Julia Ducournau, the ‘Titane’ of Cannes

The festival finally awards its top prize to a woman

After almost 75 years, the Cannes Film Festival finally awarded its top prize to a woman: Julia Ducournau, for her galvanizing genre mashup Titane. “I’m sorry, I keep shaking my head because this is so surreal,” said Ducournau in fluent English, wiping away tears as she addressed the Closing Night crowd. “I don’t even know why I’m speaking English right now, because I’m French!”

Jane Campion was technically the first lady to win a Palme d’Or for her 1993 film The Piano, but she shared it in a tie with Chen Kaige and his Chinese Opera melodrama Farewell My Concubine. And the festival gave director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or, for his epic lesbian romance Blue is the Warmest Color, jointly to him and the film’s two actresses, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. But Ducournau’s Palme d’Or is the first, unshared, for a female filmmaker. And, what’s even more satisfying, it’s for a shockingly original movie that’s an audacious mix-and-match thriller: part feminist serial killer flick, part parent-child bonding drama, part cyberpunk future-shock sci-fi.

‘Titane’, directed by Julia Ducournau, winner of the 2021 Cannes Palme O’Or

The news couldn’t wait: Jury President Spike Lee accidentally let it slip only minutes after taking his place onstage. “Wait, wait, no!” exclaimed French actress Doria Tillier, the evening’s mistress of ceremonies. His fellow jury members, all seated alongside him, were aghast. Mélanie Laureant shot out her arm to stop him. Mati Diop held her face in her hands. Maggie Gyllenhaal couldn’t stop laughing. Lee just shook his head in silence. “This is what we call a do-over,” he said meekly.

Tillier and Lee continued the evening, doling out Best Actor to Caleb Landry Jones for his role as an infamous Australian mass murderer in Justin Kurzel’s true-life drama Nitram. Best Actress went to Renate Reinsve, whose fickle lover in Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World was one of the week’s most endearing performances.

Best Screenplay went to Hamaguchi Ryusuke and Takamasa Oe, for adapting a Haruki Murakami short story into the long-winded but lyrical three-hour personal epic Drive My Car. And Best Director went to Leos Carax, for his bold musical experiment Annette. Accepting that award were the film’s composers, Sparks bandmates Ron and Russell Mael. “We’re obviously not Leos Carax,” said Russell. “Unfortunately, he cannot be here with us now. He had a little problem with his tooth. But he’s gonna pull through.”

Renate Reinsve won Best Actress at Cannes for ‘The Worst Person in the World’.

Cannes has two runner-up categories for Best Film, and this year they were both presented as “Ex Aequo” ties, doubling the prize-winners. Third-place Jury Prize went to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s dream meditation Memoria and Nadav Lapid’s excoriating Arab/Israeli screed Ahed’s Knee. And second-place Grand Prix recognized both Asghar Farhadi’s powerful social-media critique A Hero and Juho Kuosmanen’s touching romance Compartment No. 6.

Lee was gun-shy throughout the ceremony after his early gaffe. But who could blame him? Cannes’ awards-show format is so quintessentially French in its surprising layers of bureaucracy. The hostess asks the president to announce the next category; a celebrity presenter emerges to give out the award; the jury announces the award winner; and the recipient collects it, then poses for pictures with the presenter. So when Tillier asked him, in French, which prize they would begin with, she then repeated the question in English, asking for what she referred to as the “first prize.” Honest mistake.

“In my 63 years of life, I’ve learned that you’re able to get a second chance,” he said, claiming a mulligan for the official Palme d’Or announcement. “So this is my second chance! And I apologize for messing up. It took a lot of suspense out of the night, I understand that. Wasn’t on purpose.”

Ducournau would beg to differ, even though Lee sweetly asked her forgiveness while escorting her to the podium. “This evening has been perfect because it’s so not perfect,” she said in English. “I love it. It’s great. It has heart.” And then, since the awards show is broadcast nationally on Canal+, she added: “Okay, now I’m going back to French because my parents are watching.”

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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