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A Guide to the Films in Competition at Cannes


Last year, the most prestigious film festival in the world, much like everything else, was postponed. Then cancelled outright. This year, however, Cannes' comeback is looking strong, as organizers aim to revitalize audiences' love for theatres, whilst pushing for safe and environmentally conscious showings.

But, as always, due to its placement at the beginning of the awards circuit, Cannes' lineup is comprised of many films yet to see much media coverage, and never all together, beyond articles simply listing the nominees. Today, we'll be breaking down the big fish in competition for the Best Film award; the Palme d'Or, at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

The films:

Annette

The hottest ticket seems to be Annette, a musical and writing collaboration with Sparks (the avant-garde pop duo receiving their own documentary this year from Edgar Wright no less), by Cannes darling Leos Carax, probably best known for his extravagant and surreal work of mad genius Holy Motors (nominated for the Palme d'Or in 2012). Beyond the interest in seeing Carax's generous hand take on a musical road mapped by (to put it mildly) oddball purveyors of art pop, the film boasts the star power of Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver as a couple whose baby daughter has a “surprising gift”. With all this behind it, Annette is the flagship for the festival and will be opening the proceedings on July 6.

Flag Day

Flag Day, directed by and starring Sean Penn alongside his daughter Dylan Penn, is a non-fiction crime thriller featuring further familiar faces Josh Brolin and the wonderful Eddie Marsan. A father lives a double life as a counterfeiter, bank robber and con man in order to provide for his daughter. Penn's last film to show at the festival was eviscerated by critics and booed by the audience (although, a great many films have been at Cannes). Perhaps he'll fare better this time, eyes have been on the project since 2019.

Ahed's Knee

Ahed's Knee from Israel, comes from winner of the Golden Bear Nadav Lapid, who has been categorized as making films about forces in powerful opposition. The official synopsis has remained vague, and no trailers have yet been released. An Israeli filmmaker throws himself in the midst of two battles doomed to fail: one against the death of freedom, the other against the death of a mother.

Casablanca Beats

Casablanca Beats, the first Moroccan film to make the official selection for Cannes, celebrates the youth of Sidi Moumen, a slum near Casablanca, who are introduced in the film to hip-hop culture by an elderly professor. Director Nabil Ayouch is best known for the Mektoub: My Love series, the first of which kickstarted international interest in the Moroccan film industry, and he has been hopping from category to category until clinching a nomination for best film this year.

Benedetta

Paul Verhoeven famously directed a number of huge blockbusters; Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct and the disastrous Showgirls, before returning to Europe for more understated and critically acclaimed dramas. His Benedetta, one of the most anticipated films screening at the festival and the first entrant into the artful Nunsploitation genre in ages, follows Virginie Efira as Benedetta Carlini, a nun, apparently capable of miracles, who enters a love affair with another woman in her 17th century convent. See the trailer for the film, based on a true story below.

La Fracture

The inexhaustible Catherine Corsini, writing in collaboration with Laurette Polmanss (for a third time) and Agnès Feuvre, directs La Fracture. Raf and Julie, a couple straining to keep their relationship afloat, spend the night in a Parisian hospital amidst a large demonstration, along with staff and injured protestors. Their prejudices are confronted through encounters, including with wounded demonstrator Yann, as the hospital is overwhelmed. Corsini, acclaimed feminist auteur with an abiding and exceptional passion for the improvement of cinematic institutions as well as filmmaking itself, has been nominated in two top categories at Cannes before, and though she's headed the jury for the Caméra d'Or prize (given to the best first film from a new director), she's yet to land a win. Securing one may bring her work some more attention abroad, as of yet, little is written about her for English audiences.

Paris, 13th District

Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades in French) is a romantic drama directed by Jacques Audiard, penned by Audiard, Céline Sciamma (whose recent masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire would surely have been the most popular foreign film of 2019, had it not been for the small miracle that was Parasite) and Léa Mysius. New face Lucie Zhang makes her debut, and star of the aforementioned Portrait Noémie Merlant also appears. Audiard's modus is tough to nail down, but he is one of France's most notable auteurs, winning the Palme d'Or in 2015 and making a habit of directing excellent and entertaining films, most recently the terrific western The Sisters Brothers. Although he's proven his abilities on the front of intimate romance before with the tender Rust and Bone. From the short stories Amber Sweet, Killing and Dying and Hawaiian Getaway written by graphic novelist and cartoonist Adrian Tomine, we follow four Parisian youths. “They're friends, sometimes lovers and often both”.

Bergman's Island

Prolific French writer/director Mia Hansen-Love brings more of her precise insight into relationships (of all kind) in crisis with the film Bergman's Island, set and shot on Ingmar Bergman's private island, where a filmmaking couple has retreated, writing and beginning to “find that the lines between reality and fiction start to blur”. What films about filmmaking are to the Oscars, Fårö island and all things Bergman are to Cannes, so keep your eyes peeled for this highly anticipated film starring Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps.

Compartment No. 6

Compartment No. 6, from Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, is set in the titular compartment, on a train to Murmansk. Laura, a student, is journeying to see 10,000-year-old cave paintings, but must share her compartment with a boorish Russian miner named Vadim. The drama details Laura's slowly erasing expectations for the trip. Kuosmanen's first professional feature won Un Certain Regard in 2016.

Everything Went Fine

The beloved Emmanuel Bernheim's novel Everything Went Fine has been adapted by another French director of renown, with an astonishing turnover rate for awards contenders of 1 film a year, François Ozon, a collaborator of hers whose experience in the trappings of social and familial drama should make for an excellent pairing on this autobiographical outing. A frail old man, semi-paralyzed, asks his daughter to help end his life.

A Hero

The latest production from two time Best Foreign Language Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, A Hero, will see his return to contemporary Iran, after tackling a Spanish crime drama in 2018. The plot of A Hero, starring Amir Jadidi and Mohsen Tanabandeh, has been thoroughly concealed, though we can wager a guess as to the nature of the film, considering Farhadi's consistent voice thus far. Farhadi's films typically reflect Iran and its strife across class, gender, religion, etc. patently, yet are some of the more popular entries to come out of the awards circuit. His nuanced social realism and tension-filled writing, charged with an understanding for authentic and often reasonable characters, make them a draw for audiences. As could be expected, A Hero is being proclaimed by those involved with the film as one of his seminal works, along with A Separation and The Salesman.

France

France (the French title of which translates to On a Half-clear Morning) is directed by Bruno Dumont, who has twice won the Grand Prix, and was for a time considered the artistic heir to Robert Bresson. Nowadays his *extremely divisive* work has been connected to the recent movement cinéma du corps/New French Extremity, a vein of transgressive films depicting penetration, mutilation, degradation, and fomentation to the condemnation and adoration of critics. Despite this, his last showcased film was a ridiculous heavy metal musical on the childhood of Joan of Arc. The most extensive synopsis yet released seems innocuous enough: “France is both the portrait of a woman, a television journalist, of a country, ours, and of a system, that of the media.” We can probably expect more of Dumont's pessimistic outlook on a morally bankrupt world in despair, and less of his explosively violent work. If its anything like his more visceral films, expect simultaneous walkouts and standing ovations.

Tangerine

Providing another slick A24 film, Sean Baker has made a name for himself with his two most recent features, Tangerine, shot entirely on iPhone, and The Florida Project, both about the struggles of people finding themselves as outcasts. His latest, Red Rocket, stars Simon Rex, as Mikey Saber, a washed-up porn star who returns to his small Texas hometown, even though no one there really wants him back. This will likely be one of the higher profile releases of the festival, big with video essayists and the like.

The French Dispatch

The French Dispatch looks to be the most Wes Anderson film Wes Anderson has ever dared to make, with an ensemble of his regulars as a troupe of expatriate journalists, alternating period settings, multiple aspect ratios, beautifully intricate and balanced mise-en-scène, and so on. If you're not sure what “very Wes Anderson” means, have a look at the trailer and you'll know whether or not you're on board very quickly. Though a headlining film, it's not favored to win due to Anderson's penchant for quirk standing out in what is largely a very serious selection. Still, with this, he may outdo The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Restless

Belgian director and Un Certain Regard winner Joachim Lafosse has put out another of his hallmark nuanced character dramas, focusing on psychology. In The Restless, Leïla Bekhti and Damien Bonnard star as a couple who struggle to cope with the man's bipolar disorder following a backslide, whilst raising their child. This pandemic shoot is centered mainly in a single household.

Lingui

Lingui is the latest film directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun (the first feature length film director from Chad and winner of the 2010 jury prize, who has lived in France since the '80s, but whose work is usually set in his birth country). Turning from the civil war material which garnered him the most acclaim of his career thus far, Haroun's newest tells a more private story: In a Muslim household, a single mother discovers her fifteen-year-old daughter is pregnant and seeking an abortion. The two must confront the reality of living under Chad's restrictive anti-abortion laws, as well as the social condemnation surrounding their dilemma.

Memoria

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has filmed his first feature outside of Thailand, and in English. Memoria stars Tilda Swinton, and like previous projects from the filmmaker, places itself in a location marked by natural beauty and a destructive past. Weerasethakul is among the most lauded arthouse directors working today, creating art exhibitions and films; in turn challenging and languid experiments in their form. “Joe”, as he has nicknamed himself, sees his work as deeply personal like musings in a diary, and on this project he feels “a personal earthquake, a quiet madness” from the location has drawn him to make the film. Cannes can't get enough of his work; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the final installment in his multi-media art piece Primitive, made up of six reels, each in a different cinematic style, won the Palme d'Or in 2010. It represents, to this point, the peak of his style: visualizations of ineffable emotional states and concepts.

That seems perfectly in line with the given plot for Memoria: Swinton plays an Orchid farmer in Colombia to see her ill sister. She finds herself unable to sleep, interrupted by increasingly loud bangs through the night. Another plot description claims she begins to “think about their appearance”. The century long construction of a tunnel through the Andes mountains also features heavily. Weerasethakul claims it has turned out to be a very simple film, take that as you may. You may fare better expecting this to be a particularly enigmatic addition to the festival, valuable to the Cannes crowd for continuing to tool with the boundaries of transcendental cinema, and the sort of Award winner the Academy wouldn't touch with a long, long stick.

Nitram

Australia makes a showing with Justin Kurzel's Nitram with a screenplay by Shaun Grant, which dramatizes the events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre on Tasmania. Kurzel and Grant previously teamed up for a well-received take on Australian folk hero Ned Kelly in The True History of the Kelly Gang, a film which played fast and loose with the myth and sort of descended into psychedelic punk rock freefall as its protagonist became more and more unhinged and beloved. Kurzel's work, often examining the identities of infamously violent men, has not put protestors at ease, who feel the shooter (the mass media portrayal of whom has been scrutinized since the incident's initial coverage) should not be sensationalized at all. We have every reason to believe Kurzel will approach the material tactfully, but the film will likely be more frenetic and involving than much of its competition cares to be. Roles are not confirmed, but the underused talent Caleb Landry Jones has been cast and will likely play the severely dysfunctional perpetrator, who killed 35 people in Australia's largest ever mass shooting, motivated in part by a desire for infamy.

Petrov's Flu

Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov will not be able to attend the ceremony due to a three-year suspended prison sentence keeping him from leaving the country. Sympathizers argue that the case is politically-motivated, as the government seeks to clamp down on subversive and “untraditional” work, as well as muzzle him for his support of the LGBTQ community. His film, Petrov's Flu, appears to be a bombastic, irreverent caper, chronicling a day in the life of a comic book artist in Russia, post the fall of the USSR. “While suffering from the flu, Petrov is carried by his friend Igor on a long walk, drifting in and out of fantasy and reality”.

The Story of My Wife

Popular 1946 Hungarian novel The Story of My Wife: The Reminiscences of Captain Storr, in which a Hungarian naval captain recalls his unhappy marriage to the first woman who walked into a bar after he accepted a bet, has been adapted by Ildikó Enyedi. The result is a romantic drama revolving around a developing love triangle. A postmodernist whose last film, On Body and Soul, took off in popularity following her prolonged absence, Enyedi has loved the novel since her adolescence, and sees her work on the film as “a love letter to all the wonderfully imperfect men – to the loves of our life, written by a woman director”. Dialogue will largely be in English, in keeping with the language primarily spoken in the shipping industry in the 1920s, a first for Enyedi, though no doubt her gift for deconstructing the impositions men place upon women will translate. No matter who takes home the Palme d'Or, lead Léa Seydoux is the real winner here, prominently featuring in three films in competition (The French Dispatch, starring in La Fracture, and The Story of My Wife).

Three Floors

Notable Palme d'Or winning director Nani Moretti's fifteenth effort and his first adapted from another work, Three Floors, moves the action of the novel from Israel to Italy. It concerns three families living on different floors of their middle-class condominium. Each family has their own dilemmas playing out. The patriarch of the first believes that the elderly husband of the couple across from them has sexually abused his young daughter, whom they babysit. In fact, their neighbor suffers from Alzheimer's. One level up, a neglected housewife must choose whether to harbor her brother-in-law, on the lam from police and creditors, whilst her husband (whom he had a fallen out with) is away. And on the last floor, a judge in her retirement reconnects with her delinquent son, who had a spat with a woman's husband that turned violent.

Titane

Julia Ducournau, THE invigorating breakout talent of France in recent memory, demanded the attention of the film world with her theatrical feature-length film debut Raw, which operated in the trappings of body horror, but unlike most of the tired and grotesque examples of the genre, Raw was fresh, gothic, youthful and marvelously entertaining. Attention swirled around the movie for its graphic violence, following news of at least two Toronto International Film Festival goers fainting during a screening, but the substantive storytelling, stylish visuals and captivating character work was what garnered it mentions as one of the best horror films of the 2010s.

Drive My Car

Drive My Car, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, is based on the short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami. Two years after the death of his wife, a theatre director and performer is chauffeured by a quiet woman, whilst in Hiroshima to direct a production for a festival. Between the two lonely characters, secrets are spilled, and the past comes to the fore. Hamaguchi's films are unpretentious takes on dramatic scenarios, filled with probing dialogue, allowing his actors to shine.

Her much anticipated follow-up, Titane, does not necessarily show explicit signs of taking after her body horror roots, but sounds disturbing nonetheless. A report details some plot elements: “The script opens on an airport where custom inspectors pick up a young man with a bruised face. He claims his name to be Adrien Legrand, a child who disappeared ten years ago. For Vincent, his father, this marks the end of a long nightmare and he brings him home. Simultaneously, a series of gruesome murders places the region under pressure. Alexia, model in a car showroom, has all the characteristics of the ideal victim.”

The Worst Person in the World

And finally; Norwegian dramedy The Worst Person in the World, the third installment in Joachim Trier's “Oslo” trilogy, a narratively unconnected series, following Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, probably his two best received pictures. The comic drama concerning modern relationships is apparently about “having all the opportunities in life but still feeling like the worst person in the world”. The plot itself concerns Julie, a woman in a frustratingly one-sided relationship with the older cult graphic novelist Axel, who meets someone her age whilst sneaking into a wedding reception. This plot, it thickens.

All in all, a very strong selection, filled out mostly by Cannes regulars, with some obvious picks, and a few interesting omissions. No Almodóvar, Kore-eda, Campion, Chan-wook, etc. If you've found other articles a little lacking on the details, hopefully this round up was what you were looking for. Now, place your bets.