Masked and not-really-distanced, the world’s most glamorous film festival returns
What coronavirus? Cinephilia beat back a global pandemic last week when the Cannes Film Festival kick-started its belated 74th edition to teary cheers and palpable sighs of relief. With vaccination rates at an all-time high and developed-nation infections tenuously low, Cannes marked the full-throated return of Riviera red carpet walks, starry international actors bear-hugging each other, and eager ticket-holders packing movie theaters. It’s a welcome revivification, and more than two years after Cannes’ last full incarnation in May 2019 blew the world’s mind with Parasite and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Films with cunnilingus, apparently trendy
Eighties enfant terrible turned éminence grise Leos Carax opened the event with his oddball rock-opera Annette, a moody shoot-the-moon romance starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as doomed lovers. He’s an angry stand-up comic, she’s the ultrasensitive opera singer, and together they birth a marionette baby. What?
Enduring cult band Sparks provided the arch, recitativo songs to the dark fantasy, which the cast sing with committed aplomb—including Driver, who wails “we love each other so much” while gently eating out Cotillard. It’s that kind of film, and that kind of festival: cunnilingus runs rampant in the competition films, in one case pivoting to nunnilingus with Paul Verhoeven’s lurid lesbian thrill ride Benedetta.
A gleeful condemnation of the Catholic church and repressed sexual desire, that sly provocation follows its titular character (Virginie Efira) as she goes from mousy devout disciple to empowered scissor sister. Her feverish hallucinations of a hunky Jesus also lead to a stigmata that she leverages into a cushy berth as Mother Superior and a private bedroom. All the better for those late-night trysts, one of which includes whittling down the base of a Virgin Mary statuette into a wooden dildo. The makeshift shaft still retains its top half, so we can watch the blissed-out mother of God as her bottom section pumps in and out of sight. Benedetta revels in blood-gushing blasphemy and bodily functions, from street performers lighting their farts on fire to a double-dame shit take on the holy latrines. There’s a plague, too, so expect black boils, vomiting, and at least one death by immolation.
You want body horror? Just take a peek at Julia Ducournau’s Titane, the latest from the director of feminist cannibalism thriller Raw. This time she tackles an ambitiously bonkers tale of an exotic dancer with a metal plate in her head (Agathe Rousselle) who kills amorous suitors, gets pregnant after fucking a Cadillac, and then evades the cops by posing as the long-lost son of a mentally unstable and physically steroidal fireman chief (Vincent Lindon). Yes, she’s carrying a car’s baby. And yes, she secretes motor oil from her nipples. And yes, somehow she keeps taping down not only her breasts but also her bourgeoning stomach without anyone noticing—convenient when fighting forest fires. It’s a heady just-go-with-it mix of metaphor and genre tropes that addresses gender fluidity, trans prejudice, body modification, parental devotion, and cyborg futurism. Frankly, I loved it.
Relationships with robots and also people
Those looking for a gentler sci-fi offering will swoon for Kogonada’s After Yang. Imagine having a family member who’s a robot. And then imagine him going on the fritz and taking him to a Genius Bar for repairs. It’s a goofy premise that deepens as the parents Jake and Kyra (Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith) reconcile the potential loss of a young man they consider a son as well as a surrogate brother to their adopted Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Yang (Justin H. Min), programmed to teach Mika about Chinese culture, was secretly modified to be the first A.I. with memories and feelings. He also had a secret relationship with a clone named Ada (Haley Lu Richardson). After Yang brilliantly explores identity in all its cross-pollinated forms, furthering Blade Runner concepts of designed humanity in a far more quotidian domestic setting.
Other films showcased relationships in far more traditional ways. Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater, a tender and mostly effective drama with a pulp genre shell, stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker, a plain-speaking Oklahoma roughneck who goes to Marseille to get his daughter (Abigail Breslin) out of jail for a crime she didn’t commit. He’s a stoic MAGA-adjacent man of faith whose tough-guy veneer starts to peel after he meets a single-mother French woman (Camille Cottin) and her mignon fille (Lilou Siauvand).
The Ukrainian competition entry Compartment No. 6 follows a sapphic Finn (Seidi Haarla) who bumps heads, and then hearts, with a Russian miner (Yuriy Borisov) whose gruff propensity for vodka and insults belies a fragile soul. They’re both lovely insights into the human potential for emotional renewal—and the desperately needed ability to break through prejudices both liberal and conservative.
Cannes offered intriguing point-counterpoints to how relationships unfold—as well as who controls the narrative. Joachim Trier’s winsome romance The Worst Person in the World, a sweet-and-salty look at one woman’s amorous journey through her 20s, offers up charming and all-too-realistic insights into the male-female dynamic, but often feels like a mansplaining tour of the female mind. Renate Reinsve plays Julie, an ingenue in love who gets schooled by the older and wiser lovers in her life. Thank you, men!
Wise women of cinema
Far more prickly, and more wise, were the female directors who dissected their hetero entanglements with surgical precision. Joanna Hogg continued her brilliant autofiction The Souvenir with a sequel, aptly titled The Souvenir Part II. It’s her continuation of the story about a young filmmaker trying to find the means to process the devotion she feels towards a heroin-addict boyfriend—now dead, still haunting, and the key to her artistic maturation.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island also reveals the arc of a female filmmaker’s journey, one where the male ego looms large. Fårö island was famously the reclusive home to Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, who fathered nine children with five women—which Hansen-Løve surrogate Chris (Vicky Kreips) points out would be impossible for a lady auteur like herself. Her partner, celebrated director Tony (Tim Roth), shrugs it off with casual confidence, a self-assuredness that feels more quietly arrogant as the film progresses. The two are there on a self-imposed writer’s retreat; and while Tony happily types out a script tinged with sexual bondage, Chris starts to explore a more intuitive love story that reveals her wise ambivalence about amorous males. By the end, the film breaks its narrative not once, but twice, with a Russian Doll structure that, in its own enigmatic way, is startlingly candid about the human heart.
A wild Wes Anderson appears
Looking for the opposite of candor? Wes Anderson brought his signature deadpan whimsy to yet another filigreed confection about the emotionally stunted. The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Son is the full title, and it’s as overstuffed and as arch as the film. A tribute to his beloved New Yorker, the omnibus comedy presents a collection of short films as articles, and is structured like a magazine, right down to the page numbers. Starring Wes stalwarts Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Adrien Brody and newer hires like Léa Seydoux and Benicio Del Toro, his latest triumph in production design will leave acolytes swooning and the rest of us a bit cold. It’s also a love letter to France, his adopted country ever since moving to Paris. The affection for his current homeland is genuine and, judging from Cannes’ rapturous reception, mutual.
Covid-19 steamrolled most of 2020’s high-profile film festivals, sending them onto the internet for streaming-only virtual incarnations. Venice, which hosts the oldest film festival in the world, was the remarkable pre-vaccine exception, stemming off any super-spreader potential with mandatory masks, socially distanced seating, and contact tracing. Cannes has borrowed from Venice’s playbook, and with guaranteed seats—a pipe dream at most festivals, which pack their screenings like a sausage sleeve—there was no need to wait on lines. I’ve been going to Cannes for nearly 30 years, and this edition was by far the easiest and least stressful. Sure, I had to wear a mask every time I watched a movie, but still. No lines! For anything!
Cannes also developed its own road map for post-vaccine mega-events, which understandably requires a system to rout the infected. Their gallic innovation: spitting. So much spitting.
Throwing money at the problem, Cannes is covering the 50-euro costs of each rapid salivary test and requiring all non-E.U. vaccinated attendees to show a negative result every 48 hours. With 28,000 registered attendees from all five continents, and a daily average of five positive cases out of 2,000-4,000 tests, the festival organizers have felt confident that they avoided any Covid clusters. In a televised speech on Monday night, though, French President Emmanuel Macron announced drastically tightened restrictions for the unvaccinated in response to the insurgent Delta variant. His new policies, by the way, conveniently go into effect after Cannes ends.