works, thanks to Best Actor winner Caleb Landry Jones. (Like Benedetta’s story of lesbian Middle Age nuns, Nitram is a film based on true events, so go and Google “1996 Port Arthur massacre” for more information.) And then there was Ildikó Enyedi, God bless her, who won the Golden Bear in Berlin for On Body and Soul (2017) and here offered up The Story of My Wife, a masterpiece…theatre episode that constitutes a major Europudding disappointment, though it was arguably not the worst Léa Seydoux film in Competition.

And then there is Wes Anderson, who writes his own ticket. Normally I would applaud a filmmaker who ventures even slightly out of his comfort zone, but the live-action New Yorker cartoon that is the long-awaited The French Dispatch (Cannes label, 2020) is such a tonal misfire that I’m more concerned that this is the case of watching a filmmaker jump the shark. Employing more blink-or-you’ll-miss-’em guest stars than an average season of The Love Boat (including, naturally, Cécile de France), Anderson distills the essence of French culture and 20th-century history into the three pillars of art, revolution, and cuisine, and shows little ability to understand any of the three, if that is even what he’s attempting; if not, he’s doing his best to make fun of them, and the result, especially when dealing with May ’68, is occasionally offensive (to the French, mais oui, but also a number of other races) and entirely distasteful. In a case like this, the dexterity of the filmmaking—which, as usual for Anderson, is beyond question—matters little to me. Not only is the style extremely unsuited to the content in this case, but it also evinces clear signs of ossification. The French Dispatch is a flat, joyless slog.

Along with Sean Baker’s top-tier entry Red Rocket (which you have also undoubtedly already read about in these pages), there were a few legitimate surprises of the usual varying quality, such as Nabil Ayouch’s Casablanca Nights, which I saw on my last day, so was more like I happened to be sitting in a cinema when it happened to be playing. Far more memorable was the Palme d’Or winner, Julie Ducournau’s genre mash-up Titane. An historic choice that smacked of jury compromise, Titane’s victory wasn’t a real shock—and not just because the president announced the winner five minutes into the awards ceremony. It’s a film that intentionally serves up a thematic smorgasbord, begging for discussion. A cynical person might say that, in order to compensate for the lack of female filmmakers, Frémaux went to his binders full of women for the equally historic jury, but I’m not arguing that that would have been enough in itself to result in only the second female Palme in history—as if it could ever have been that straightforward for a film in which the serial-killer daughter of Bertrand Bonello fucks a custom car and gets knocked up, shaves her head and breaks her nose to look like Louis Garrel in order to masquerade as the long-missing son of a steroid-pumping Vincent Lindon, and joins his small-town fire brigade. A metaphor for the state of contemporary France? A whole lotta nonsense? Gears and genders are shifted and buttons are pushed in this oily concoction that itself masquerades as anti-establishment, but it’s not like it’s 1996 and we’re in Crash-land, or the heyday of Lars Von Trier. Even in this year’s Competition, Titane wasn’t wilder at heart than Bruno Dumont’s France, and certainly nothing compared to anything previously premiered in Cannes by my favourite punching bag of the New French Extremity.

Of greater interest than Titane (even though it was merely a late-night, fest’s-end “Cannes Premiere”) was the latest from a filmmaker from whom we would normally expect something Titane-esque. Gaspar Noé is nothing if not always too clever, and this time he read the pulse, knowing that being transgressive in Cannes is a fool’s game because, as previously argued, none other than Noé himself has ruined transgression as a viable tool for provocation at Cannes. (Yet still they try: French Midnight entry Oranges sanguines came close to revolting me with a scene of testicle eating. The anal rape of the politician? Whatever.) Noé’s pandemic moment of Zen and his recent cerebral hemorrhage are to thank for what is arguably his best film to date: presented almost entirely in split screen, often with each of the main characters occupying a frame of their own in an overstuffed flat for the ages, Vortex is a two-hander about aging, mortality, and whatnot, featuring remarkable performances from one Dario Argento (as a film critic writing a book on dreams and cinema) and Françoise Lebrun (as his dementia-suffering wife) as they go about their end of days, our end of days. If there is anything that could be considered provocative here it is the often-real-time pacing, but being boring is hardly scandalous. Shot during the pandemic, and focusing intently on those who were its main victims (i.e., the elderly), Vortex is also remarkably free of Gasparisms, save an unnecessary split screen of an overflowing toilet and the couple’s son shooting up. He even got away with a moronic dedication: “To those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” This kind of curveball is why I come to Cannes, and, no surprise, the French didn’t go for it.

But there’s still Competition film #24 left, and I’ve saved one of the best (and the longest) for last, as that’s the way this French dispatch normally operates. Undoubtedly, you’ve already read about Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy in the last issue, and I am now ready to declare that, with the addition of the grander-in-scope Murakami Haruki adaptation Drive My Car (which I even saw twice), 2021 can be stamped as the year of Hamaguchi-san. The guy shot two films during the pandemic, survived, and won prizes at two major festivals in a row.

Throughout his filmography, tracing back to Happy Hour (2015), Hamaguchi has been intrigued by the place of women in Japanese society: their awareness of how they are supposed to behave and how they either choose to live by the rules or break out on their own, in an arguably Western-influenced way. (Hamaguchi is one of the most Western of Japanese filmmakers, so no surprise he would be attracted to Murakami, Chekhov, and a car whose steering wheel is on the left.) The societal role of women is explicitly the focus of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and while the protagonist of Hamaguchi’s new film is male, women certainly don’t take a backseat. At the outset of Drive My Car, screenwriter Oto (Kirishima Reika) tells an erotic dream story about a girl who lives by her own strict set of rules, but reserves the right to break them; Oto’s audience is her actor/director husband Yusuke (Nishijima Hidetoshi), who, two years after Oto suddenly dies from a cerebral hemorrhage, takes a theatrical residency in Hiroshima to stage Uncle Vanya, and is forced by the residency’s insurance regulations to take on a driver for the duration of his stay. As the film goes on (and on), the relationship between Yusuke and his laconic driver, Misake (Miura Toko), becomes more prominent, and ultimately, the film gives equal voice to both.

Though it should have taken a truly major prize, Drive My Car was an extremely deserved Best Screenplay winner for Hamaguchi and co-writer Oe Takemasa, as the film is a loose, inventive adaptation of its source (a somewhat sexist, 30-page short story) that pretty much only retains the scenario of an older actor being chauffeured around by a younger woman in a vintage Saab 900 convertible (which in the story is yellow, not red), as well as the protagonist’s bar dates with a younger actor who had an affair with his late wife. (The only dialogue Hamaguchi retained from Murakami is from one of these encounters.) Though Uncle Vanya gets a passing mention via the cassette tape which Yusuke likes to rehearse to, in the film that recording is recited by the voice of his late wife, a constant reminder of his troubled past. Nor, naturally, is there anything in the original equivalent to the lengthy, Rivettian rehearsals and stage performances Yusuke mounts in the film, including the very original and unexpectedly cinematic idea to have each of the characters speak in a different language, including Korean sign language, which itself speaks to the film’s inclusive attitude.

Hamaguchi’s changes bring a real sense of life and, indeed, an entire world that is absent in Murakami’s story; he even fleshes out their tragic backstories, in addition to creating a number of memorable characters from scratch. For a film set in a theatre milieu, almost all of the scenes are brilliantly underplayed, with the drama being generated from honest, thoughtful interaction and spot-on, precise dialogues that far exceed the quality of Murakami—whether in a remarkable dinner scene at the home of Yusuke’s Korean dramaturge, Yoon-sun (Jin Deayon, who, in his screen debut, gives a performance dripping with empathy), or, after enough driving to fill a feature film on its own, between Yusuke and Misake, the latter of whom comes to represent and, eventually, replace Yusuke’s child, who was born the same year as Misake but died at the age of four. A generous film for thinking adults that takes its time to delve into its overflowing ideas and interrelations—no cars are fucked in this film—Drive My Car makes itself wide open to its audience: this is formally represented in multiple ways, whether by the two empty chairs at the rehearsal table or in every scene shot while a play is being performed, with the camera often perched behind the actors looking toward the audience, whom we can just make out—sitting, intently focused—in the dark.

The emotional clarity of Hamaguchi’s project is such that it comes as a surprise when, after the film’s events play out and Uncle Vanya is finally staged, we jump ahead to a coda set in South Korea during the pandemic, which sees Misake, the red Saab, and the dog belonging to Yoon-sun in a supermarket parking lot, no explanation given. I asked Hamaguchi about this head-scratching ending, and he said that initially the film was to be shot in Korea, which was made impossible by the pandemic, so he rewrote the script to set it in Hiroshima; he shot other scenes that would have given some context to this coda, but he needed to get the film down to three hours, which is the same logic I applied when deciding to not write more about Flag Day. Sometimes a little mystery goes a long way—and who knows, maybe those additional scenes would have been all that it took for the Lumière screening to become a super-spreader event. Peranson Mark