I was incredibly anxious in making plans to go to Cannes; with the global response to COVID-19 in a constant state of flux, travel requirements changing from week to week, and a great deal of work required at my own Montclair Film Festival, I wasn’t sure I how the trip would go. As the festival grew closer to launching on July 6th, things remained up in the air; the screening schedule hadn’t been announced, the status of vaccinated Americans like me and our access to the festival was undecided but optimistic, and the process for how we would all get tickets to films remained a mystery. Because of my travel requirements, I had to book a flight through London, which I was assured would be fine, but which ended up adding a layer of complexity, COVID testing (despite my vaccinated status), and even more anxiety. There is something powerless about air travel, especially on an international level, where every customs officer has the power to make things difficult, enforce an unforeseen rule, end any plans on the spot. The more people and portals with which I had to interact, the more I feared an insurmountable problem. This much uncertainty? Not my forté.
But from the moment I left JFK on the 4th of July, until the moment I started writing this from a café in the Nice airport in France, everything went perfectly. My planning for COVID requirements was not only correct, but allowed me to move quickly through the system; checking in and customs were a breeze, and my bag was waiting for me on the other side. I grabbed it, hopped the train that runs along the Gold Coast of France, past mansions, beaches, and massive condos, to Cannes, standing against the Mediterranean Sea, hot and steamy under the relentless sun. I walked to my condo, unpacked and settled in, before walking out the door to get reacquainted with the Cannes Film Festival.
I had been to Cannes before, in 1999 and 2000 which, in my estimation, was one of the greatest Cannes programs of all time. Since that time, my festival work, which for decades had been situated in the April-May timeframe, made a trip to Cannes irrelevant and impossible. But those early trips were formative for me, creating a version of the festival that lived on in my memory; jet lag, packed screenings, familiar faces in the crowd, but mostly, the premieres of great films, a program bursting at the seams with the most important and interesting international titles of the year.
It is funny to think about, but I am almost certain that everyone who programs films looks at the Cannes program with extreme scrutiny and, if they’re honest, a sense of jealousy; with 74 years of institutional work put into creating an event that provides a global launching pad and sales platform for films while elevating the work of film directors into the highest levels of the contemporary arts, this unique blend of glitz, raw business, and extreme artistic seriousness provides Cannes Director Thierry Fremaux with the ability to, for the most part, have his pick of films and talent to attend the festival. It is hard to think of any film or film company that wouldn’t deeply desire the imprimatur of the iconic gold palm imposed over the words Official Selection Festival Des Cannes.
And so, year after year, Cannes reclaims its position at the center of the film world, with its program defining the state-of-the-art in the same way the autumn festivals herald the launch of awards season in the United States. Cannes is far more global than the Oscars, and features its own, highly coveted awards, given by small juries of acclaimed artists, serving as an international counterweight to the Academy. In this way, the festival best serves a certain type of film and film lover; it is driven by and the exemplar of global cinephilia, where the artistic ambitions of the form are placed above (and yet alongside) the business of box office. Typically, Hollywood and Cannes are not aligned , but sometimes, these two worlds come together; Bong Joon-ho’s PARASITE won the Palme D’Or and the Best Picture Oscar in 2019, but that overlap is incredibly rare.
This year, in the midst of planning for the 10th Annual Montclair Film Festival and working to launch our very own six screen cinema in the fall, our own changes in planning and schedule made me believe that a trip to Cannes would be worthwhile again; in the wake of the pandemic, Montclair Film moved our festival to October in 2020 and provided a huge transformation in terms of the films we were able to access, with Best Picture winner NOMADLAND serving as our Opening Night Film, and multiple award winners and nominees participating in the festival. In the wake of the success of that program, which we had worked carefully to position on the calendar in a way that would give us impact without competing with other, more established fall festivals, we decided that October was the right spot for us, and as we began planning for October 2021, Cannes seemed like a good opportunity; I wouldn’t be able to attend my traditional fall festivals (Toronto, the New York Film Festival) because their proximity to our new dates, and with the announcement of our new cinemas, the time was right to go scout films, meet with distributors, and see what a trip to Cannes would mean.
So I went.
From the moment I walked into the small tent where my badge would be printed via a touch screen kiosk in a matter of seconds, to the COVID testing tent I was required to use to gain access to the Marché and certain theaters, to the line of badge holders all eagerly awaiting our first film (Mark Cousins’ delightful retrospective of contemporary cinema THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION), Cannes felt relatively effortless. I never waited more than one minute to get a COVID test and after an early hiccup, my results arrived in time for me to use them (I was negative. Get vaccinated everyone.). No one ever dismissed my clothes or my ticket or did anything more than smile, say a polite word of greeting, and send me on my way. Cannes is known for being finicky, building procedures and processes for attendees— lines, hoops through which to jump, arbiters of what is and is not “acceptable” attire, etc— but the radical change this year that switched off so much frustration was the online ticketing system, which eliminated waiting in line for tickets and allowed everyone to apply for a seat at films by going online.
With attendance down (huge swaths of the world who typically attend were unable to participate this year because of COVID, others chose not to attend because of the overwhelming uncertainty and COVID concerns, all of which is completely understandable), the doors to the cinemas were more accessible than ever before. This was part of my strategy in going; hopeful I could find tickets to screenings because attendance would be more manageable, I found myself granted a ticket to literally every film I could schedule. It was unbelievable. The only struggle I had was making sure my phone had enough power at the end of the day, so I could make my final screening and show my digital ticket to get into the theater.
As each new morning arrived and I applied online for future screenings, as each e-mail confirmation rolled in after that, as each COVID test retuned a negative result, as I washed and pressed my tuxedo shirt over and over again, I settled into the rhythm of the festival. I took a few meetings, attended a party (outdoors and unmasked, and regretted it immediately), had a lunch here, a coffee there, a dinner with colleagues, but mostly, I dove into film screenings, surrounded by appreciative audiences who, as far as I could see, politely followed the mask mandate and acted with overall courtesy toward the staff and one another.
Once the lights went down in the Grand Lumiere or Salle Debussy (the festival’s largest theaters, where I spent most of my time), everything else- the uncertainty, the anxiety- melted away and I found myself completely absorbed in the films, my long relationship with theatrical viewing instantly re-established. As the program began to reveal itself, right away, an overall mood became clear; the films began addressing human connection and the need for kindness, from romantic and familial relationships to institutional interactions, a cinema urgently advocating for compassion and understanding. The humanist power of movies was on full display right away; maybe it was having been away for so long, maybe I was really tired, but sometimes, the films seem to be in dialogue with one another, pulling me in and framing my thinking as they go.
For me? It was the love affairs that broke the screen wide open again.
Joanna Hogg’s THE SOUVENIR PART II was the best film I saw in Cannes, and it played in the Director’s Fortnight section (which was typically outstanding), and I have to say, it is a huge shock to me that this film was not in competition in the main program. The film picks up immediately after Hogg’s achingly beautiful THE SOUVENIR, in the aftermath of a disastrous relationship, as the film’s protagonist Julie (played brilliantly again by Honor Swinton Byrne) shifts her focus from her loss to discovering her voice as a filmmaker. It was a powerful statement of becoming, a self-portrait of a young artist by her masterful later self, and one that reflexively examined that tension within the structure of the film itself. THE SOUVENIR, as a single film project made up of both parts, is a triumph, and I am eager to watch both parts again, together, in one sitting. Straight onto my personal favorites list.
Right behind Hogg’s film on my list was Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s VERDENS VERSTE MENNESKE (THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD), starring a Norwegian actress previously unknown to me, Renate Reinsve who took to the Cannes red carpet (which is broadcast on the screen inside the Palais and provides a ton of pre-show joy to the awaiting audience) as a whirling, twirling burst of bright energy and carried that obvious charisma straight through the film itself. She is a movie star, arriving seemingly fully formed on screen, a modern European actress who seems to be filled with optimism and feeling. The film capitalizes on her performance with a melancomic story of a young woman named Julie who can’t settle into her romantic relationships, but one who clearly imagines herself as the type of person who does. Funnily, I am seeing reviews calling the character “unformed” or “childish” or comparing her to Frances Ha, but for me, that’s very wrong. She’s alive and justifiably uncertain about who and what she wants to be and be with, and just goes about the business of trying things out, like we all do. This movie felt very much like real life to me; real, wonderful characters alive to the continuing possibilities of life. It is judgement-free, compassionate, and a joy. I didn’t see every eligible movie, but if Reinsve doesn’t win the Best Actress award, it would be a crime.
Trier’s co-writer on THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, Eskil Vogt, wrote and directed a film at Cannes as well, and it was one of the few genre films I was able to see. THE INNOCENTS, playing in Un Certain Regard (the festival’s section for official selections not selected for the main competition), is the story of a group fo small children, living in the same apartment complex, who come to learn of a supernatural connection they share, one which gives them extraordinary powers of communication and destructive force. It also features some heavy duty staged violence against animals and children, which had the audience gasping in surprise, and draws on the relationship between adult power and the way in which kids misunderstand that power when they interact with one another and the world, often turning the tyranny of the adult world into acts of cruelty that Vogt captures with prowling, long lens shots that call to mind recent horror classics like IT FOLLOWS or LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, reminding me that I need to watch more contemporary horror.
Also in Un Certain Regard and also grappling with childhood cruelty, Laura Wandel’s UN MONDE (aka PLAYGROUND) is the story of a pair of siblings enduring the daily degradations of life in a Belgian elementary school. Shot in a social realist style (think the Dardenne Brothers making SON OF SAUL) that never diverges from the point of view of Nora, a kindergartener whose older brother suffers constant abuse and humiliation at the hands of his classmates. It is very rare to see a film perfectly grasp the emotional life of young kids, but PLAYGROUND absolutely nails it, tracking the mistakes, the attempts at kindness, the meanness and exclusion, and all of the emotions that follow through the beautiful, powerhouse performance of young Maya Vanderbeque, who carries the entire movie on her shoulders and never delivers a single false beat.
Another film about the emotional isolation of systemic abuse, and also in Un Certain Regard, was Sebastian Meise’s GREAT FREEDOM, the story of Hans Hoffmann, a gay man in Germany repeatedly imprisoned over violations to the nation’s infamous Paragraph 175 law, which made homosexual activity a crime (and was utilized by the Nazis to send LGBTQIA+ people to the concentration camps). Franz Rogowsky is an actor who never fails to fascinate with his ability to seemingly haunt the frame, and his work here is yet another in a recent string of outstanding performances, here showing the complex relationship between freedom and the past, and how trauma informs the experience of persecution.
Arnaud Desplechin’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s DECEPTION is a film I have been discussing with Desplechin for many years, one that he had long been seeking to make, and once it began playing, it was clear why; Desplechin has returned to the themes of his best films with this story of Roth’s extra-marital affairs, here presented with such tenderness that I was shocked; Roth’s reputation as an irredeemable misogynist was here transformed through the lens of his equal, a lover played by Lea Séydoux, who understands his desire for her and meets it with her own understanding and power. Of course, the film also proposes that maybe the entire proposition is a fiction invented by Roth to help him understand and invent women as fictions, but that doesn’t distract from the film’s power for me. As always with Desplechin, the spiritual side of his work is boiling beneath the surface of his images and characters, here represented by Roth’s outsider status as a Jewish American abroad. I can’t wait to see this again, a top-tier Desplechin film for me (and I love them all for my own, selfish reasons).
Wes Anderson’s THE FRENCH DISPATCH arrived with expectations that can only be compared to a new album by a well-established rock star; Anderson’s visual and storytelling style is so consistent, so unique, and so wonderful, there is a fear that any major changes to the director’s signature approach might be alienating or somehow dishonest. Anderson is who he is, a visual stylist unlike any other who relies on the bespoke details of his image making to create a symbiotic relationship with his writing, together creating films that serve both as cinematic homage and something truly unique. THE FRENCH DISPATCH is no exception, a love-letter to the long form journalistic essay writing that shaped the mid-20th century glory days of THE NEW YORKER and other prestigious literary magazines. But the film is also filled with cinematic nods to the French New Wave, films noir, 1930’s comedies, and more. It is an absolute joy to watch, twinned to THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS for me, both films adapting a certain era of the written word that captures the spirit of the times and subverts nostalgia by creating something new.
And finally, speaking of new, Julia Ducournau’s TITANE was my final film of the festival before heading home. The story of a young woman named Alexia (played with unbelievable power by Agathe Rousselle) who suffers a traumatic head injury and develops into a sociopathic murderer before passing herself off as a young man who had disappeared years ago, TITANE is also the story of radical, physical transformation of the female body into whatever the fuck it wants to be. And it is radical; did I mention the car that impregnates Alexia, in the form of mechanical parthenogenesis that drives (see what I did there?) the story to its almost unbearably moving conclusion? Ducournau’s control of the film’s escalating tensions, purposeful gender confusion, male vanity, and found family is flawless, making TITANE a film that deserves multiple viewings in order to unpack its narrative and visual strategies.
I could go on and on, and already have; I watched 28 films and for the most part, found something compelling and thought-provoking about each. And there were so many more I didn’t see but wanted to see; festivals are always filled with regrets. As I sit here, having departed Nice, passed through Heathrow in London, and now flying home over the Atlantic Ocean, I’m thinking about how much this festival means to me in the ongoing world of COVID. I know I am landing back in the reality of family life, work, and responsibility, and I can’t wait to replug into my real life. But there is something about Cannes that will continue to frame my inner-life, the interior version of myself that adores sitting in the dark with strangers and giving myself permission and room to think seriously and passionately about cinema, a word I use without reservation. For me, that is the ideal of Cannes, which has once again replenished me and lead me to try to continue to find ways to honor that part of myself in the other areas of my life. I hope to be back soon.