Expect a keen tussle for the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize this year because it is, for the most part, likely to be a battle of equals, but do keep an eye on the surprises that the Un certain regard section is bound to spring
By Saibal Chatterjee
Three previous Palme d’Or winners – Jacques Audiard, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Nanni Moretti – are among the 24 directors vying for the top prize at the 74th Cannes Film Festival. Important as that bit of information is, it isn’t the big news. The big news is that one-third of this year’s Palme d’Or contenders – eight of the 24 – are films that were wrapped up last year.
What does that tell us? It is safe to assume that these filmmakers chose to opt out of the Cannes 2020 selection (or sit out other festivals held post-May) so as to be able to bring their films physically to Cannes this year and compete.
The eight 2020 productions in Competition are Weerasethakul’s Colombia-set Tilda Swinton and Jeanne Balibar starrer Memoria, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Petrov’s Flu, Nanni Moretti’s Three Floors, Leos Carax’s opening film Annette, Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, a 17th century erotic drama set in an Italian convent, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (which would probably have been the opening film had the festival not been cancelled last year), Bruno Dumont’s France, and Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island.
Serebrennikov will be unable to attend the Cannes Film Festival because he is serving a suspended sentence for embezzlement of government funds (a charge that human rights activists allege is a veiled retaliation against his criticism of the establishment) and is barred from leaving Russia. In 2018, too, the theatre and film director was prevented from making the trip to Cannes, where his musical Leto was in Competition.
Serebrennikov’s latest film Petrov’s Flu, an adaptation of a 2018 novel by Alexei Salnikov described in the synopsis as “a deadpan, hallucinatory romp through post-Soviet Russia”, follows a flu-hit comic-book artist and his family through yet another day as he drifts in and out of bouts of fantasy and a reality in which nothing is as ordinary as it seems.
Also in the Competition line-up is the Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi, who won the Golden Bear at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival for On Body and Soul. Her new film, The Story of My Wife, starring Leo Seydoux (she has three other films in the festival), Dutch actor Gijs Naber and Louis Garrel, is adapted from a Milan Fust novel of the same name. Enyedi’s debut film, My 21st Century, won the Camera D’Or in Cannes in 1989.
Moretti’s film Tre Piani (Three Floors) tracks a chain of events that alters the lives of the residents of a Rome apartment building where co-existence as parents, siblings and neighbours isn’t the easiest thing to achieve. Moretti won the Palme d’Or exactly two decades ago, for The Son’s Room (2001).
Audiard, whose Dheepan won the Palme d’Or in 2015, is in Cannes with Les Olympiades (Paris 13th District), which was shot in the French capital during the pandemic. It follows four youngsters who are friends and lovers. The brief synopsis reads: “Emilie meets Camille, who is attracted to Nora, who crosses the path of Amber. Three girls and a boy redefine what modern love is.”
Carax, whose Annette stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, and Audiard, are among a record seven French directors in contention for the Palme d’Or. Mia Hansen-Love is competing with Bergman Island, in which a filmmaking couple (Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps) spend a summer in the Swedish island of Faro, where Ingmar Bergman lived and worked, with the intention of completing their respective scripts. As the days pass, they find the lines between reality and fiction blurring.
Another Cannes Competition first-timer Julia Ducournau has Titane, headlined by Cannes best actor winner Vincent Lindon (The Measure of a Man, 2015), in the running.
Catherine Corsini with The Divide, which plays out on the evening of a major ‘yellow vests’ protest in Paris; Bruno Dumont with France starring Lea Seydoux in a portrait of an anchor woman, of a country and of the media”; and Francois Ozon with Everything Went Fine, which has Sophie Marceau in the role of a woman whose octogenarian father wants her to help him end his life, complete the French Competition contingent.
Several other directors are vying for the festival’s top prize for the first time – Sean Baker (The Florida Project, Tangerine) with Red Rocket, Israel’s Nadav Lapid with Ahed’s Knee, Finnish filmmaker Juho Kuosmanen with Compartment No. 6), Belgian director Joachim Lafosse with The Restless, and the French-Moroccan Nabil Ayouch with Casablanca Beats.
A fictional filmmaker is at the centre of Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee. The protagonist, a filmmaker in his mid-40s, travels to a remote desert village to present a film of his and finds himself contending with two deaths: one of freedom in his country, the other of his mother.
Besides Weerasethakul, the the 2021 Cannes Competition features two Asian directors – Cannes regular Asghar Farhadi and Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi, whose 2018 film Asako 1 & 2 made the cut. This year, the latter is in Cannes with Drive My Car.
Farhadi’s Ghahreman (A Hero) promises to be precisely the kind of probe into human foibles that the director is known for. The film centres on a man imprisoned for failing to repay a debt. Out on parole for two days, he tries to convince the creditor to drop the case against him in exchange for payment of a part of the sum. But matters do not pan out quite the way the protagonist expects them to.
Hollywood star Sean Penn, who was in the Cannes Competition in 2016 with The Last Face, returns to the Croisette with Flag Day, a film based on a true story about one of the most notorious counterfeiters in US history. It is a father-daughter drama that stars Penn himself opposite his real-life daughter Dylan Penn.
Australian director Justin Kurzel, whose Macbeth was in Competition in 2015, has a film among the award contenders this year. Titled Nitram, the film stars Caleb Landry Jones as a loner who goes on a shooting rampage. It is inspired by the real-life 1996 Port Arthur shooting in which 35 people were killed.
Norwegian director Joachim Trier, who competed for the big prize in 2015 with his English-language Louder film than Bombs, has The Worst Person in the World in Competition this time around. The film, a dramedy about a young woman in the throes of an existential angst and a struggle to find true love, rounds off the director’s Oslo trilogy.
Ayouch, a Competition newbie, brings a realistic hip-hop musical to the festival. The film, Casablanca Beats, features many non-pro actors. Set in the Sidi Moumen slum district of Casablanca, the film centres on a bunch of youngsters fighting to break free from the shackles of conservatism and express themselves through music.
Kuosmanen, whose The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, was in the Un certain regard competition in 2016, has moved a step up this year. His new film, Compartment No. 6, set in the late 1990s, is about a Finnish student Laura who travels from Moscow to Murmansk to see ancient rock paintings. The only other passenger in the compartment is an unsociable, glum Russian miner. In the course of the long rail trip through the snow, the ice begins to breaks between the two travellers.
American director Sean Baker gets his first shot at the Palme d’Or with Red Rocket, about a down-and-out former porn star returns to his small Texas hometown, where nobody really wants him back.
Chadian director Mahamat Saleh-Haroun, who is no stranger to the Cannes Competition (his fourth feature film, A Screaming Man, won the Jury Prize in Cannes in 2010), is back in the reckoning with Lingui. It is a film about a young mother and her pregnant 15-year-old daughter who have to find a way to get an abortion done in a society in which that is easier said than done.
As always, observers looking to discover new stars of world cinema will focus on Un certain regard, where seven of the 20 films have been made by debutants. The competitive section opens with Onoda, a film by French actor-turned-director Arthur Harari that has been filmed entirely in Japan.
Among the Un certain titles to watch out for are Commitment Hasan, the second part of Turkish filmmaker Semih Kaplanoglu’s Commitment trilogy; Bulgarian filmmaking pair Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova’s Women Do Cry; Arab-Israeli director Eran Kolirin’s Let There Be Morning;and Russian filmmaker Kira Kovalenko’s Unclenching the Fists.
One film this critic would be particularly keen to watch is from Russia – Alexey German Jr.’s House Arrest. The protagonist of the film, David, is a university professor who launches a broadside against the city administration on social media. But instead of the mayor’s questionable dealings being probed, the whistle-blower is put under house arrest on a trumped-up charge. And thus begins a David-versus-Goliath battle.