Cannes Film Festival railed against the Zoom and gloom with swagger and style

Awards offered a spectacular anomaly in a year of virtual, scaled-back ceremonies

French actor Marion Cotillard (centre) poses with US actor Simon Helberg (left) and French director Leos Carax as they arrive for the opening ceremony and the screening of Annette at the 74th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Photograph:  Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty

French actor Marion Cotillard (centre) poses with US actor Simon Helberg (left) and French director Leos Carax as they arrive for the opening ceremony and the screening of Annette at the 74th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty

 

Thierry Frémaux, the artistic director of the Cannes Film Festival, has suggested that this year’s event is a miracle.

He’s not wrong. Against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic, the 74th Cannes Film Festival offered a spectacular anomaly in a year of virtual, scaled-back celebrations and ceremonies. Railing against the Zoom and gloom, the festival had more swagger and style than ever before. That’s no mean feat in a town characterised by super-yachts, haute couture outlets and helipads.

From the get-go, the Croisette was alive with the promise that the movieverse is open for business.

epa09333427 Actors Camille Cottin (R) and Matt Damon (L) pose during the photocall for 'Stillwater' at the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival, in Cannes, France, 09 July 2021. The movie is presented in the Official Competition of the festival which runs from 06 to 17 July. EPA/CAROLINE BLUMBERG
Actors Camille Cottin and Matt Damon at the photocall for Stillwater at the 74th annual Cannes Film FestivalPhotograph: Caroline Blumberg/EPA

The red carpet has seldom been glitzier. Long-time Chanel ambassador Marion Cotillard arrived at the opening-night premiere of Annette in a metallic silver dress from Chanel’s fall 2020 couture collection. She wore the blissed expression of a woman who had stared longingly at that frock for months.

Many “looks’’ came straight from the couture runways.

From Bella Hadid’s Schiaparelli couture “lungs” to Jodie Turner-Smith’s yellow Gucci feathers, the statement outfits had that bit more intent.

Nobody can put on a show like show business.

Jodie Turner-Smith arrives for the screening of Stillwater at the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival. Photograph: Caroline Blumberg/EPA
Jodie Turner-Smith arrives for the screening of Stillwater at the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival. Photograph: Caroline Blumberg/EPA

Spike Lee, the first African-American to preside over the Cannes jury, hit the opening ceremony in a hot-pink Louis Vuitton suit, matching pink sunglasses and Nike Air Jordans, an outfit no other carbon-based life form could hope to pull off.

Timothée Chalamet’s Tom Ford silver tuxedo made headlines around the world, but not as many as Sharon Stone’s blossoming Dolce & Gabbana 3D floral gown.

Matt Damon, a dressed-down Dalkey local for many recent months, was suddenly transformed back into a suave-looking movie star.

A-listers hit the Riviera

Despite the occasional remote press conference and notable absence – we’ll circle back to Celine Dion presently – the A-listers descended on the Riviera en masse.

Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a frothy confection from the American whimsicalist, brought in Timothée Chalamet, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson and a nine-minute standing ovation.

Timothée Chalamet, Wes Anderson, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray at the The French Dispatch photocall. Photograph: Kate Green/Getty CANNES, FRANCE - JULY 13: (L-R) Timothée Chalamet, Wes Anderson, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray attend the "The French Dispatch" photocall during the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival on July 13, 2021 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Kate Green/Getty Images)
Timothée Chalamet, Wes Anderson, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray at the The French Dispatch photocall. Photograph: Kate Green/Getty

Coco Rocha and Isabelle Huppert were among the many camp-inclined stars at Aline, an unofficial Celine Dion biopic that screened out of competition (et sans Celine). The cradle-to-grave biopic starred 57-year-old Valérie Lemercier as Celine (renamed Aline) at every stage of her life, and to considerable kitsch effect when required to play 5-year-old Celine.

Away from the many sidebars and special events, the big guns were all here. Returning marquee auteurs included Nanni Moretti, François Ozon, Justin Kurzel, Mia Hansen-Love, Paul Verhoeven (with the incredibly loud 17th-century lesbian nun romp, Benedetta) and Catherine Corsini (who received the Queer Palm for La Fracture).

There were more sex scenes – let’s call it a post-Covid effect – more fantasias, and more chickens than ever before. Omar El Zohairy’s Feathers, an Egyptian comedy about a husband transformed into a chicken, won the Nespresso Grand Prize at Critics’ Week – 30 real chickens were trained for the production.

Jury president Spike Lee (second from left) accidentally reveals the film Titane as the winner of the Palme d’Or as jury members Tahar Rahim (from left), Jessica Hausner, Melanie Laurent Kleber Mendonca Filho, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Song Kang-ho, Mylene Farmer and Mati Diop look on during the awards ceremony at the 74th Cannes Film Festival. Photograph: Vadim Ghirda/AFP
Jury president Spike Lee (second from left) accidentally reveals the film Titane as the winner of the Palme d’Or as jury members Tahar Rahim (from left), Jessica Hausner, Melanie Laurent Kleber Mendonca Filho, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Song Kang-ho, Mylene Farmer and Mati Diop look on during the awards ceremony at the 74th Cannes Film Festival. Photograph: Vadim Ghirda/AFP

The films in the official competition were bold and mostly composed of big swings and movements. Julie Ducournau’s Titane, her transgressive follow-up to Raw – in which the heroine breaks her own nose, lactates motor oil and passes herself off as a missing boy – played like David Cronenberg’s once-banned Crash reimagined as a comedy by the divisive Nicolas Winding Refn. It was a fitting Palme d’Or winner for an audacious official competition selection.

Toxic masculinity

The marvellous Annette, Leos Carax’s collaboration with the veteran musical act Sparks, lived up to its promise with an unexpectedly dark exploration of toxic masculinity, a simultaneously heartbreaking and terrifying performance from Adam Driver and musical numbers inventively choreographed to cunnilingus and lavatory functions. Take that, Busby Berkeley.

Léa Seydoux, who tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of the festival, was absent in person despite starring in three films in competition. The Story of My Wife was handsome and deathly dull. Deception, based on the Philip Roth novel, was roundly disliked. But her brilliant turn in Bruno Dumont’s France – a melodrama with scope to match its title – made up for the duds. A delirious soap opera about an unscrupulous news anchor that doubles as a state of the nation address – Emmanuel Macron unwittingly cameos in the opening scene – Dumont’s 13th feature was as unpredictable as it was thrilling.

Jacques Audiard’s latest, Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades), an explicit sex comedy pivoting around dating apps, pay-for-view porn websites and transgenderism, passed the time agreeably thanks to spirited performances from Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba and Noémie Merlant. The choice to shoot in moody monochrome proved another Cannes 2021 curveball. Without a close reading of the opening credits, one might never, ever guess that the director of A Prophet or co-writer Celine Sciamma (A Portrait of a Lady on Fire) was involved.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, which shared the Jury Prize with Ahed’s Knee, featured Tilda Swinton as a woman investigating a strange noise, a journey that alchemises into a poetic treatise on memory, Colombian history and questions the possibility of extra-terrestrial interference.

Tilda Swinton in Memoria

Next-generation auteurs included Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) with The Worst Person in the World and Sean Baker, a director who makes American movies about the Americans you never see in movies. Baker returned to Cannes after his triumphant run with The Florida Project with the nervy, compelling Red Rocket. Former porn star Simon Rex – in a tremendous turn – stars as, well, a former porn star, returning to Texas city to mooch off his ex-wife and mother in law. Once there, this fast-talking malignant narcissist sets out to exploit his friends and family and seduce a 17-year-old doughnut shop worker as a way to get back into the business. With no explicit commentary, this antihero’s journey is framed by the election campaign of Donald Trump.

Competition ‘wows’  

Other competition ‘wows’ included A Hero, Asghar Farhadi’s escalating drama about a day-release prisoner who runs into ironic difficulties after he returns a handbag of gold coins to its owner and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s lovely,absorbing Murakami-adaptation, Drive My Car. There were more risk-takers over at the Directors’ Fortnight selection, which featured new work from Alice Rohrwacher, Jonas Carpignano, Clio Barnard, and rapper Saul Williams’s directorial debut.  The Souvenir Part II from Joanna Hogg turned out to be a daring meta-textual delve into 2019’s poignant memoir, The Souvenir. The experimental final third doesn’t always work, but the final shot is remarkable, Honor Swinton Byrne

is mesmerising as a fictionalised version of the director, and Tilda Swinton’s real-life, very waggly-tailed dogs, Rose, Dora and Snowbear added to the family trophy cabinet as deserving winners of the Palm Dog. It’s another coup for Ireland’s Element Pictures, who co-produced the film. The jury prize at that event was shared by Red Rocket’s adopted pit bull, Sophie, and Lamb’s shepherding Panda. Following on from Quentin Tarantino’s acceptance of the Dog for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tilda Swinton, Sean Baker and Valdimar Jóhannsson all took to the podium to accept on behalf of their canine colleagues.

Adam Driver (centre) and director Leos Carax (right) during the opening ceremony of the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty
Adam Driver (centre) and director Leos Carax (right) during the opening ceremony of the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

In 2018 various female practitioners – Agnes Varda, Cate Blanchett and Salma Hayek – protested against gender inequality at the festival. This year’s programme has addressed gender and racial disparity in various ways, with documentaries celebrating Olivia de Havilland and Oscar Micheaux. The Cannes Classics selection included a welcome restoration of Bill Duke’s The Killing Floor (1984), a criminally underseen account of the origins of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters & Butcher Workmen of North America union.

Majority female jury

A majority female jury – a first in the festival’s history – awarded the Palme d’Or to a female director for the first time. Un Certain Regard’s majority female jury, led by English film-maker Andrea Arnold, awarded four of that selection’s six prizes to women, including Kira Kovalencko, who won the main prize for the Ossetian coming-of-age drama, Unclenching the Fists.

Behind the razzmatazz and bold choices, there was a military-style operation to prevent a Covid outbreak. Many journalists complained about producing the 1ml of saliva that was required every 48 hours for compulsory testing. (This writer opted for the RT-PCR Covid-19 nasal swab, to avoid spitting in front of a stranger.) Each and every screening and press conference demanded a QR code that translated as a clean bill of health. Face masks were required in all public places and throughout screenings.

The measures were effective. Festival authorities reported no more than three cases per day and – yes, they say – the stars did have to test too.

The festival logo that appears before each film is typically applauded by audiences. The clapping grew louder over the final days. In the hours before the closing ceremony, appreciation for the brand was at fever pitch – attendees cheered and jumped to their feet at several screenings.

TOPSHOT - French director Julia Ducournau poses with her trophy during a photocall after she won the Palme d'Or for the film "Titane" during the closing ceremony of the 74th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on July 17, 2021. (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP via Getty Images)
Julia Ducournau poses with her trophy after she won the Palme d'Or for the film Titane. Photograph: Christophr Simon/AFP via Getty

The Cannes Film Festival is always a special and unique event in the movieverse’s calendar, but this year’s return was particularly meaningful. The coronavirus pandemic – which led to the cancellation of last year’s event – meant that the 74th edition of the festival moved to July rather than the traditional May slot. That shift allowed the event to coincide with Bastille Day. The national holiday fireworks felt apt in the circumstances.

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