It would be convenient if all the films that showed at the 74th Cannes Film Festival from July 6-17 could nestle together into a tidy box labeled “the new post-COVID cinema,” but the generalization won’t stick. For one thing, a good number of the feature-length releases that played here (The French Dispatch, Benedetta) were finished before the pandemic started and have been sitting on ice with distributors for a year. Others (especially many short films, like the ones in The Year of the Everlasting Storm) were shot under quarantine conditions, and include its realities. But the festival as a whole, after postponing in 2020, was conducted under the strong sign of rebirth, not as a eulogy for lost time. The ubiquitous festival president Thierry Frémaux’s opening remarks to films rarely invoked the struggles or uncertainties of this past year, nor did he speculate much publicly on what the future of moviegoing may look like. His speeches, in a mix of French and English, were celebrations of the present. The goal of the festival, he told Variety in May, would be to “host a grand Cannes—without assuming that the pandemic is over.” The pandemic is far from over, but in the meantime, here are ten of the movies that made it a grand Cannes indeed.
The rock opera ain’t dead. Ron and Russel Mael of Sparks score Leos Carax’s latest over-the-top extravaganza. A celebrity odd couple—quasi-stand-up comic Henry McHenry, played by Adam Driver, and Marion Cotillard as grand opera diva Ann—grapple with that age-old parenting challenge: raising a demon child when you are incredibly famous and need to sing at the same time. The sweet patches of Driver’s range got better play in Marriage Story (2019), but Carax woos the same caliber of overwhelmingly physical total performance out of him as the director achieved with Denis Lavant in Holy Motors (2012).
It is amazing that Paul Verhoeven, the only person to both direct Starship Troopers (1997) and pen a scholarly monograph on the historical Jesus, can pull off being a theologian of holy eros and a flagrant nun-fetish guy in the same movie. It would be impossible to say which of the two impulses predominate in this 16th-century tale of novice Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), her visions and miracles inside a plague-time convent, and the transmission of her sacred desires onto the flesh of fellow novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). Charlotte Rampling, acting in French, gives a strong turn as the skeptical Abbess.
Drive My Car
Snubbed for the Palme d’Or, in my opinion, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story of the same name is a near-perfect film if you’re like me and can’t get enough of movies in which hurt and closed-off people get to know one another in a moving Saab. Those people are Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a stage actor and director who has been tapped to helm a multilingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, and Misaki (Toko Miura), his quiet chauffeur. At two hours and 59 minutes, there is an endurance factor, but this is as patient and sensuous as movies get.
The French Dispatch
If you don’t care for Wes Anderson’s whole deal, this one won’t convince you. The foreign correspondence desk of a bucolic American newspaper recites the contents of its farewell issue. But what if I told you that a great deal of the shots in it are symmetrical? You know what you’re in for, and it’s either going to flatten you with joy, as it did me, or it won’t. I will say that, watching the entirety of the enormous credits—conservatively, a thousand names—I was forced to reflect that the hundreds of throwaway sight gags I’d just seen involved an amount of congealed human labor comparable to that of the pyramids. Got to respect that.
In Front of Your Face
Prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s intimate portrait of an aging movie actress, Sangok (Lee Hye-young) follows her secret source of pain, which achieves expression very slowly as she relearns the pace of city life following time in America. This one ends with a fantastic extended restaurant scene between Lee and Kwon Hae-hyo as Jaewon, a director from her past. The grainy texture of the video lends casualness to the film, which feels almost like a play. In essence a series of banal conversations that don’t culminate in much, in the grand scheme of things, this is a humble but winning outing from Hong.
Marx Can Wait
No film I saw during the 11 days at Cannes affected me as much as this documentary by celebrated Italian director Marco Bellocchio. The film’s subject is Bellocchio’s twin brother Camillo, who never got his feet quite under him in life and committed suicide at 29. Clips from Bellocchio’s great Fists in the Pocket (1965) and other films of his show the depth of his artistic engagement with the mystery of uneven achievement in families over a period of decades. The film presents itself after the manner of a secular confession for not doing more to intervene in the brother Camillo’s demise. But what could be done? A severe late work from a master.
This year’s Palme d’Or winner was director Julia Ducournau’s queasy, jarring, hardcore thriller about burlesque dancer Alexia, played by Agathe Rousselle, and the metal plate in her head that has inhuman designs on owning the rest of her body. Fans of Raw (2016) will find plenty to squirm over here, but this French-language selection for Cannes registered as a definite shot across the bough aesthetically; every French person I talked to about it said a version of the same thing, “I don’t watch this kind of movie.” By “this kind,” think movies where the protagonist has sex with a car and lactates motor oil. Buckle up, this one rocks.
The actor Val Kilmer opens his massive home video archive to documentary filmmakers Ting Poo and Leo Scott to help sort through the captivating highs and lows of his career. Kilmer’s camera was running on the set of Top Gun (1986), during rehearsals for his transformation into Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991), and during the disastrous making of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), when the large and somewhat in charge Marlon Brando needed a push on the hammock. Cancer has taken Kilmer’s voice; he speaks with difficulty via a breathing tube, delegating the narration of his life’s story to his son.
The Worst Person in the World (Verdens Verste Menneske)
Renate Reinsve won Best Performance by an Actress for this role, and rightly so. Joachim Trier’s episodic portrait of non-committal Norwegian basket case Julie in 12 “chapters” is an instant turning-30-and-making-a-lot-of-really-bad-life-decisions-in-a-row classic, one of the crucial genres. The relationship with vulgar cartoonist Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) reaches a way more shattering crescendo than the rest of the movie’s occasionally saccharine light touch prepares you for. Reinsve is masterful as Julie, throwing light on every facet of the art of being a total mess.
The Year of the Everlasting Storm
Commissioned in response to the pandemic for this Neon/Animal Kingdom coproduction, this anthology showcase presents work from an international chorus of directors including Jafar Panahi of Iran, the investigative American journalist and documentarian Laura Poitras, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The pieces range from humorous asides under the undignified conditions of lockdown to revelatory experiments. Panahi’s iPhone records his paranoid mother’s aversions to a giant pet iguana named Igi who lives in the apartment where Panahi endures house arrest. Working from the tropics in Thailand, Weerasethakul places an array of fluorescent light bars over a bed and films insects up close as they gather by thousands, audio from Thai protest meetings barely discernible in the background. Neon is donating proceeds from the film to COVID relief efforts. v