How does it feel to return to the cinema? I asked myself this question as my plane taxied on the runway at Nice airport one fine July morning, the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean to my right, the hilly landscape of the Côte d’azur to my left. A decade of festival-hopping – not as frenetic as the itineraries of some of the circuit’s diehards, but a regular feature on my calendar nonetheless – had been brought to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of the pandemic, which brought life to a standstill around the world just as the 2020 Berlinale was wrapping up.1 Covid, of course, has been particularly inimical to the two primary ingredients of the film festival: going to the movies and international travel. As the virus showed no signs of abating, festival organisers scrambled to figure out what to do under the circumstances. In the case of Cannes, the festival hierarchy even had its head buried in the sand for a while, convinced that it could somehow take place as normal in May 2020. It didn’t.
Other festivals made the transition to digital formats, with online visions and Zoom Q&As replacing the traditional cinema experience. In Europe, at any rate, this has been the dominant mode of hosting film festivals during the pandemic, with the exception of a brief respite last summer, allowing for Venice, Locarno and some of the other aestival festivals to take place in presence. Nobody, as far as I am aware, is under any illusion that a digital event is an adequate substitute for its real-life counterpart, not least when it comes to film screenings. But films were, heroically, still being made, and festivals still had the organisational resources to show them to audiences, so it was entirely reasonable to have recourse to online modes of viewing under these circumstances. And I truly admire those cinephiles who, whether out of passion or professional duty, partook of these plentiful virtual offerings, largely untethered from the innate geographical constraints of physical film screenings.2 But I could not join them. There were multiple reasons why, which are too tedious to dwell on here. Suffice it to say that for your humble correspondent, the interruption to daily life caused by the Coronavirus outbreak has also been an interruption to film-viewing, at least of contemporary releases. I made it to a handful of screenings in the summer interlude of 2020 mentioned above, but the outpouring of content on streaming services and festival platforms in the last eighteen months has left me cold, with my viewing consumption monopolised mostly by works from the cinema’s past. Its present, by contrast, was slipping me by, and whether it had a future was a question I was too mortified to probe in any deep way.
Meanwhile, Cannes was busy figuring how to avoid 2021 being a repeat of the aborted 2020 edition, an endeavour not helped by the EU’s criminally sluggish vaccination rollout. In the end, the festival shifted back two months from its normal slot in the calendar, from mid-May to mid-July. The decision was a prudent one: lockdown measures in France, and much of Europe, were significantly loosened by this point in the year, as the virus’ seasonal fluctuations, combined with the eventual uptick in the administering of Covid shots, saw a return to something like normality by the summer months. Yes, this brave new world of festival-going meant that surgical masks had to be worn at all times indoors, that saliva tests were necessary for entering the Palais (though not, mystifyingly, any of the screening venues), that security measures were even more arcane than they were previously, that the traditional approach to queueing for press screenings was replaced by a digital booking system (which was not without its defects, with many an attendee receiving confirmation of a ticket booking after the screening had commenced), that, due to quarantine measures and other obstacles, accredited guests from outside continental Europe were thin on the ground, 3and that, more benignly, the mid-summer sun would beat down that little bit more intensely on the Croisette than is the case in the sweeter month of May. But all these novelties, surely, were a small price to pay for the return of the festival, and – for me at least – the return of the cinema.
Doubts could not fail to emerge in the days and weeks leading up to the festival. Would it really take place, or would the virus strike again, a third wave (or is it the fourth already?) annihilating the festival’s plans? Even when arriving in the south of France, it was hard to shake off the sense of unreality – the very fact of setting foot in an aeroplane for the first time since early 2020 was already an uncanny experience, let alone seeing the glint of the festival palace from afar, or picking up my badge from within. Was I really about to set foot once more in the kingdom of shadows? What would await me there? Or was I like the Prince of Homburg, and all this was but a dream? (“A dream? What else?”)
As chance would have it, my first festival outing since pre-pandemic times took me to an unfamiliar location: the newly baptised Cineum, a hyper-modern film venue on the outskirts of town, reachable by bus (by bus! In Cannes!), and equipped with IMAX projection, surround sound and luxurious seating, which was screening Leos Carax’ Annette, one of the most highly anticipated films of the festival – not least because, resisting the lure of VOD, it had been held over from last year’s edition, languishing unseen until now. As I walked through the corridors of this geodesic structure, its walls illuminating with my footsteps, I had no idea what to expect: of the film, of films, of myself. I settled into my seat. The lights dimmed. The screen lit up. I feel no sense of exaggeration when I say that the cinema was reborn that day.
And a better start to the festival could hardly be conceived. The opening scene of Annette had an immediately vivifying effect on this uncertain spectator, jolting the dormant cinephile in me back to life. Lights flicker on and off in a street. A recording studio. Leos Carax himself lights a cigarette. A band inside the studio’s glass cage (Sparks, I later find out, a fraternal pop duo who co-wrote the screenplay) launches into the film’s overture, featuring the self-conscious refrain “So may we start?” (an eerily appropriate sentiment, given the circumstances of the screening). Mid-song, the musicians leave the studio, but continue singing. Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard join them, and the impromptu cavalcade saunters down the streets of Los Angeles, in an all-singing, all-dancing musical number whose carefree verve would hopefully set the tone for the film and the festival as a whole. It was a wise choice by artistic director Thierry Frémaux to kick-off the proceedings on this note, even if Carax could not possibly have imagined the circumstances in which his latest release would end up premiering.
It’s true that the rest of Annette did not quite live up to the promise of its scintillating opening act, but if there was an unevenness to the film, then this is primarily because Carax is one of the only truly fearless directors working today, and is perfectly prepared to run the risk of being cheesy as long as it is in the pursuit of his cinematic vision, which at times is so unfiltered as to approach the status of a fugue-like hallucination. In his first feature since 2012’s Holy Motors, Driver and Cotillard are a celebrity couple who, for a time at least, are the toast of Los Angeles: fêted, idolised, adored, pursued, gossiped about on social media sites and entertainment television. Cotillard’s Ann is an opera singer (who thus specialises in dying on stage with every performance), while Driver’s Henry McHenry is a stand-up comedian (who, the film takes care to tell us, does much the same). Significant chunks of the first half of the film are given over to Henry’s sets, which are light on jokes per se and heavy on conceptual, self-referential humour in the tradition of Andy Kaufman or Bo Burnham. That he appears to use the stage as a proxy for a confession booth also evokes the case of Louis CK, a parallel that is only deepened when Henry is confronted with a spate of #MeToo-style allegations (although the script was apparently penned well before any of this surfaced). But that plot point is dropped no sooner than it is introduced, and, in spite of Henry’s manic instability it really does seem that he and Ann love each other so much, as a centrepiece musical number unsubtly puts it. The love scene this song accompanies produces a daughter, the titular Annette, who is depicted in the film as a wooden puppet with troll doll-like features (as in so much of Carax’s œuvre, you simply have to go along with this conceit to get anything out of the film). Tragedy, however, lurks with an ill-fated boating trip which has shades of Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy, the upshot of which is that the elfin Annette subsequently acquires her mother’s melodious singing voice.
What exactly happened on that boat consumes the final act of the film, but is also kind of beside the point. Annette is an experience, and perhaps the closest this year’s festival came to an unadulteratedly cinematic one, both for the unabashed nature of Carax’s direction – with his first foray into the musical genre, and his first time working in the English language, the result is like a cross between late Fellini and Jacques Demy – but also for the performance of Adam Driver, whose acting reaches a new level of intensity in this role. Whether stomping around the microphone and haranguing the audience in his dream-like comedy routines or adamantly protesting his innocence, Driver is probably the only actor working today who could pull off the unhinged magnetism of his character, and Carax is probably the only filmmaker whose own aesthetic energies can most profit from his young steer’s pent-up physicality, waiting to burst out of its confines. If Annette retains it sublimity and avoids plunging into the ridiculous, then it is above all due to the symbiosis between actor and director.
Another holdover from last year, Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta was perhaps the only other film whose hype could rival that of Annette. The similarities in their titles suggest that the two films could be conceived of as a complementary pairing, but more than any narrative resemblances it is the fact that, along with Carax, Verhoeven walks the tightrope of the sublime/ridiculous divide with more brash self-assuredness than virtually any other filmmaker. Here, his focus is on the sanctified Italian nun St. Benedetta (here played by Virginie Efira), who gained power within the Renaissance-era Catholic hierarchy through her strategic deployment of hallucination-powered miracles, while also indulging in a lesbian affair with a fellow nun. Perfect fodder for the Verhoeven treatment, then. If the setting of Benedetta recalls Flesh and Blood (1985) – in fact, there is a strange anachronism in the film, which in several regards feels distinctly more mediaeval than the 17th century timeframe would suggest – the logic of the new film hews closely to the formula Verhoeven honed on projects such as Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997): titillate the audience with salacious sex scenes and supercharged violence, while packaging it in such an overtly ironic way that (the hope is, at least) the audience will not fail to spot the critique of power and greed woven into the narrative. The former elements comprise the sex scenes between Benedetta and her lover Bartolomea, as they explore their newly discovered lesbian sexuality – with the coup de théâtre taking the shape of a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary handily repurposed into a dildo (is there any other director today who would even contemplate incorporating such a plot point into their film?) – as well as the hallucinations Benedetta suffers under, in which she is frequently rescued from CGI monsters by a superheroic Jesus. The latter emerges in the financial chicanery and devious machinations of the ecclesiastical hierarchy when they hear news of Benedetta’s “miraculous” stigmata. While the presiding Mother Superior (an imperious Charlotte Rampling) is dubious about the upstart Benedetta (and rightly fearful for her own future), the Church’s true powerbrokers realise the value she may have in an institution struggling to maintain its grip over a modernising Europe, but the results of their power games turn out to be cataclysmic. It cannot be doubted that this critical level of the film is perfectly intentional on the part of Verhoeven (who has proved his mettle in this regard too many times to be counted), and yet taking Benedetta too seriously seems to be missing the point – the sniggers from behind the camera are simply too loud to ignore. There was talk of fears from the production that the film would be attacked by Catholic loyalists for its supposed blasphemy, but despite the Dutchman’s protestations as to his innocence of such accusations (the film’s origins in a true story serve as a handy alibi), it’s also hard to avoid the feeling that this kind of controversy is exactly what Verhoeven wants for his film.
Unlike Verhoeven’s or Carax’s high-profile unveilings, Julie Ducournau’s Titane tended to fly under the radar of media coverage in the lead-up to the festival. Even a few minutes before the closing ceremony, it doubtless would have received long odds as a contender for the festival’s main prize. And so it was quite the surprise when Spike Lee (who was heading up the jury this year) read out the film’s name as the Palme d’or winner, and not only because he committed the gaffe of doing so at the start of proceedings rather than the end. Ducournau thus became only the second female director to win the Palme d’or, and the first to win it outright (Jane Campion’s 1993 win for The Piano was ex aequeo with Chen Kaige). To tell the truth, however, the decision to award her the Palme was almost as strange as the film itself, and a symptom perhaps of the fact that, while this year’s competition was remarkably solid (having two years’ worth of films to choose from doubtless helped), there were no stand-out works in the vein of earlier winners like Parasite (2019), Amour (2012) or 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007), and the fact that, for all the Palme d’or has become a byword for cinematic prowess, the decision-making process is still a capricious one, dependent on the whims of a small clutch of jury members. Having made a name for herself with Raw in 2016, in which a student veterinarian develops a taste for raw meat, Ducournau returns to the Croisette with another macabre, potentially shocking yet exhilarating body horror film. When still a young girl, Alexia is involved in a horrifying car accident, which she only survives thanks to a titanium plate inserted into her skull. Even as an adult, the scar is still visible on the side of her head, but the mental scars left on her by this trauma are even more tenacious: unhealthily obsessed with cars, she jobs as a dancing girl at motor shows and even develops a taste for having sex with the vehicles, while reflexively murdering any humans (male or female) who show sexual interest in her. After one particularly orgasmic auto-erotic experience, Alexia discovers she is carrying a child, but the tinny sounds and black, viscous liquid emanating from her protuberant belly throughout the film give the viewer a sense of what to expect from the pregnancy. At the same time, she assumes the guise of a boy who had disappeared years earlier – even breaking her own nose to increase the resemblance – and insinuates herself into the life of the missing boy’s father, the firefighter Vincent, played with suitably gruff taciturnity by Vincent Lindon (one senses the character was written with him in mind). Taking her under his wing, and even roping her into his team of sapeurs-pompiers, it is clear that Vincent is not entirely under the delusion that Alexia is actually his son, but the relationship that develops between them nonetheless has the air of incest. As a surface-level experience Titane has an irrepressible energy to it, and Ducournau exerts an undeniable mastery over her visual and aural tapestry, with its lurid colours and throbbing sounds, and yet for a Palme d’or winner the film remains strikingly depthless.
Titane was only one of a bulging array of French films shown in the official selection, the glut of which was a sign of the Corona-imposed bottleneck in the nation’s film industry. Present this year among the Cannes habitués were Jacques Audiard (Les Olympiades, an ensemble piece set in the Chinatown district of Paris), Arnaud Desplechin (the Philip Roth adaptation Deception), Mathieu Amalric (Serre-moi fort), and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island (her Fåro-set English-language debut), as well as The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson, who sees himself as something of an honorary Frenchman but trades in nothing but stereotypes of the country in his quirky spoof of a francophile cultural review. Of these, Bruno Dumont’s France was the entry of most interest. A satire on the worlds of politics and the media, the intertwined nature of which was made evident in an opening scene which intercuts, Pudovkin-style, real footage of Emmanuel Macron at a press conference into the narrative of the fictional France de Meurs, her namesake country’s most beloved and influential news broadcaster. France is trying to transcend her image as mere talking head with hard-hitting interviews of her political guests and even an on-location dispatch from a geographically non-specific conflict in the Middle East, where she commands the militias reported on as if she herself were directing a war film. But the composed façade she presents to the public belies a personal life in crisis, which bursts out when she hits a delivery rider with her car, and is further exacerbated by an encounter with an undercover journalist during a retreat in an alpine sanitarium. All of this leaves France, played with aplomb by Léa Seydoux, frequently reduced to a puddle of tears. Dumont has always been a filmmaker willing to float between genres, styles and narrative registers, even while retaining his trademark eccentricity and dry humour. This quality, however, is less evident in France, where the director seems perpetually unsure whether he should be giving us the protagonist’s story straight or playing it for laughs (although Blanche Gaudin’s turn as France de Meurs’ ribald producer definitely belongs in the latter category), and the ensuing narrative is an unwieldy sprawl of multiple plot twists and inciting incidents, which Dumont only just manages to cohere together.
Japanese auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi likewise has an undeniable tendency towards narrative sprawl: his international breakthrough Happy Hour (2015) came in at over five hours, while his new feature Drive My Car is a comparatively modest 179 minutes. The duration is an achievement given that the source material is a briskly paced short story by Haruki Murakami, but establishing the right temporal rhythm for his storylines is fundamental to Hamaguchi’s art. Here the Tokyo-based theatre director Yusuke Kafuku shares a working relationship with his screenwriter wife (she dictates the plots of upcoming projects to him while they make love), despite his awareness of her infidelities. It is only with her untimely death forty minutes into the film that we realise this entire episode is a mere prologue to the main story of the film, which reunites with Yusuke two years later, as he accepts a commission to direct Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. We don’t need to have seen Yusuke in the interim to guess that he has led a joyless existence during that time (his wife’s death having compounded the loss of his young daughter years earlier), and the only solace he derives comes from long drives in his Saab 900, whose meandering tranquillity matches the feel of Hamaguchi’s film. It therefore comes as a blow to Yusuke when the theatre functionaries insist on giving him a personal chauffeur for insurance reasons, his unease compounded when his wife’s former lover, the young heartthrob Takatsuki, auditions for the role of Vanya. Yusuke’s theatrical practice is rooted in multilingual productions, with his staging of Chekhov incorporating actors speaking Japanese, Chinese, Korean and even sign language, which lends a strange if potentially twee element to the proceedings, but he also frustrates his actors (and potentially viewers of the film) with his method of prolonged, monotonous table reads to prepare for the production. If the presence of Takatsuki in his midst threatens to derail the laconic Yusuke, the bond that develops with his chauffeur (a punkish young woman, but their relationship remains strictly Platonic), keeps him on an even keel, and leads to the film’s stirring emotional crescendo, capped off with some apt lines of dialogue excerpted from the finished product of Yusuke’s Vanya. The emergence of Hamaguchi as an auteur has been one of the real positive stories of 2010s cinema. Following quickly from the omnibus film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which premiered earlier this year, Drive My Car, with its deft sensitivity and quiet refinement, is only further confirmation of his stature, and probably deserved more recompense from the festival jury than the Best Screenplay prize it was awarded.
In contrast, the only other entry by an East Asian director in the competition, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, was a major disappointment. Filmed in Colombia and starring Tilda Swinton, whose dialogue alternates between English and broken Spanish, the film’s funding was already a bad omen: officially a Thai/Colombia/French/German/Mexican co-production, it also received funding from Beijing and Doha. Billed as Weerasethakul’s foray into science-fiction, Memoria only delivers on this promise in an enigmatic closing scene featuring an embarrassing use of CGI technology. Until then, the focus is on the persistent booming sounds heard only by Swinton’s character (and us in the auditorium), and her attempts to understand their provenance, which take Swinton first to a sound engineer and then to a mystic farmer, both of whom share the same name. But the film lacks the import of the finest of Weerasethakul’s earlier work (Tropical Malady , Syndromes and a Century , Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives ), and the shift to settings outside his native Thailand and casting international stars only impoverishes his aesthetic. Certainly, the 2010 Palme d’or winner’s characteristic mesmeric pacing and eye for natural splendour is still present in his latest release, but here it is shorn of any sublimity, which leaves the new film comparatively formulaic and leaden. Weerasethakul is rightly considered a master of slow cinema, but this mode of filmmaking is only of value when there is more to it than slowness, and this is in short supply here. It pains me to say it, but Memoria is bad slow cinema.
In addition to her role in Memoria (and The French Dispatch), the irrepressible Swinton was also a presence in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs’ The Souvenir Part II, reprising her role as Julie’s inhibited mother in Joanna Hogg’s autofiction sequel (in which the elder Swinton’s own daughter, Honore Swinton-Byrne, plays the lead). After her flakey boyfriend’s death from an overdose, which brought the first part of the diptych to an end, Julie processes her grief in a barely sublimated film school project, burning through 10,000 quid of her parents’ cash in order to cinematically recreate the relationship with the help of her classmates, after her original script had been refused support from faculty. Her cast and crew’s bemusement at the on-screen characters leads Julie to question her own understanding of the events she is trying to depict, but in the end it falls to a haughty colleague played with insouciant glee by comedian Richard Ayoade to confront her with the hard truth of her past relationship, and by the end of Part II she has reached her thirties in a relative state of maturity. In not shying away from the financial and emotional mollycoddling her cinematic surrogate receives, Hogg offers refreshing candour about what it takes to make it as a filmmaker in (post-)Thatcherite Britain, but it’s also an achievement that, no matter how visible Julie’s privileged position is (and no matter how blithe to this fortune she is), she still elicits immense doses of our empathy, so subtly do Hogg and Swinton-Byrne render the character. Hogg has maintained that she will not continue the series past the point at which Part II concludes, but in truth it is hard to foresee her resisting the temptation to follow her own Antoine Doinel further into the future.
A kindred spirit to Hogg’s Julie came in the form of the heroine in Joachim Trier’s Verdens verste menneske (The Worst Person in the World), who by a stunning coincidence is also called Julie. Like her British namesake, the Norwegian Julie is floating through her twenties, perpetually unsure of where her future lies, whether professionally or romantically. Working at a bookshop once she decides to become a writer, Julie is also torn by her older boyfriend Aksel, a comic book artist of considerable fame but emotional insecurity, and the more laidback but less ambitious Eivind. After the earlier misstep of Louder Than Bombs, Trier is clearly much more in his element when depicting his familiar milieu of middle-class intellectuals in the Norwegian capital (this film forms a self-proclaimed Oslo trilogy with Reprise  and Oslo, August 31st ), and even manages to pull off two startling set pieces departing from the realism that otherwise dominates the film. In the love triangle in which Julie finds herself, all three characters are flawed yet sympathetic, and in this Trier follows less in the footsteps of another Julie (Strindberg’s), and more in those of his countryman Ibsen’s Doll House.
Two competition films from the English-speaking world took the other end of the socio-economic spectrum as their focus. But whereas Sean Baker played it light with Red Rocket, featuring a down-and-out porn star returning to his impoverished hometown on the Gulf Coast during the 2016 election campaign, where an infatuation with high school girl and part-time donut store worker leads him to dream of an industry comeback, Justin Kurzel probes much darker terrain with Nitram, an analysis of the events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, the worst mass shooting in modern Australian history. Kurzel’s focus is on the psychological state of the murderer, Martin Bryant (played here by Caleb Landry-Jones, who nails Bryant’s wired yet laconic Tasmanian cadences), who struggled with mental health issues throughout his life before embarking on his killing spree. If Kurzel is a little too on point in his denunciation of the lax gun control laws then in force in Australia (a chilling scene shows him purchasing heavy duty weaponry without needing a licence), the patient recounting of his upbringing by an emotionally distant mother (Judy Davis) and suicidally depressed father (Anthony Lapaglia) is far more devastating. In the end, contra the tendentious title cards at the end of the film, it is not a specific piece of legislation but an entire society that Nitram accuses, one that offers nothing but ostracism and neglect to a troubled boy in dire circumstances and then demonises him when he lashes out in violent fashion. It was thus dispiritingly predictable when news of the film’s production was met with a chorus of ignorant condemnation in the Australian media, to the extent that there have been calls to prevent its release (i.e. censor it). Likewise, the fact that Nitram failed to receive any funding from Screen Australia, despite Kurzel’s multiple appearances in Cannes and the story’s obvious national importance, is a true scandal, and in the end it was a local streaming service that provided the backing necessary to realise the project. The apparatchiks of Australia’s film funding bodies may have avoided being tarred with the manufactured controversy that was whipped up in response to Kurzel’s film, but that is only because, when it comes down to it, they fundamentally hate cinema.
Similar condemnations of rotten social orders could be found in the Russian offerings at Cannes. Petrovy v grippe (Petrov’s Flu) by Kirill Serebrennikov provides a nauseating portrait of the immediate post-Soviet period, while Aleksei German Jr. heroises a lonely fight against the endemic corruption of the Putin era in Delo (House Arrest). The latter was a rare highlight in a weak edition of Un certain regard, the sidebar diminished by the introduction of the “Cannes Premiere” slate and the decision to focus its program on emerging auteurs. But it was Sergei Loznitsa’s archival film Babi Yar: Context that packed the biggest punch – not only due to the murder of 33,000 Jews in German-occupied Kiev, their bodies tossed into a ravine adjacent to the city, but also due to how opportunistic the local population was during the vicissitudes of war, hailing first its Nazi conquerors (and wilfully abetting in their crimes) before saluting the returning Red Army with equal enthusiasm within the space of a couple of years. If Ukraine is once again torn apart by being on the frontline of a more expansive geopolitical conflict, the footage Loznitsa has unearthed for his treatment of the Babi Yar massacre will be of comfort to none of the conflicting parties in the modern-day flashpoint, both sides of which so stridently harken back to World War II for their political legitimacy.
If the focus of my report until now has been on the official selection, this is not to slight the Quinzaine, organised autonomously under the auspices of the Société des réalisateurs français. 2021 marked the second edition that Paolo Moretti helmed this section of the festival, and the first year, one senses, that he could really impose his vision on its program. The result was the best slate of films for the Quinzaine in over a decade, its quality rising since the last edition in inverse proportion to the decline of Un certain regard. While the competition continues to monopolise media interest in the festival, the most interesting, formally ground-breaking and thematically incisive films tended to cluster at the Quinzaine screenings, held a few hundred metres down the road from the festival palace. For all the speculative gossip about stars and viruses (which seemed to vie with each other for the front pages of the trade journals), the ascent of the Quinzaine was, for my money, the big story of Cannes 2021. Correspondingly, no film in any part of the festival was more of a stand-out work than Jean-Gabriel Périot’s adaptation of Dider Eribon’s memoir Retour à Reims, in which the sociologist charts the social decay of the post-industrial northern French town. By appending “(Fragments)” to the film’s title, Périot signals that his intention is not to somehow do justice to the dense, multi-layered book as a whole. Indeed, in a Q&A after the Quinzaine screening, he specifically defended the decision to avoid the homosexual elements of Eribon’s life by claiming that the material was too close to his own personal situation. Instead, Périot combines excerpts from the source text (read out by Adèle Haenel) with found footage from French cinema and television in order to fashion a historical overview of French working-class life over the last century. Following his earlier archival films Une jeunesse allemande (2015) and Nos défaites (2019) by marshalling material from some well-known examples of political cinema (La vie est à nous by Renoir, Tout va bien by Godard, La Crise by Coline Serreau), as well as other far less well-known examples of left-wing or pedagogical programming, Périot shows a proletariat that managed to find a way out of the endemic poverty and deprivation that was its fate until deep into the 20th century, a path that came principally from the development of mass political organisations representing its interests, whether in the shape of trade unions or working-class political parties (most notably the communist party, which had been dominant among the country’s industrial working-class for most of the post-war era). But in the second part of the film, Périot moves onto the moment of betrayal and defeat in the 1980s, embodied above all in the crushing disappointment of the Mitterand presidency’s neoliberal retreat after being elected on an ambitious social-democratic platform. In this account, the right-wing volte-face of the socialists, the evaporation of a more radical left in the conservative 1980s, and the spate of de-industrialisation and mass unemployment that accompanied this shift, left behind a political vacuum from which the ultra-nationalist right (the Le Pens and their stooges) have been the principal beneficiaries. The reactionary turn of the neoliberal era is also, in Retour à Reims (Fragments), marked by a media transformation: transitioning from the filmic images of the post-war period – which even in “cheap” formats like black-and-white 16mm has a peerless beauty to it – to the degraded televisual aesthetic of the 1980s and 1990s. Périot does cap his essayistic documentary with an epilogue showing activist-captured footage of more recent waves of militant struggle, among them the Nuit débout occupation and the Gilets jaunes protests, which have revitalised a combative opposition to the political status quo. But the invigorating addendum does not entirely dispel the prevailing melancholy that suffuses Périot’s film as much as it does Eribon’s source text.
Périot’s political fresco found international counterparts in Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing, an essayistic take on the contemporary student movement in India, and Futura, a collective exploration of young people in Italy (directed by Pietro Marcello, Francesco Munzi and Alice Rohrwacher), which has shades of Comizi d’amore, Pasolini’s survey of social mores some sixty years earlier. The title may be an ironic one, given that the dominant concern among those interviewed is their lack of a future, and there are some poignant moments pointing to the ambient apathy and amnesia of the Italian political environment, most notably the revelation that the students currently attending the school in which activists were brutally beaten by police during the 2001 G-8 protests in Genoa are completely unaware of these events. But the resilience of dreams in spite of everything is the more overriding message of Futura, a perspective that is all the more crucial as the debilitating effects of the pandemic make themselves felt midway through filming.
The same incursion is present in Diários de Otsoga (Diaries of Tsugua), co-directed by Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiro. Constructed in reverse chronology, the film gives us a fiction of three young Portuguese spending a listless summer of 2020 in an isolated and somewhat rundown manor, but midway through proceedings, an infraction of the social distance rules governing the shoot by one of the actors (Carloto Cotta, in fine mettle as a louche caricature of himself) brings about a total breakdown of the fiction/documentary distinction, as Diários wades deep into metacinematic waters. It must have crossed many a filmmaker’s mind to incorporate the bizarre conditions of making a film under Covid into the final product, but it is to the great credit of Gomes/Fazendeiro that they do so with such effortless brio. Indeed, the greater surprise was just how rarely the virus made any appearance at all in the diegetic world of the films screening at Cannes – apart from Futura and Diários, of the films I saw at Cannes only Drive My Car contained even a nod to the pandemic, with a character seen wearing a mask in a single scene at the end of the film. The contrast with life at the festival, pervaded by precautionary measures and the fear of contagion, could not have been starker. At one point, rumours flew that there were hundreds of positive cases among the attendees, and that Macron would announce the immediate cessation of the festival. Frémaux sought desperately to quell the snowballing gossip, and in the end the festival was completed as planned, with the only prominent Covid casualties being Nadav Lapid’s wife and Léa Seydoux (who was admittedly in something like half the films at the festival).
To be sure, much of this year’s slate was made before the global outbreak, and the virus may play a bigger role in films featuring in future festivals. But it does bring up a quandary for the cinema: who, after all, would even want to watch a mass of films all dealing with the isolation, disease and death that has been our daily reality for the last eighteen months. It is notable that the last comparable pandemic, the Spanish flu of the late 1910s, left barely a trace on that era’s films, and there is every chance that the same will happen today. The cinema, of course, has always had an escapist element to it, transporting us into fantasy worlds – but this tendency has always existed in tension with its vaunted realist vocation. The bind it now finds itself in is an invidious one: either give us an unvarnished reflection of the unremitting joylessness and angst characteristic of the modern moment, or seek refuge in an entirely parallel universe, one in which the novel Coronavirus never emerged in the first place, and humanity could continue to congregate, socialise and be intimate with carefree abandon. Neither path, it must be acknowledged, could really be a satisfying one.
That said, if there was a film that truly did manage to capture the lived reality of the present plague, then it was, surprisingly, Benedetta. Filmed well in advance of February 2020, based on a book written in the 1980s about historical events from the 1620s, Verhoeven’s film is striated by an outbreak of the Black Death, which causes people to flee in terror from the infected, prompts cities to barricade themselves from those seeking entry, and leads to the burning of corpses in public squares and a mood of impending insurgency from a restive population. A more faithful picture of the world under Covid could hardly have been imagined. This, really, is the power of cinema: even when everything about a film suggests the opposite, it will always be an art of the present.
Cannes Film Festival
6-17 July 2021
Festival website: https://www.festival-cannes.com/en/
- My rather nervy thoughts on the 2020 Berlin festival can be read here. ↩
- Although not quite as unconstrained as is often assumed: territorial rights and geo-blocking invariably limited festivals to a national public (or those with good VPNs), and distributors frequently placed caps on the number of “attendees” so as not to eat into the potential audience for subsequent distribution strategies. The Internet is far from being the global village it is often promoted as. ↩
- The draconian travel restrictions in the Antipodes meant that there was virtually nobody from the Australian film industry present this year, despite the fact that the country was represented in competition for the first time in over a decade. But that’s another story. ↩