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Cannes Film Festival 2021 highlights: part two

By Shane Danielsen

Provocative Palme d’Or winner ‘Titane’ addresses sexuality, body-horror and gender construction

Still from Titane © Carole Bethuel

At this year’s Cannes Film Festival I saw movies. Forty-two of them, in fact, over nine days – and then, on the train back to Paris, I watched two more on my laptop for good measure. I was, as some sports people say, in the zone. Tired of being housebound, eager to be dazzled.

And for once, my diligence was amply rewarded: of those 42 titles, I would call 20 very good and at least 10 of those really excellent. Considered in terms of hits versus misses, it was probably the best festival line-up I can remember in more than three decades of going to these things. Everyone felt happy to be back, galvanised by storytelling and its possibilities. Even Spike Lee accidentally announcing the Palme d’Or too early – for Julia Ducournau’s Titane – didn’t detract from the air of cheerful celebration. Was it a mistake? Absolutely. But it also felt weirdly appropriate, as the 37-year-old filmmaker acknowledged in her acceptance speech: 

When I was little, it was a ritual to watch the [Cannes] ceremony on TV with my parents, and at that time I was sure that all these award-winning films had to be perfect, because they had the honour of being on this stage. But tonight I’m on this stage, and I know my movie is not perfect … Now that I’ve become an adult and a director, I have realised that perfection is an illusion of the past. And the monstrosity which frightens some, and which permeates my work, is a weapon – a force to push back the world of normativity that surrounds us and separates us … Thank you to the jury for welcoming more diversity in cinema and in our lives. Thanks for letting the monsters in.

I quote her words at length because they impressed me, just as her film had. That Ducournau is only the second woman ever to win the Palme d’Or is, of course, a disgrace. How is it that Claire Denis doesn’t have a Palme? Why did Chantal Akerman and Larisa Shepitko and Agnès Varda, some of the greatest filmmakers of all time, never get one? And how the hell did Michael Moore beat Lucrecia Martel for one? (I mean, for Christ’s sake… Michael Moore? That’s an argument for scorched-earth feminism right there.) But while Titane was a somewhat unexpected choice to take the prize, given the unusual strength of this year’s competition, it was also a bold and admirable one, an unmistakable statement from a jury clearly more interested in looking to the future and celebrating creative risk-taking, than in simply keeping arthouse cinema on its drip, clinging to a palliative half-life while its core audience drifts away, or dies.

Inspired equally by J.G. Ballard’s Crash and David Cronenberg’s adaptation of same, and by the films of Shinya (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) Tsukamoto, Titane follows the adventures of Alexia (screen debutante Agathe Rousselle: extraordinary), a woman left with a titanium plate in her head after a childhood car accident, who dispatches a rapey male admirer with a steel chopstick, gets impregnated by a Cadillac (!), leaves a bloody trail of mayhem at what appears to be a domestic sex party (keep up!), and then, to avoid the police, shaves her head and eyebrows and tapes down her breasts in order to impersonate the long-missing son of a local firefighter (Vincent Lindon), a dysfunctional martinet strung out on steroids. Oh, and did I mention she’s also pregnant with some kind of half-human, half-metal hell-baby? Yeah.

Packed with unforgettable images of sexuality and body-horror, and rife with interesting things to say about gender construction, and masculinity both toxic and fragile, it doesn’t entirely work – it feels, in the end, like two halves that never quite cohere – but it’s extremely smart, beautifully crafted (credit especially to Ruben Impens’ sleek, high-contrast visuals) and, at times, surprisingly funny. A provocation, to be sure. And probably the bravest choice for Best Film since Wild at Heart in 1990.

Such courage appears to be in short supply at Screen Australia and Film Victoria, however, both agencies having declined to fund Nitram, Justin Kurzel’s study of events leading up to the Port Arthur massacre. I’ll write more about this one when it’s released, but suffice to say that it’s Kurzel’s best work since Snowtown (which makes it one of the finest Australian films of the past decade), that Caleb Landry Jones’s Australian accent is flawless (he won the festival’s best actor award for his performance), and that our funding agencies need to start making smarter, less fear-based choices.

In his onstage introduction, Critics’ Week boss Charles Tesson dryly referred to Bruno Reidal, the debut from French writer-director Vincent La Port, as “The Diary of a Country Murderer”, and the reference to Bresson felt apt: La Port’s images have a plein-air austerity, and his storytelling a quiet, accumulative power that both recall the master. It’s 1905, and the titular Bruno, a young seminarian in rural France, is obsessed with the entwining possibilities of sex and death, masturbating compulsively while gorging his id on fantasies of violent homicide. Specifically, of slaughtering a wealthy, handsome classmate, Blondel, who has reached across the class divide to become his friend – an act of kindness for which Bruno despises him.

Also in Critics’ Week, also set in the first years of the previous century, and also superb, was Small Body, the debut from Italian filmmaker Laura Samani. Set in Veneto, in an especially bleak midwinter, it follows the postpartum travails of Agata (Celeste Cescutti) who, as the film opens, gives birth to a stillborn child. According to Catholic doctrine, the dead infant is doomed to an eternity in Limbo, a prospect that fills the already-grieving Agata with fury and despair.

From an older woman in the village, she learns of a mysterious hermit in the mountains who has the power to revive the child – only for an instant, but long enough for it to take a breath and thus be baptised. And so, with a small wooden coffin slung over her shoulder, she sets off, into a world of poverty, deceit and sudden, almost arbitrary violence. A folk tale with the charred soul of a murder ballad, it lingered in my mind long after its end-credits had rolled.

In Competition, the late-festival triumphs belonged to France’s Jacques Audiard and Iran’s Asghar Farhadi. Adapted from three short stories by the Japanese-American graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, and co-scripted by filmmaker Céline Sciamma (whose latest feature, Petite Maman, remains one of the best films of the year), Audiard’s Les Olympiades (Paris, 13th District) repped a distinct change of pace for an auteur best known for crime stories like A Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Shot in shadowy black and white, it found Audiard recalling the tone of the French New Wave – sexy, tristesse-heavy classics such as Godard’s Une femme mariée and Malle’s Les amants. Yet at the same time, it felt absolutely contemporary, inhabiting a decentered landscape of WhatsApp friendships and Tinder hook-ups, and freighted with a sense of solitude that might have been a consequence of its shoot having taken place during the COVID pandemic – though that did nothing to diminish its power. 

It’s also a refreshingly adult movie – about sex and the longing for sex, about the loneliness of cities and the beauty of naked bodies – and its multi-racial cast of near-unknowns provided a welcome antidote to the bourgeois homogeneity of most French relationship dramas. All excelled, from screen debutante Lucie Zhang, magnetic as Emilie, a Taiwanese immigrant hungry for intimacy yet constantly getting in her own way, to Jehnny Beth (frontwoman of the great, much-missed band Savages) as “Amber Sweet”, a webcam model who never lets her guard drop – until the moment (unexpected, breathtaking) that she does.

Farhadi, meanwhile, enjoyed a return to form with his ninth feature, A Hero, his best since 2011’s Oscar-winning A Separation. Rahim (Amir Jadidi), all broad smiles and frightened, desperate eyes, is released from a debtors’ prison on weekend leave, and begins to try to rebuild his life. He has a plan, which may or may not involve some minor larceny, but then suffers a change of heart (or a lack of courage, perhaps) and decides instead to make a public show of doing “the right thing”… for which decision he is utterly destroyed. 

Famously skilled with actors, Farhadi is also an incredible screenwriter – Chekhovian in his delineation of character and meticulous in his construction of narrative: each move Rahim makes, and each small lie he then tells to try to improve his position, only serves to tighten the noose around his neck. My favourite was Nazanin (beautifully played by Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter), a sternly moralistic young woman who, unable to consider any point of view but her own, determinedly and deliberately sets out to ruin Rahim’s life. And while I missed the long-take choreography of A Separation – this film is much more conventionally cut – it held me in a state of clenched-gut unease throughout, not least for the way Rahim’s young son becomes enmeshed in his deceptions. I fancied the film would take the Palme; instead it walked away with second prize, the Grand Prix du Jury. (Audiard, alas, got nothing.)

Meanwhile, in ACID, a young sidebar section whose programming often punches well above its weight, much buzz circulated about Diego Ongaro’s Down With the King, a meditative US drama that marks the acting debut of hip-hop veteran Freddie Gibbs. (Gibbs’ recent collaboration with The Alchemist, Alfredo, has been on high rotation at Chez Danielsen these past few months.) As Money Merc, a disenchanted rapper who retreats to a New England farm to write material for a new album, but soon begins to contemplate a quieter, more pastoral life, Gibbs is magnetic throughout, his wary stillness compelling (you could judge the emotional temperature of a scene just by the intensity of his stare) and his line deliveries never less than convincing.

Merc seems tired, fed up with the game (“What other job in music you got to worry about getting shot?”), and in this regard Gibbs is well paired with co-star Jamie Neumann (from HBO’s The Deuce, and rapidly becoming one of my favourite American character actors) as a beguilingly unimpressed local woman, desperate to escape this sleepy backwater. Their scenes together crackle with playful humour and erotic tension. I loved this film – for its patience, its emotional acuity – and could only marvel at its exclusion from one of the higher-profile sections.

In Un Certain Regard, meanwhile, the highlight for me was Great Freedom, from Austrian director Sebastian Meise, a drama about the experiences of Hans (Franz Rogowski), a gay man repeatedly imprisoned under Paragraph 175, the notorious section of the German criminal code criminalising homosexual acts between men. Introduced in 1871, the law was repealed only in 1994, by which time it had resulted in the detention of more than 12,000 individuals. 

The script, co-written by Meise and Thomas Reider, plays elegant tricks with onscreen time: only gradually do we come to understand that we’re watching three separate terms of incarceration, from 1945, 1957 and 1968. (Unapologetic about his desires, Hans is the epitome of a repeat offender.) We see the men he cruises and the fellow prisoners he comes to love; we watch the blossoming of his friendship with a cellmate, Viktor (Georg Friedrich), a violent homophobe and lifer, who slowly comes to respect and even protect him. In its bitter recognition of the limited options open to gay men at the time, its final scene reminded me of Fassbinder – for such a film as this, there is no higher praise.

Rogowski is such an unlikely actor – small and compact and mild, with a lisp and a scar from an operation in his childhood to fix a cleft lip – that you may not notice at first how effortlessly he holds the screen. And the usual comparison – “the German Joaquin Phoenix” – does little to convey just how refined his brand of intensity is. In this regard, he reminds me of Bogart (who also had a lisp). He was strong in Christian Petzold’s Transit – perhaps stronger than the film – but was mesmerising in In the Aisles, a sad, funny romance that paired him with Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Hüller. This one, though, demonstrates the full breadth of his talent. It’s a jaw-dropping performance in a powerful, profoundly moving film.

A few final notes: Sean Penn remains one of the worst directors I’ve ever seen, and Flag Day is the glacé cherry on the turd-cake of his achievement: a cliché-ridden family drama with all the subtlety of a late Springsteen track. (Teenage girl appears at breakfast in a skimpy outfit. Cue bleary glance from drunken step-dad. “He’s gonna fuck her,” I sang-whispered to the friend beside me. And sure enough, not 10 seconds later…) Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch was just unbearable, a showy display of production design and boxes-within-boxes storytelling that revealed no discernible interest in human life. I liked Kogonada’s debut feature, Columbus, a lot, but his sophomore effort, the SF drama After Yang, was probably my biggest festival disappointment: sluggish, hopelessly solemn, monotonal and ultimately monotonous. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Part 2, by contrast, was excellent – though I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first part, lacking both the solid narrative spine of that film’s central relationship and the charismatic central performance of Tom Burke. But Hogg is undeniably a major talent, and I’ll write more about that film, and the Anderson, when they’re released theatrically.

I went to Cannes because I was sick of America and because I felt creatively stalled, making slow progress on the three scripts I’m currently supposed to be writing. I needed inspiration and I found it. But more than that, I felt grateful. Grateful to be there, grateful to see friends. Grateful that movies were still being made and watched and cherished. Now I’m back in Los Angeles, where mask mandates have just been reinstated, and feeling a little like a boa constrictor – hunkered down in my burrow, able to survive for months on the feast I just consumed.

Shane Danielsen

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

Still from Titane © Carole Bethuel

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