Photo: Pili Films; Arte France Cinema; Pathe
For those of us on the ground, Cannes 2021 was a bewildering two weeks, a polar-bear plunge into a world of maskless crowds, impenetrable European bureaucracy, and gallons and gallons of spit. But at least the movies were good! This was a particularly horny Cannes lineup, with copious full-frontal nudity and a bevy of memorable cunnilingus scenes. It was also a festival of strange or troubled children, sexy 30-somethings trying to figure out life, and Léa Seydoux, who appeared in four movies, three of which were soundly rejected by the Cannes audience. (As a sign of the times, Seydoux herself was not in attendance, having tested positive for COVID-19.)
The festival’s best offerings fell largely into two separate lanes: either slow and introspective or utterly bonkers. In a way, this too was a reflection of this year’s strange circumstances. These are not movies that would play particularly well at home; you needed to see them in a theater to give yourself over to them and join in the madness with a crowd of cheering strangers. Say what you will about the rest of the festival — it was a dream, an out-of-body experience, and a clusterfuck — but once the lights went down, it was still Cannes.
Julia Ducournau is quickly establishing herself as a brilliant art-house body-horror auteur. In Titanium, which won the Palme d’Or after jury president Spike Lee surprise-announced the award out of order, she masterfully pulls together seemingly disparate stories about car accidents, car-fucking, titanium skull plates, toxic-masculine firefighters, kidnapping, serial killing, and queer found families to create something truly bizarre, darkly comic, and moving. Newcomer Agathe Rousselle, whom Ducournau found via Instagram, and Vincent Lindon both go so hard it’s almost unbelievable. Nearly every scene in this movie is impossible to predict; it’s a delicious roller-coaster ride to hell and back. —Rachel Handler
Two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi took home the festival’s Grand Prix trophy (that’s French for “second place”) for this morality play about a ne’er-do-well who performs one good deed, becomes a viral sensation, and scrambles to cash in before the newfound scrutiny tears his life apart. As his scheme begins to crack, he is forced into a series of escalating risks, while those who once eagerly exploited his story are all too quick to wash their hands. It’s at once a damning indictment of Iranian society, a breakout performance from hunky star Amir Jadidi, and a reminder that no matter where on earth you go, the internet is terrible in all the same ways. —Nate Jones
A warning: By the end of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s meditative existential drama, I had heard more than a few snores. And this was at the premiere, when people are supposed to be on their best behavior! Their loss. Weerasethakul’s first film shot outside Thailand is a hearty meal, the story of an Englishwoman in Colombia (Tilda Swinton) attempting to make sense of the strange booming sound she — and only she — is hearing. But that’s only the beginning. Through a series of simple, unbroken shots, Weerasethakul weaves a magical-realist tale about the connections that bind human souls across time and space. Two people I know got high as hell and went to an early-morning screening, an experience they heartily recommended. I can’t confirm whether the Cannes jury members took in Memory the same way, but they did enjoy it enough to hand it the third-place Jury Prize. —NJ
Renate Reinsve, who has been working primarily in theater in her native Norway for the past decade, is a breath of fresh, welcome air in Joachim Trier’s latest film. She has also just won Best Actress at the festival, and it’s well deserved: She carries us with warm wit and believability through 12 funny, heartbreaking chapters of protagonist Julie’s life as she changes careers, swaps boyfriends, gets drunk at strangers’ weddings, and tries desperately to find herself in a world that makes it a little too easy to back away from the permanence of her choices. Perfectly pitched somewhere between a rom-com and a rom-dram, The Worst Person in the World was just picked up by Neon for U.S. distribution. —R.H.
A more fitting title for the Japanese Best Screenplay winner might be a different lyric from Rubber Soul: “What goes on in your heart? What goes on in your mind?” That’s the question that vexes Hidetoshi Nishijima’s venerated theater actor, who tries to come to terms with his wife’s infidelity by directing a multilingual production of Uncle Vanya … with her young lover in the lead role. The movie’s herculean running time, just shy of three hours, made it a daunting watch for overscheduled journalists, but it’s worth clearing time for: Like its hero’s beloved solo drives, the film unfurls into unexpected territory, touching on loss, language, and the magic of giving yourself over to the creative process. —NJ
There were many times at Cannes when I almost cried but only one time when I actually did: at the very end of the sci-fi film After Yang. The Yang of the title (Justin H. Min) is a household “techno-sapien” whose mysterious shutdown upends his family. For the parents (Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith), it’s akin to the death of a Furby; for their daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), it’s the loss of a best friend. As Farrell’s father tries to get Yang back online, he stumbles into a hidden trove of robotic memories. Director Kogonada has given us a tender wisp of a movie filled with gentle humanism. —NJ
Paul Verhoeven’s latest has everything: lesbian nuns penetrating each other with dildos carved from wooden Virgin Mary figurines, multiple instances of potentially fake stigmata, hot Jesus, the Plague, flirty pooping scenes, spy holes cut into cement walls, nun gossip, Charlotte Rampling calling someone a “lying bitch whore,” and more full-frontal nudity than, possibly, Showgirls. An instant camp classic that thumbs its nose at Catholicism and the very concept of “in good taste.” I loved every ridiculous second of it. —R.H.
Mia Hansen-Løve has done something truly unique with Bergman Island, a movie about two filmmakers (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) who head to Bergman’s beloved Fårö to write new scripts, immerse themselves in Ingmar Bergman’s past, and ponder whether one can be a brilliant, prolific artist and a good person at the same time. In and of itself, this would be a fascinating film, but Hansen-Løve takes it one step further and gives us another delectable, sexy movie within it, starring Mia Wasikowska as a Hansen-Løve-Krieps avatar taking stock of her own love life and creative inspiration on Fårö. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet little jewel box of a movie about making movies about making movies. —R.H.
Usually when you see a simple title on a festival program, the smart money’s on it being a metaphor. (There are no knickknacks in The Souvenir.) Not the documentary Cow, which is about exactly what it sounds like: two cows, a mother and a daughter, that live on a British farm. The film begins with a graphic close-up of the latter’s birth, a scene that sets the tone for director Andrea Arnold’s matter-of-fact gaze toward the effluvia of bovine life — though mercifully, she spares us the bullshit. Unlike the recent Gunda, we do get a look at the humans, and though they treat the cows well, eventually you notice how their needs shape even the most basic elements of the animals’ existence. It’s not a polemic, just Arnold asking the same question she explored in her earlier kitchen-sink dramas: what it’s like to live life on someone else’s terms. —NJ
Joachim Trier’s longtime collaborator Eskil Vogt has his own film at Cannes this year, a story of a bunch of extremely freaky Nordic kids with magical powers who get in over their heads as their clueless parents stand idly by. Most of the kids use their Matilda-like abilities for good, save for Ben (Sam Ashraf), who gets power-hungry and violent and makes himself the Lord of the Flies–esque enemy of the rest of the crew. A tense, genuinely surprising bit of Scandi horror, The Innocents is a fun companion piece to Trier and Vogt’s Thelma, another movie about a young woman trying to get a handle on her supernatural abilities. —R.H.
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Lingui, The Sacred Bonds is a slow-burn drama about a young mother named Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) and her 15-year-old daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), who live on the outskirts of N’Djamena in Chad, shunned by their family and deeply religious village because of Amina’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The two have managed to eke out a relatively peaceful, if fragile, existence — until Amina learns that Maria is pregnant. Terrified of her daughter falling victim to the same fate, a determined Amina sets out to help Maria get an abortion, which is both illegal and against their religion. Languages avoids melodrama and instead feels real and lived-in, which makes it all the more affecting. Its final scenes, subtle portraits of women supporting one another and even thriving in a darkly patriarchal society, stuck with me for days. —R.H.
The opening scene of Sean Baker’s Red Rocket is the movie in miniature. A down-on-his-luck porn star (Simon Rex) has shown up at the house of his ex (Bree Elrod), hoping for a place to crash. She hates him, for good reason. And yet he inevitably wheedles his way into sleeping on her couch anyway. Baker is giving us a character study of a certain type of quintessentially American asshole, and his leading man is up to the challenge: This is a star turn for Rex, playing an embodiment of early-2000s raunch culture grown grasping and desperate in middle age. —NJ
How do you turn trauma into art? Most movies about creatives either skip over the process completely or turn it into a montage, but in the sequel to her 2019 cinematic memoir, Joanna Hogg gets into the thick of it. The previous film dealt with the tumultuous relationship between Julie, a naïve film student (Honor Swinton Byrne), and Anthony, an erudite drug addict (Tom Burke). This film picks up in the immediate aftermath, as Julie attempts to transmute onto celluloid all the emotions she felt the first time around, and finds it’s harder than it looks. Looser and funnier than its predecessor, Part II is also a twisty piece of metafiction — the movie Julie is trying and failing to make is, of course, The Souvenir. —NJ
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The 13 Best Movies Out of Cannes 2021