Post-COVID Cannes Film Festival Rejects Notion That Cinema Must Return to ‘Normal’ (Opinion)

After screening all 24 films in the Cannes competition, Variety critic Peter Debruge offers his thoughts on what the lineup says about world cinema’s big comeback.

Carole Bethuel

For all those hoping that the in-person 2021 edition of the Cannes Film Festival would mark a return to “normal,” the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or must have been a shocker — not the choice by Spike Lee’s jury (the choice was solid) so much as the movie itself: “Titane,” a radical queer take on the monster movie that bends the rules of genre, gender and gore.

That this punk sensation was directed by a woman (only the second to win the Palme, after “The Piano” helmer Jane Campion, who tied for the prize in 1993) suggests that things really have changed during the turbulent year of the pandemic, as Cannes signaled many fresh possibilities — a diversity of style and storytellers alike — while underscoring the importance of watching boundary-challenging cinema on the big screen.

As it turns out, “normal” is the last thing most of the directors in competition this year would want to be accused of. Or, as “Titane” director Julia Ducournau put it when accepting her award, “Perfection is a dead end. Monstrosity — which scares some and which runs through my work — is a weapon, a force to push back the walls of normativity that locks us in and separates us.”

At its core, “Titane” is about an ineffable kind of human evolution, one that embraces the fluidity of identity as its upgrade-ready protagonist makes it with a machine, kills her father and adopts a new one, and delivers into this world a fresh kind of creature — all of which could be read as metaphors for the act of transgressive filmmaking.

Confronted with Ducournau’s defiant, code-breaking vision — just one of two dozen outside-the-box offerings unveiled in competition at Cannes this year — audiences can shut down and reject what they don’t immediately understand, or they can lean in to this fresh challenge and see where it takes them.

Honestly, I found myself resisting a few of the festival’s more antagonistic entries at first. “Synonyms” director Nadav Lapid’s latest, “Ahed’s Knee,” launches a proactively unpleasant attack on everything: good taste, artistic compromise, the Israeli film system and all those things audiences think they want from a movie. Controversial Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Petrov’s Flu” proved even more challenging — a grimy, violent and practically impenetrable plunge through generations of grievances — prompting one former colleague to describe it as “having a load of garbage jammed down your throat and piled on top of you until you just can’t take it anymore.”

To those who enter with closed-minded ideas of what a Cannes competition movie should be, practically every film in this year’s selection might feel that way. And yet, after recognizing early on that the 2021 lineup wasn’t going to be one of easy-to-swallow crowd-pleasers (save that for the sidebars, where eye-rollers like “Aline” and “F9” were featured), I found my brain undergoing its own kind of monstrous evolution.

It happened when a friend, attending Cannes for the first time this year, told me he was surprised that the films weren’t better. Unpacking his reaction, I came to understand that he didn’t necessarily feel that the films were bad so much as not to his taste. And that’s an important distinction.

Some festivals, like the public-facing Toronto, are committed to giving audiences what (the moviegoers think) they want. Others, such as Berlin, make it a point to challenge expectations, and attendees appreciate them for it. In the case of Cannes, the festival honors auteurs, rewarding filmmakers for taking risks, and in the 10 years that I’ve been attending, the Palme d’Or has often gone to the film where that was the case: “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” “The Tree of Life,” “Amour” and so on, right through to “Titane.”

It may surprise you then to hear that the competition film I most admired this year was “The French Dispatch,” from notorious perfectionist Wes Anderson. An eccentric anthology consisting of several Gallic-flavored shorts, cleverly packaged as a kind of virtual magazine, the film may feel familiar to Anderson adherents, but it couldn’t be more different from everything else in competition — or headed our way from American directors this year. No one else could or would have made this film, and every frame bears the fingerprints of its creator. In paying homage to a handful of great expat writers from the previous century, Anderson offers a sort of meta-commentary on all things creative that, surprising though it may sound, adds dimension to Ducournau’s.

Consider the character of Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody), a slick-talking gallerist who discovers a misunderstood modern artist (Benicio del Toro) while in prison. After serving his time, Cadazio presents his find — a crude and somewhat challenging abstract painting that looks like blotches of beige on a red canvas — to his business-partner uncles (Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler), who study him strangely and ask skeptically, “Why is this good?”

“It isn’t good,” Cadazio quips. “Wrong idea.”

He then digs out a far more conventional work from the same artist to make his point: a technically impeccable sketch of a sparrow. “He could paint this perfectly,” he says, indicating the bird, “but he thinks this is better,” referring to the more unorthodox masterpiece.

In that moment, Anderson could be describing himself or any of the 23 other directors in competition. Sure, they all know the rules of dry, by-the-books filmmaking. Each could hypothetically crank out a perfectly competent studio movie — what the French call “un film correct, sans plus.” Personally, I think it’s fun to imagine what Anderson’s “Cruella” or Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Jungle Cruise” might look like, but the point is: They think this is better, where this is whatever sui generis project they’ve produced instead.

As critics and audiences, we could hold these directors to our standards, or we could challenge ourselves to adapt to theirs. That doesn’t mean that you’re obliged to like “Ahed’s Knee” or “Petrov’s Flu,” but it wouldn’t hurt to recognize that these anarchist directors are expanding the language of cinema. Cannes has an excellent track record for picking the movies that will be among the most talked-about of the year, and by virtue of its influence, the festival can actually put things in the conversation that might otherwise be overlooked. These renegade auteurs’ work will make ripples that reverberate throughout the industry, influencing the way others tell their stories.

Taking that into account, it’s actually the relatively predictable entries that prove far more disappointing — movies like Sean Penn’s bad-dad drama, “Flag Day,” which features a fine performance from daughter Dylan, but otherwise feels like an amateur version of Shia LaBeouf’s “Honey Boy,” the kind of clunky debut feature you’d expect to find at Sundance (it’s Penn’s sixth as director, so there’s no excuse). Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero” is well-written, as always, but similarly fails to surprise, ultimately falling apart in the final stretch. François Ozon’s euthanasia-themed “Everything Went Fine” plays like “Amour” as Chris Columbus might have directed it, while with the frustrating “Three Floors,” Nanni Moretti delivers a ridiculously contrived portrait of the interrelated dramas of several middle-class Italian families. Yawn.

We’re probably all guilty of hoping that our favorite directors return with a movie to rival their last big success, though that’s a recipe for disappointment. This year, Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta” was perhaps too much the film we expected, outrageous and yet somehow still failing to surprise, even in sequences its director almost certainly intended to be incendiary (the scandal will come later, once the steamy lesbian nun movie meets the public). And Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket,” while rowdy in its far-from-Hollywood look at a porn-industry bottom-feeder (the best use of Simon Rex on screen since “Young, Hard & Solo #3”) in search of a fresh ingenue to exploit, never reaches the heights of “Tangerine” or “The Florida Project.”

Every year at Cannes, the real excitement comes from discovering the unexpected and the way that having one’s comfort levels challenged expands our perspective, on art as well as on the world. That needn’t necessarily mean watching a psychopath shove steel chopsticks in sensitive places, à la “Titane,” or witnessing a belligerent standup comic stage a misogynistic meltdown in front of a live audience, the way Adam Driver does in “Annette” (although that movie certainly wins points for turning old movie-musical clichés into something unpredictable).

Another standout for me was Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Bergman Island,” which was hardly a unanimous success (the film spawned incredibly mixed reactions), but struck me as a courageous and original act of soul-baring. Inspired by the filmmaker’s real-life relationship with director Olivier Assayas, the movie follows a creative couple to Fårö Island, known to cinephiles as home to Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. The younger and more insecure of the pair, Chris (Vicky Krieps), struggles with feelings of inadequacy, trying to find her voice in the shadow of two male directors: the legacy of Bergman, of course, but also her partner, played by Tim Roth, who’s supportive, yet intimidating all the same with his easy self-confidence and undisclosed secrets.

“Bergman Island” dares to be honest about something many artists experience and features a taste of the movie Chris wants to make — a film which is unabashedly personal, and perhaps unworthy in the eyes of those whose tastes have been shaped by male directors and the traditionally male gatekeepers who curate major film festivals. Don’t believe those who say it didn’t belong in competition. This was one of Cannes’ most essential inclusions, along with Scandi director Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World,” which deals with some of the same issues: Written by men, but also seeking to recognize a 30-ish young woman’s doubts about her romantic and career choices, the movie is far gentler on its lead character (well-deserved best actress winner Renate Reinsve) than she is on herself.

Far harder to justify was Ildikó Enyedi’s “The Story of My Wife,” beyond the obvious desire for Cannes to assert its dominance by poaching the next films from directors who’ve won Venice (a trend that extends to Lapid and Farhadi as well). Made in English for no particularly clear reason (and featuring performances that sound stilted in their second language), Enyedi’s period film amounts to a nearly-three-hour slog — meanwhile, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s even longer “Drive My Car” (still relatively short by the Japanese director’s standards) emerged the clear critical favorite. Both are movies about unspoken subtleties in the connection between men and women, but whereas “Drive My Car” brings all its threads together beautifully in the end, “Story” feels bloated and ungainly in its depiction of the marriage between a sea captain (Gijs Naber) and the Parisian woman he spontaneously propositions (Léa Seydoux) is quickly overshadowed by jealousy and infidelity.

It was a rough festival for Léa Seydoux, who not only sat out the festival after contracting COVID, but whose French-language media satire “France,” from Bruno Dumont, was booed at the press screening. Both boos and standing ovations can be misleading at Cannes, since it only takes one impolite crank expressing his displeasure at a press screening for word to get out that a movie was jeered (in the case of “France,” it was more of a chorus), while every film that receives a red-carpet gala in the Grand Theatre Lumière is treated to a long standing ovation, before and after the projection.

Will the world welcome the kind of unconventional new work unveiled last week in France, once the movies start to trickle from the summit down to smaller festivals and art houses? That remains to be seen, but considering the trouble audiences took to witness all these films at Cannes — including daily saliva tests and a ridiculously dysfunctional online reserved-ticketing system — it would have been almost cruel to stick them with a slate of safe, predictable movies. We could all use a shock to remind us what cinema is capable of, to snap us out of that passive mode of binging TV series via streaming, or whatever we’ve been doing with our screen time for the past year. As we venture back into a darkened theater, it’s kind of exciting to imagine the monsters that might be waiting for us there.