The 2021 Cannes Film Festival concluded on Saturday after a whirlwind two weeks spent under the looming presence of COVID-19, and the festival was -by most accounts- a success. After last year’s cancellation, many were watching with bated breath as Cannes became the first in-person festival since the pandemic hit back in 2020, and though some criticized the COVID protocols, festival officials maintained that the situation was consistently under control. This year saw the famed Cannes jury lead by none other than Brooklyn native Spike Lee (who made an Oscar-worthy snafu at the awards ceremony), supported by director Mati Diop, singer/songwriter Mylène Farmer, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, writer/director Jessica Hausner, actress/director Mélanie Laurent, writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho, actor Tahar Rahim, and actor Song Kang-ho. The event saw a return to the regular red carpet frivolity, as well as the premieres of a number of notable films, the most talked about and praised of which shall be detailed below.
Titane – Winner of the Palm d’Or (dir. Julia Ducournau)
The winner of the Palm d’Or this year made history as the second-ever (and first sole) female recipient of the coveted prize, with controversial film Titane, an “automotive-erotic” tale of trauma, profanity, and violence. The film has been called a body-horror picture by some, but one thing most can agree on is that they did not come to Cannes expecting to watch a film in which a serial killer has sex with a car. Titane follows director Julia Ducournau’s auspicious coming-of-age cannibal debut Raw, and while it was not universally loved by critics, the jury deemed the striking film to be deserving of Cannes’ top honor. Whilst the film does not yet have a US release date, it will be distributed by Neon later this year.
A Hero (Ghahreman) – Co-winner of The Grand Prix (dir. Asghar Farhadi)
The joint winner for Cannes 2nd prize was A Hero (Ghahreman), Asgar Farhadi’s return to Iranian cinema (after the Spanish language effort Everybody Knows). Utilizing Farhadi’s signature morality tale approach, A Hero concerns the story of a man attempting to get rid of his debts after being released from prison. The film is said to be a return to form for Farhadi (though his filmography has barely a blemish) and is purported by some to be his best since 2011’s foreign-language Academy Award winner A Separation.
Compartment No. 6 – Co-winner of The Grand Prix (dir. Juho Kuosmanen)
The other film to share the Grand Prix comes from Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, who previously won the Prize Un Certain Regard for 2016’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, returns to the festival with Compartment No. 6, a love story set on a train between a Finnish woman and a Russian miner. The detailed and moving film was well received by critics and audiences and has been deemed “the Finnish Before Sunrise” by some.
Ahed’s Knee (Ha’berech) – Co-winner of the Jury Prize (dir. Nadav Lapid)
Israeli director Nadav Lapid shared this year’s Jury Prize for his self-reflexive drama about a 40-something Israeli filmmaker battling with national identity and the declining health of his elderly mother. A film steeped in style with a deep emotional throughline that allows the director to be center stage despite never appearing on camera, Ahed’s Knee is alleged to captivate audiences and play with the filmmaker-film viewer dynamic to fascinating lengths.
Memoria – Co-winner of the Jury Prize (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
This Tilda Swinton-starring slow burn marks Thai filmmaker (and previous Palm d’Or winner) Apichatpong Weerasethakul making his English language debut. The film, set in Colombia, sees Swinton as a woman fixated on finding the cause of a noise only she can hear. Memoria stands as the best-reviewed film that played in competition this year and another success for the Thai auteur.
Annette (dir. Leos Carax)
A daring musical starring Adam Driver and Marian Cotillard opened the Festival. French director Leos Carax’s first English language film won Best Director and sees his return to Cannes after the stunning cinematic odyssey of 2012’s Holy Motors, which won the Palm d’Or that year. The film, written by and featuring music from the band Sparks is set to be released in theatres in the US on August 6th, to be followed by a release on Prime Video on August 20th.
The French Dispatch (dir. Wes Anderson)
Perhaps the most high-profile film coming into the Festival, Wes Anderson’s 10th film features a stack ensemble cast of Timothee Chalamet, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, and Adrien Brody (to name just a few). Initially set to premiere at the canceled 2020 festival, The French Dispatch serves as Anderson’s love letter to journalism and is made up of three stories all of which surround an American newspaper in a fictional French city. For those who enjoy Anderson’s particular directing style, this is one to look out for, as some critics have described it as “the most Wes Anderson Wes Anderson film to exist”, for all the positives and negatives that might come with it.
Red Rocket (dir. Sean Baker)
American director Sean Baker makes his Cannes debut with Red Rocket, a film about a former porn star returning to his Texas home in search of direction. Baker’s films have always highlighted the stories of those on the fringes of society, with previous efforts such as the iPhone-shot Tangerine focusing on trans sex workers in LA and his Oscar-nominated 2017 film The Florida Project taking a look at the lives of poor Floridians in the shadow of Disney World. His new film, starring former MTV VJ Simon Rex, has been praised for its humanity and care, with many citing Rex as a standout performance from the festival.