July 6–17, 2021
Absence makes the heart grow fond, but does that apply to Cannes? Returning to this biggest, most stressful of film festivals after a year’s enforced absence due to the ongoing pandemic was strangely ambivalent—the pleasure and privilege of finally seeing new films on the big screen tempered by the worry and uncertainty of the current situation. With a new electronic ticketing system to avoid lines and fewer attendees than usual (translating into half-full auditoria), the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival left plenty of time and space to reflect on where cinema is right now and where it is headed, to which different films offered different answers, some more positive than others. If this year didn’t feel like a particularly memorable vintage, I was unsure whether it was a result of the films themselves or the situation in which they premiered. Amid the new normal of compulsory saliva tests and row after row of masked faces in the dark, it was easy to forget that most of these films were made long before the pandemic began and could hardly be expected to respond to it as such, directly or otherwise.
Willing films to be good simply to compensate for the void of the last 18 months is a very different form of projection. Despite having been conceived of in a very different context, many of the films induced reflections on the state of the medium as provoked by the current situation. One obvious nod to the cinema of the past was Gaspar Noé’s decision to cast Italian horror maestro Dario Argento and Jean Eustache muse Françoise Lebrun in the leading roles of Vortex (2021), which unspooled in the festival’s Cannes Premières. If their unnamed characters (credited only as Father and Mother) are supposed to embody the seventh art’s glory days, those days are numbered. Everything starts off tranquil, as the elderly couple—he a cinema scholar, she a retired psychiatrist—eat lunch together on the terrace of their generous, if cluttered, Paris apartment. Yet, as they lie in bed the next morning, an irreversible distance opens between them: first, literally in the form of a line that bisects the screen and subsequently attaches a separate perspective to each of their endeavors, and then within the narrative itself, with her rapidly advancing dementia ushering in absent-mindedness, aimless wanderings, irrational behavior, and confusion to such an extent that he is barely able to recognize his wife, let alone cope.
The fact that this decline is shown in split screen only makes it more painfully moving to watch, whether through seeing her erratic everyday actions and knowing it’s only a matter of time until he discovers them, or watching him try to concentrate in vain, as the next awkward interruption and confrontation is always around the corner. Although the two perspectives are mainly attached to the mother and father’s overlapping realities, their son is also trailed by the camera from time to time, as he juggles his own difficult life as a single parent and recovering drug addict while trying to cajole his desperate, yet still unwilling parents into making some changes.
Patience and tenderness are not usually used to describe Noé’s work, whose undeniable formal acuity has often been blunted by a wearying need to shock. Yet, much of Vortex exudes those qualities, even if the fragility of this couple’s life is also shockingly plausible when placed under such unflinching scrutiny. This sense of plausibility is aided considerably by the lead performances, with Lebrun in particular blending each individual nuance between bewilderment and clarity into a portrait of a woman as heartbreaking as it is ambivalent. While Noé can’t quite help letting some of his baser impulses come to the surface, particularly as the film moves toward its inevitably grim conclusion, these jarring moments of excess stand out precisely because the overall mood is so successfully muted. Perhaps death does indeed make angels of us all, if only partially.
If Vortex alludes to the idea of the cinema of the past turning to dust, as the couple’s symbolically charged apartment has been emptied of any trace of their presence by the end, Competition entry Benedetta (2021) forms the perfect counterargument, as the 83-year-old Paul Verhoeven shows little sign of slowing down, even if he lacks some of his former precision. This typically irreverent period drama takes its bearings from the true story of Benedetta Carlini, a 17th-century lesbian nun from Italy whose complex, intertwined relationship to spirituality and sexuality has been the subject of academic study. The film’s opening stretches make clear that seriousness is not to be the order of the day through the gleefully flatulent street performance that a young Benedetta passes on her way to the convent that will become her home, the moment when a statue of the Virgin tips over onto her on her first night there (its nipple landing neatly in her mouth), and the recurring visions of a dashing, sexually alluring Jesus she has as an adult.
The convent is ruled over by a financially-savvy abbess played by Charlotte Rampling, who is more concerned with whether new novices can pay their way than with spirituality. While Benedetta comes from a wealthy family, the young, desperate Bartolemea does not—only by way of the former’s intervention is she allowed to enter the convent. The attraction between the two of them is instant and not without naughtier undertones, such as when Benedetta forces Bartolemea to scald herself, who does so with erotically charged defiance. At the same time, Benedetta’s visions grow in intensity and are soon accompanied by stigmata and other bodily lacerations that could point to a miracle; in a world of religious hypocrisy, hysteria, and plague (with distinct echoes of 2021), nothing holds as much sway as physical proof. But can that balance out sins of the flesh, especially those in which a hastily sanded down Virgin figurine come into play?
Jumping between overblown period stylings, lurid eroticism, and stabs of seriousness and violence, Benedetta coasts on the same wild shifts in tone that have always characterized Verhoeven’s oeuvre. Yet these shifts feel less well integrated here than in previous work, forming more of an entertaining but ultimately surface level rag bag of different moods and registers than a seamlessly modulated whole. One idea does at least give the film structure a subversive, topical charge, however: At no point does Verhoeven cast doubt on the veracity of Benedetta’s beliefs, unlike everyone else around her. Whether in love, religion, or both, fervor is all the more explosive when it’s impossible to pin down.
With the octogenarian Verhoeven qualifying as a veteran by any measure, the future of cinema should lie with those at the other end of the age spectrum. The jury made a statement to this end and more in giving the Palme d’Or to Julia Ducournau, the youngest director in Competition, for her second feature Titane (2021). Ducournau also became the second woman to receive the festival’s biggest honor (Jane Campion had to make do with sharing the award with Chen Kaige ). Aside from throwing the festival’s blatant, enduring sexism into sharp relief, this gesture was equally welcome in how it was as much about rewarding what is as what is yet to come, as the Palme d’Or has far more often been about preserving the status quo rather than pointing to possible futures. Titane’s genderfucking body horror stylings may be rough around the edges and its extreme violence an immediate turn-off for some, but with such a prize under her arm, there is more than enough time for Ducournau to grow and expand into whatever she turns out to be, which happily seems far from the staid brand of cinema that usually jostles for the big prizes here.
The Screenplay Award was taken home by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who shared the prize with screenwriter Takamasa Oe for Drive My Car (2021). The Japanese director has been no stranger to acclaim of late, with his last film,Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, picking up a Silver Bear earlier this year in Berlin. Drive My Car adapts a Haruki Murukami short story of the same name that appeared in the 2014 collection Men Without Women. The narrative follows a troubled theater director’s efforts to mount an experimental Chekhov production at a provincial residency. While this nearly three-hour drama was well received, the narrative still throws up enough niggling questions to suggest that heralding Hamaguchi as the future of cinema might be premature. Why does the mix of different languages in the play and the cerebral talk of surrendering to the text still result in a performance so leadenly traditional? And why do so many of his female characters conspicuously lack the agency of their male counterparts, including a woman whose creativity only flows when she is literally fucked by a man?
Nadav Lapid was a welcome newcomer to the competition slate with Ahed’s Knee (2021), which shared the festival’s Jury Prize with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (2020). Lapid’s feature probes cinema’s past, present, and future, albeit a past, present, and future made by Lapid himself. A fictionalized version of the Israeli director, named Y., heads to a small town in the southern desert to present his most recent film, although he’s already in the casting process for the next one. Both are political: Y.’s new project is about a Palestinian protester jailed for slapping a soldier, while his previous film is potentially inflammatory enough that Y. must sign a government paper agreeing not to broach any thorny topics at the Q&A, a bitter pill sweetened by the young, enthusiastically naïve government official who has organized the screening. As is practically pre-programmed in the polarized, fractious Israel of today, things don’t end well. Yet there is something invigorating, even inspiring, about the role of cinema that Ahed’s Knee proposes, as embodied by the film’s roving, restlessly inquisitive camera. Everything that catches the eye is potential material for a future film or triggers the memory of an existing one, which evokes the wonderfully irrepressible perspective of the filmmaker. And if such curiosity can still thrive in the most delicate of situations, whether the end of life, a divided country or indeed a global pandemic, there’s reason enough for optimism.