Last year, with the pandemic putting all major events in jeopardy, the Cannes Film Festival tried to stand its ground for almost two months before finally conceding the 2020 edition was off the table. Well, sort of: they still announced an Official Selection, as though the films in question had, in fact, premiered inside the prestigious Palais (a move that prevented those films from eligibility for selection in Venice and Berlin).
Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s head honcho since 2001, reiterated this when unveiling the 2021 lineup: as far as Cannes’ historical record is concerned, there was a proper 2020 selection, albeit one that skipped the Croisette and premiered at other fests such as Deauville, TIFF and San Sebastián. This should not come as a surprise, since this year’s edition also liked pretending there was nothing out of the ordinary.
Specifically, the event’s attitude vis-à-vis the health crisis was unquestionably cavalier: proof of vaccination or negative test results were required only to access the Palais (basically the press rooms, toilets and cafeteria), but not the movie theaters. Said theaters were also allowed to operate at full capacity, as per French Covid measures at that point, and mask-wearing was so intermittent that, a few days in, festival president Pierre Lescure had to record a voiceover urging viewers to cover their faces throughout the screenings.
And while Berlin, Venice, TIFF and other festivals reduced the number of movies shown during pandemic-era editions, Cannes sought to reaffirm its status as the film event to end all other film events by hosting more entries than usual and adding a brand-new section, Cannes Premiere (basically an auteur-driven non-competitive strand).
Not that it was necessarily a bad thing, since many gems were featured in that section: Gaspar Noé, once again completing a film in record time to be able to show it in Cannes (principal photography wrapped in May), surprised festivalgoers with Vortex, an unusually subdued piece of work from one of French cinema’s main provocateurs. Shot almost entirely in split-screen but otherwise devoid of gimmicks, it’s the straightforward, unexpectedly moving story of an elderly couple nearing the end of the line. Dario Argento stars as one half of the couple, proving to be quite good in front of the camera.
Noé claims to have gotten the impetus to make the movie after recovering from a stroke, and there was a bit of a throughline in the Cannes Premiere section as far as the personal was concerned, perhaps most blatantly so in Marco Bellocchio’s Marx Can Wait. The Italian director, who also received an honorary Palme d’Or on closing night (having never won the actual prize), examines his own family history, with his twin brother’s suicide in 1968 as the starting point of a dissection of the bond between his life and his filmmaking. Illuminating, but also quite funny in places: when discussing things with a priest, Bellocchio – a noted atheist – is slightly taken aback when the clergyman says, “Based on your films, I consider you an apologist of faith.”
As for the main competition, much was made of Titane being the first film directed by a woman to win the main prize since 1993, and only the second in the festival’s history (also, the first to win on its own, since Jane Campion won her Palme jointly with Chen Kaige). But more significant was the message such a win sent out into the world as to what movies can win the Palme d’Or: Julia Ducournau’s sophomore effort is a propulsive, gloriously in-your-face genre piece of the kind that rarely even gets invited in competition (notable exceptions have been made for David Cronenberg and Nicolas Winding Refn). “Thank you for welcoming monsters”, Ducournau said as she accepted the award, roughly an hour after jury president Spike Lee accidentally blurted out the name of the winner ahead of time.
Similarly in-your-face was my favorite competition entry, Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, twice delayed (once because of the director’s health and once because of the pandemic) and finally unveiled this year. Based on true events, the film, lazily described by many as the “horny nun movie” ahead of release, is actually a riotous satire taking aim at the Church and its contradictions. Endlessly witty and provocative, it’s arguably the perfect cinematic encapsulation of the Dutch word swaffelen, a verb that literally means “to mockingly bang your genitals against things, people and religious buildings” – Verhoeven’s career in a nutshell, even when he decides to work away from his homeland (like his previous film Elle, this was a French production).
It was an aggressively French edition, to the extent that the midnight strand, usually split between Asia, Europe and the US, consisted solely of national productions. And yet, the customary thriller from South Korea was present, in the more traditional out-of-competition slot: Emergency Declaration, starring Song Kang-ho of Parasite fame as a police officer, is slightly let down by an increasingly implausible final stretch but is otherwise an efficient and topical suspense exercise. There was a knowing collective chuckle at the press screening when it was mentioned that the main threat – a virus unleashed on a plane – came from a Covid-adjacent strain.
But perhaps the most symbolic screening of all, albeit one I didn’t attend as I had already seen the movie elsewhere, was the beach showing of Fast & Furious 9 (the French premiere, although one of the festival emails tried to sell it as the European debut): a bloated, occasionally convoluted spectacle with an exaggerated sense of its own importance, but also the self-awareness to realize it has reached somewhat ridiculous levels. And so, while Dominic Toretto’s friends went to space, Cannes came back down to Earth, with Frémaux introducing the last official screening prior to the awards ceremony (the aforementioned Vortex) with some facts and figures: 50,000 tests were carried out during the festival, and 70 of them came back positive.
On the one hand, it was a reminder that the pandemic is far from over and acting like it’s a thing of the past won’t do anyone any favors; on the other, it showed that even with its somewhat lax attitude, the festival managed to keep things fairly under control. And with a mixture of strategy and luck, it brought everyone together under chaotic yet endearing circumstances, reaffirming what most of us think of Cannes in general: it’s endlessly frustrating at times, but when it really pulls off the magic, it’s hard to not look forward to the next edition.