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Cannes Film Festival 2021 highlights: part one

By Shane Danielsen

Films by Emmanuel Carrère, Panah Panahi and Joachim Trier are among the best from a festival changed by the pandemic

Scene from Hit the Road by Panah Panahi. Courtesy Celluloid Dreams

Standing in the check-in queue at LAX, checking that I had my negative PCR test results ready with my passport, I looked up to find a colleague gazing at me, his eyes amused over the line of his mask. 

“We’re really doing this, huh?” he said. 

We were. The Air France flight was packed, restrictions to Europe having been lifted for US citizens and residents just three weeks earlier. Eleven hours later we were in Paris, en route to Cannes and a film festival that maybe wasn’t such a great idea, and would almost certainly be a shadow of its usual self, but was going ahead anyway, god damn it. Director Thierry Frémaux was determined not to cancel a second edition, especially after arch-rival Venice had pressed on last September and proven an unlikely triumph. 

At his opening press conference, Frémaux was bullish. “Give me the name of a young filmmaker discovered by Netflix!” he dared the reporters, still smarting over the ongoing war with the streamer, a spat that had cost him Jane Campion’s new feature. (Venice, in an amusing display of spite, announced the film’s inclusion in its competition less than a day after Cannes unveiled its line-up.) Other festivals, Frémaux sniffed, “open their doors a bit too widely, perhaps, to people who we’re not sure about”.

Petty sniping aside, what we found on the Côte d’Azur was a strange, almost dream-like thing, a festival at once familiar and, somehow, subtly not. For one thing, the days were a lot hotter, screenings taking place in steamy July rather than the usual mild May. The streets were notably less crowded; what people there were out and about were mostly French (and Russian) families en vacances. As I looked into their smiling, sunburnt faces, eating ice cream or peering into shop windows, cheerfully unaware of the existence of Hong Sang-soo or Arnaud Desplechin, much less their respective oeuvres, I found myself wondering: were these “people we could be sure about”? And what did that term even mean?

Elsewhere in the city, changes were afoot. The Carlton Hotel – the iconic Cannes venue – was closed, undergoing extensive renovations that reportedly won’t be finished for another two years. Worse, my favourite brasserie – Le Crillon, a second home for more than two decades – was gone, a victim either of the shutdown or of water damage, it was hard to say which. Yet while the number of festival delegates was severely diminished – the press corps was reportedly down by half, and the market reduced by more than 60 per cent – this felt like a blessing, not a curse. Screenings weren’t crowded. Restaurants had tables. And frankly, fewer people I knew meant fewer people I disliked.

Of course, there were complications. American vaccination certificates (such as those my colleague and I held) lack a QR code, and as such are incompatible with EU requirements. To access screenings – but only at some cinemas, not all – we would have to submit to a fresh PCR test every 48 hours, and show a negative result. And so it was, the day before my first film, that I found myself standing in a cubicle in a large, open tent by the harbour, spitting determinedly into a small plastic tube. Six hours later, almost to the minute, the result came back: NÉGATIF. I was, for the time being at least, good to go – though to see any films at all, we then had to battle a ticketing website aptly described by one friend as “satanic”. 

Somehow I made it into the opening night movie, Leos Carax’s Annette, a musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, and featuring a story and music by Ron and Russell Mael, aka the art-rock band Sparks. For some reason I’d been unenthusiastic at the prospect – despite my fondness for some of Sparks’s music, and the fact that Carax’s last film, 2012’s Holy Motors, was by far my favourite of that year. But its first scene was so thrilling – a musical number that saw Carax himself, the Maels, Driver and Cotillard (plus an ever-growing number of co-stars) walk out of a recording studio and onto the streets of Santa Monica, singing direct to camera about the film we’re going to watch – that I thought, Shit, I was completely wrong. This is going to be incredible.

It wasn’t. Thereafter it flatlined badly, hobbled by sluggish pacing, awkward transitions, Carax’s evident disinterest in Cotillard’s character (Driver’s performance, utterly committed if not always absolutely coherent, leaves her no room onscreen) and the surprising banality of Sparks’ compositions. (A duet intended to showcase the lovers’ passion for one another was actually called “We Love Each Other So Much”.) That said, it did feature Driver singing while performing cunnilingus, which was a first – onscreen, at least. And Carax’s visual invention, his peculiar genius for set pieces, remains astonishing, even as the broader structure eludes him. But it’s the first of his six films to feel less than properly magical. 

Still, I did love the idea of kicking off a festival, after more than a year’s enforced hiatus, with a song titled “So May We Start?” (Its chorus complete with a cute Francophone pun: “So may we start? Mais oui! May we now start!”) Like it or not, we were off to the races.

Novelist Emmanuel Carrère hasn’t directed a feature film since La Moustache, which premiered here in Directors’ Fortnight in 2005. He returned this year to open the same section with Between Two Worlds, this time adapting the work of another writer, Florence Aubenas, one of France’s most respected journalists. Specifically, her 2010 book Le Quai de Ouistreham, in which she went undercover, à la Barbara Ehrenreich, and worked as a cleaning woman in the Normandy district of the title, in order to report on the labour conditions of France’s working poor.

Beginning as a slice of Ken Loach–like social realism (call it Daniel Blake, c’est moi), the film soon shifts gears into something more intriguing: a meditation on authorial ethics and one’s responsibility to one’s sources, particularly across the divides of class. The workers welcome Marianne (Juliette Binoche) into their community – and single mother Christèle (played by Hélène Lambert, a non-pro actor who matches Binoche line for line) becomes a trusted friend – until they discover that they’ve all been deceived. Unlike them, Marianne isn’t dependent on this job: she can stroll back into her real, petit-bourgeois life in Paris at any time. Also, isn’t she taking a position from someone who might actually need it? 

Marianne maintains that her deception serves a greater good, since she hopes by telling these women’s stories to improve their working conditions. But ultimately there are no easy answers, and the film ends on a note of bitter melancholy, reconciled to the impossibility of ever truly understanding another person’s circumstances. Watching it just weeks after the death of Janet Malcolm, it recalled for me the famous opening line from her book The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Yet Binoche’s character skates by that self-judgment; for better or worse, she’s driven by something else that Malcolm once described: “the rapture of a first-hand encounter with another’s lived experience”.

Also premiering in Directors’ Fortnight was another standout: Hit the Road, the debut feature from Iran’s Panah Panahi, who at just 25 has crafted one of the finds of the festival. Per the title, it’s a road movie, set in the mountainous region separating Iran from Turkey. A sedan speeds along a highway; inside is an exhausted mother (Pantea Panahiha), a curmudgeonly father with a broken leg (Hassan Madjooni), an older son (Amin Simiar) sitting tensely behind the wheel, and a garrulous, hyperactive young boy, played by six-year-old Rayan Sarlak, who gleefully steals every scene he’s in. Yet despite the kid’s firecracker energy, the mood is faintly ominous – a sense amplified when the car pulls over at a rest stop and the mother takes her SIM card from her cellphone and buries it beneath some rocks. Wherever they’re going, we realise, they don’t want to be tracked.

Panah is the son of acclaimed director Jafar Panahi, who’s currently forbidden from making films (officially, at least) by the charming men who run his country. And while this debut feels, in some ways, like a throwback to the slow-burn realism of Iranian cinema in the 1990s, the heyday of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf and Mehrjui, he also brings his own distinctive sensibility to work. He handles his script’s tonal shifts smoothly, deftly juggling humour and pathos, realism and fantasy. (And also displays a sharp ear for a tune: the soundtrack features some fantastic pre-Revolution Iranian pop bangers, to which Sarlak and Panahiha often lip-synch.) 

But it’s the climactic scene that blew me away. Taking place on a hillside, and shot in a single, uninterrupted take, reminiscent of Miklós Jancsó and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, it manages to be nothing short of masterful – formalism deployed in the service of an emotionally devastating conclusion, one that took me and everyone else by surprise.

Speaking of emotionally devastating: The Worst Person in the World, the fifth feature from Norway’s Joachim Trier, is also his best to date – an expansive character study, told in 12 chapters, that details the romantic and vocational misadventures of Julie (Renate Reinsve), an Oslo woman in her mid-to-late twenties, who, contre the title, is actually kind, generous and warmly sympathetic, even at her most maddeningly undecided. (Based on her performance here, Reinsve has to be considered a strong contender for the festival’s best actress award.) 

Accompanied by a tartly amused voiceover, a prologue sees Julie cycle briskly through various majors at university – medicine, psychology, fine art – before taking a stop-gap job in a university bookshop, a way of postponing making a decision that eventually feels like a decision in itself. But just before that, during a brief stint as a photographer, she meets and shacks up with Aksel, an older comic-book artist (played by Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie). He seems her soulmate, but Julie, still searching for her own purpose, envies even the small success he’s had – and slowly a fissure opens between them. The film’s second chapter, an extended meet-cute at a wedding she crashes, where she encounters a man who’ll eventually come to replace Aksel in her affections, is perhaps its best: a little masterpiece of sexy, economic storytelling. 

As time passes, however, the film’s tone darkens, and a late revelation tips the scales firmly toward tragedy. The situation closely recalled something in my own life, the death a few years ago of a much-loved friend, and I sat there sobbing in the dark and feeling self-conscious and foolish… until I realised that pretty much everyone around me was doing the same. A testament, I suppose, to just how invested we were, by then, in these characters and their happiness. The film isn’t perfect – after such precise, fine-grained work, its epilogue felt weirdly arbitrary – but it’s very, very good. Funny, richly detailed and at times almost discomfitingly truthful.

Finally, in Critics’ Week, a French comedy titled Zero Fucks Given caught my attention with its title and rewarded it with its scrappy, can-do execution, with Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour) excellent as Cassandre, a budget-airline stewardess whose professional duties almost but don’t quite distract her from the demands of a real life she’d much rather ignore. Cordial, slightly remote, with a smile that never makes it as far as her eyes, Cassandre’s life is a continuous present, all Tinder hook-ups and hotel pools and anonymous, could-be-anywhere nightclubs. Shuttling constantly between Lanzarote, Warsaw and Amsterdam, she allows herself no time for introspection. (“I like people and then, two hours later, see ya.”) Asked by a superior if she’d like to pursue a promotion, she replies that she’d rather stay as she is.

You sense she’s running from something, and so it proves: before long, she’s forced to return to her hometown and deal with the family she’s left behind – all shattered, like herself, by the recent death of her mother. Directors Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre aim for a kind of documentary-style realism throughout (to the extent that many of Exarchopoulos’s onscreen workmates are in fact real-life airline crew members), and the film has a rough-hewn, very of-the-moment charm. One scene, of Cassandre and a guy talking in bed, is lit frontally, with hard shadows, and shot on what I’m pretty sure is an iPhone. It feels raw and unscripted. It feels true.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Scene from Hit the Road by Panah Panahi. Courtesy Celluloid Dreams

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