Amid the pandemic, the 2021 Cannes Film Festival remained a site where well-dressed celebrities, cinephiles, and filmmakers gathered to celebrate an art form that has felt fraught with fragility in the in the past year. Whether audience members seemingly applauded at just about any film they witnessed, or critics panned a piece they deemed unimpressive, one thing was clear: the cinema has been sorely missed by all in the past year and a half of streaming movies at home.
The eighteen months before the 2021 Cannes Film Festival was my longest period in conscious memory without seeing a film in a movie theater. It felt like a fresh start, and hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rediscover this weird form of entertainment, life and dreams projected on a screen in a room with strangers. Each film I saw reminded me what a film could do (or shouldn’t do). Below are some of those highlights.
The Bittersweet Coming-of-Age Tale
This winner of the jury prize in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar was the first film at Cannes that I loved. The third film by American-Italian director Jonas Carpignano, A Chiara takes place in Calabria, just like his previous two. Swamy Rotolo is Chiara, a 15-year-old in a close-knit family (all played by Rotolo’s real life family members). Soon after her sister’s 18th birthday party, Chiara discovers her father has a secret which she becomes obsessed with uncovering. It then moves like a genre film, with Chiara’s fixation and determined walk providing the film’s momentum. The end of the film is abrupt; it moved me immensely. My heart sank and my vision widened. I realized A Chiara is a coming-of-age story, not about minor romances or summers before college, but a reminder that 15 to 18 is so young, a time when you feel you have no choices. Yet your family, friends, and location at this time determine the outcome of your life.
The Buddy Flick
Compartment No. 6 is another film where the set up (two strangers meet on a train) feels familiar, but the absence of romance makes it fresh. Laura is a Finnish student forced to share a tiny train compartment across Russia with drunken lout Vadim. The movie was shot on 35mm film on an actual moving train, and the close-up shots of blotchy faces and hideous vinyl patterns do a brilliant job of invoking its 1990s setting. This buddy movie (like all good buddy flicks, a story of an unlikely friendship) is dripping with humanity and optimism, without ever feeling too sentimental.
The Stylized Timothée Chalamet Vehicle
Wes Anderson’s new film feels like a sequel to The Royal Tenenbaums. It also feels like one of Anderson’s most personal films. The Royal Tenenbaums was about a romanticized view of New York City (where Anderson lived) from the perspective of adult children. The French Dispatch is a romanticized view of Paris (where Anderson lives) from the perspective of someone accepting his new position as a young old man. It’s divided into vignettes, or stories in a magazine (“The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun,” also the film’s full title). One story stars Timothée Chalamet as a revolutionary leader in May 1969, which now takes place in March, from the perspective of an older writer played by Frances McDormand. Like a Gen-X filmmaker looking at Generation Z, McDormand doesn’t understand their idealistic political agenda, but also knows that they’re right. Chalamet’s cocky yet insecure delivery works perfectly for Anderson’s yearning aesthetic.
The Meditative Sound Bath
The first three films on this list are emotion translated, respectively, through structure, story, and pure images. By the time we get to Memoria, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film starring Tilda Swinton, which premiered near the end of the festival, I was reminded of the importance of dreams in cinema. Quite literally, because I fell asleep! This is not a knock on the lovely and subtle film, in which silence and shadows are interrupted by a persistent and violent bang. Swinton’s character fears she is losing her mind, and is assured that she is but it’s alright. Much of the movie is like a feature-length meditation through sound.
Falling asleep in a movie is a common festival experience due to early morning screenings, late nights, and persistent jet lag. Lucrecia Martel, Tsai Ming-liang, and Abbas Kiarostami have all endorsed the act for their films and others. In watching films at home in the past year and a half, I may have seen some things in parts, continuing the next day if I was tired, but I didn’t miss anything. Memoria felt like a strange and lovely return to cinemas to drift off for seconds at a time, hallucinating scenes from other films, from previous days, which all melded together like a collage. Memoria is surreal, but like a daydream more than a nightmare (at least for me). I look forward to seeing it again.
The New Classic
Drive My Car is a new film by exciting Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, based on a Haruki Murakami short story, and won the Best Screenplay award from the Cannes jury. Hamaguchi creates ineffable worlds where dreams and delusions ease into the practical and grounded. This gentle, three-hour film was the strongest film in the festival.
The Gutsy Reinterpretation of Cinema
While Drive My Car was the best film, and Julia Ducournau’s Titane deservedly won the Palme d’Or, Gaspar Noé’s new film Vortex was the most daring piece in the festival. Noé is known for films like Enter the Void, Love, and Climax, which employed formal gimmicks to present subculture scenes in films that felt like parties. Standing in line for this midnight screening felt like trying to get into a club, packed with French fans wearing neon, sheer, and bondage outfits. What a surprise, then, to find a film starring Françoise Lebrun (The Mother and the Whore) and filmmaker Dario Argento about an old couple with health problems. Not giving up on formal invention, Noé uses a split screen in what feels like real time to show the daily minutiae of a couple in the last days of living in their own home. This bad boy of French cinema still wants to shock, but does so with the sound of a gurgling heart or the horror of a clogged toilet.
This was the one film that rewired my expectations of time. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, when I could relax, and when it was time to grab my bag and go. I left the film hearing sounds differently and—while walking away from Vortex in the dark—with a new perspective on what can be “cinematic.” I couldn’t ask for anything more.