The pandemic hits Cannes in the form of a movie that plays near the beach, buffeted by strong winds. On screen, the people are sickening by degrees. They’re coughing on commuter buses and sidestreets and in the musty, book-lined aisles down at the local library. They’re seeing mad visions of motherships in the sky. The madness is contagious; the city’s in meltdown. “Don’t worry,” says the doctor, “it’s just an outbreak of the flu.”
The film in question is Petrov’s Flu, directed by the dissident Russian film-maker Kirill Serebrennikov, who’s laying the chaos on thick and fast. I’m liking the movie but many others are not. They keep breaking for the exit, pushing the back door to escape. They think the whole thing’s too fevered; too malarial to make sense. Or maybe it’s that Serebrennikov’s story lands a little too close to home.
Cannes turns scary midway through its second week, as though the festival’s simmering subtext has suddenly become text. The punters are barely recovering from Petrov’s Flu when Titanesends them into a vertical, white-knuckle relapse. How to explain Julia Ducournau’s deranged body horror? Well, it’s about a scarred, serial-killing model (Agathe Rouselle) who copulates with a Cadillac before posing as the adult version of Vincent Lindon’s long-lost missing son. And if that sounds confusing, be warned that the film is barely revving up. Titane blows out the levels in its crazed opening third and then rides the crescendo right through to a flame-out finale. I’m not sure it adds up. I’m not convinced that it matters. This delivered the full-blown shock and awe that the 2021 lineup required.
The Cannes film festival usually plays out in May, not July. Each day, we’re assured, is that bit hotter than the last, so that the guests come slaloming, red-faced, between the cinema and the testing site to the point where they barely seem to know which one is which any more. We’re told that there have been a few isolated Covid cases in town but no actual clusters, which is strange when one considers that Cannes is really nothing but clusters. We’re clustered in the queues and the screening rooms, in the cafes, on the street. We spend every waking hour moving from one big group to the next.
The hero of Sean Baker’s rambunctious Red Rocket is likewise on the move, oiling his way in with whoever will have him. Simon Rex plays Mikey, a washed-up hustler in a flyblown Texas town of smokestacks and Maga hoardings, forever on the prowl for fresh prey and new dupes. Baker’s modern-day Midnight Cowboy – dirty as sin and yet not without honour – is one of my favourites from this year’s competition. Its breakneck, mongrel energy runs rings around the thoroughbreds.
Which brings us to Wes Anderson’s much-anticipated The French Dispatch, a jaunty anthology of New Yorker-type stories, purportedly lifted from the pages of a Kansas City Sunday supplement. Sure, this is crisp and well-mounted and played with panache by the cast (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro et al). But it’s also rather airless and lacking human warmth. In middle age, what should be the sweet spot of his career, Anderson has become trapped by his own distinctive house style.
I was also faintly underwhelmed by Bergman Islandfrom the usually excellent Mia Hansen-Løve: a relationship drama about two film-makers (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) that can’t decide whether to bury the cult of the great male artist or bask in its glory. Perhaps it’s inevitable that a film about two creative souls should itself be in two minds. Still, this feels uncharacteristically thin. It’s decorative, diverting and self-absorbed to a fault.
Is it perverse to mourn the lack of an out-and-out turkey, some Grace of Monaco-level disaster to get the critics all hooting? Flag Day tries its best but it’s too solidly built to count as an unqualified dud. Sean Penn directs and stars alongside his daughter, Dylan, as an unrepentant career criminal and wastrel dad, grinning and gurning and always neck-deep in trouble. A tougher director might have reined in Penn’s performance. With his ill-fitting suit and caterpillar moustache, he looks like a Chuckle brother trying to play Willy Loman.
In terms of unbridled silliness, though, there’s not much that can compete with Benedetta. Paul Verhoeven’s 17th-century nun saga is full of bad habits, second comings, pick your own double-entendre, and hinges on a dildo whittled from a statue of the Virgin Mary. We had fun watching this – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good.
As the Cannes punters shuttle around the schedule, they slowly cohere into loose makeshift tribes, championing the merits of one film or the other. The consensus is that this year’s vintage has been decent, respectable, with a smattering of true classics. Among the most lauded is Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, which is wonderfully knotty and reveals its hand slowly in spinning the tale of a convict, out on parole, who attempts to spin the discovery of a lost stash of coins into celebrity gold and a kind of stage-managed redemption.
Others bang the drum for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s magnificent, elemental Memoria, which stars Tilda Swinton as Jessica, a woman adrift in Colombia and spooked by a mysterious noise in the darkness (“like a rumble from the core of the Earth”). There is a lot of love, too, for Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s sublime Drive My Car, a long, cool drink of water, perfectly extrapolated from a Haruki Murakami short story.
In the meantime, though, I keep circling back to The Worst Person in the World. Shot by Joachim Trier around a glowing, magic-hour Oslo, this spotlights the faltering progress of 30-year-old Julie (Renate Reinsve), who can’t decide who she loves or what she wants. The plot spins its wheels. Julie’s capricious and enraging. And yet Trier’s film manages that rare alchemy of taking a trivial little life and making it precious and profound. The Worst Person in the World is about minor stumbles, foolish missteps and the ticking of the clock. Which is another way of saying that it’s about absolutely everything.
At the end of the second week, the guests start peeling off. The sales agents play boules amid the mothballed wreckage of the Cannes marché. Local youths gather to skateboard where the international village used to stand. Out on the Croisette, the PA plays Bruce Springsteen’s The River and its anguished lament chimes with the mournful end-of-season vibe; the sense that the hands are now closing in on midnight. It’s been a strange ride, a weird year, but there have been some treasures here, too. The world is a mess and people are the worst right until the moment they’re not – and the best films, the best art gets to grips with all that. Or as Vicky Krieps’s pensive film-maker puts it midway through Bergman Island: “Movies can be terribly sad, violent, tough. But in the end they do us good.”
The four Cs of Cannes 2021
Celebrity spotting at Cannes
The star wattage suffered an early sputter when Léa Seydoux (the star of four films here) tested positive for Covid and had to self-isolate at home. But Spike Lee and Sean Penn were on hand to slam ex-president Trump, and there was moderate traffic on the red carpet throughout. At the premiere of The French Dispatch, the stars piled out of a golden bus, a raffish Bill Murray leading the charge, and for a moment it felt like the boisterous Cannes of old.
The nights were short but the films were long. Emergency Declaration clocks in at two-and-a-half hours; Black Notebooks at three-and-a-half. We’re a full 41 minutes into Drive My Car before the opening credits even run. But that’s OK, settle back. There’s still more than two hours to go.
Credit to the festival for shimmying on to the right side of history. Its inaugural sidebar on environmental themes came spearheaded by Rahul Jain’s Invisible Demons (about pollution in New Delhi) and Aïssa Maïga’s Above Water (extreme heat in Niger). Plastic bottles were banned and electric vehicles replaced the gas-guzzlers of old. Even the red carpet, we’re told, is now entirely woven from recycled material.
Oral sex, it has been noted by Cannes scholars, is the surprise theme of this year’s edition. One may study its intricacies in films ranging from The Souvenir Part II to The Worst Person in the World. It is performed by candlelight in Benedetta and while singing in Annette. Its practitioners are so committed, they’re barely coming up for air.