Pictures that will remain from the 74th Cannes Film Festival. An emaciated young woman with a decorative wound on her head and motor oil dripping from her breasts. A lascivious pole dance on the roof of a ladder truck in front of an increasingly distraught group of firefighters. Bondage sex with a car. A shadow of a man, pumped up on the outside and empty on the inside, who is chasing hormone injections up his buttocks.
It is not the usual Cannes merchandise that Julia Ducournau is presenting in the competition with her second feature film “Titane”. That is why it is all the more sensational that the jury around Spike Lee awarded the French director the Palme d’Or on Saturday evening at the awards ceremony in the Grand Théâtre Lumière – as the second woman ever and 28 years after Jane Campion, from whom this award also removes a burden : that of the eternal Cannes mascot against his will.
Spike Lee and his jury have achieved what many other Cannes juries have failed to do in recent years: not only to award a director, but also a film that could suddenly open up new possibilities for cinema after this turning point caused by the pandemic, similar to before two years the prize for Bong Joon-hos “Parasite”.
Body horror and identity issues
“Titane” was also one of the secret festival favorites because it goes where few films dare to go today: images that cause physical pain, but with all the drasticness reveal a deep vulnerability the further the characters move from their environment isolate. Agathe Rousselle plays a bloodthirsty young woman with a car fetish who – between trauma and neurological disorders – transforms first into a boy and then into something fascinatingly transhuman.
How Ducournau short-circuits body horror with gender and identity questions in her film and at the same time a touching father-son drama (also thanks to the broken virility of Vincent Lindon) with bloody gore, leaves all the conventions of genre cinema behind. This means that “Titane” is closer to the feminist director Claire Denis than to a David Cronenberg. It is the work of a radical author who caused a sensation in Cannes with her debut, the cannibalistic love story “Grave”.
The Golden Palm for “Titane”, which Spike Lee accidentally revealed at the beginning of the award ceremony, also answers a central question that this year’s Cannes Festival – after the canceled 2020 edition and a cinema shutdown that paralyzed international film production – tried to answer: In which direction is cinema developing after the pandemic and the boom in streaming providers?
And what role do the film festivals want to play in this development? A judgment was also so difficult because the Cannes 2021 program still shows a snapshot before the pandemic.
What images does the pandemic leave behind?
A strange non-simultaneity ran through the competition, in which leftovers from the canceled 2020 year stood next to newer productions. Films like Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour “Drive My Car” or Joachim Lafosse’s “Les intranquilles” were among the few exceptions in which protective masks were seen. Festival director Thierry Frémaux may be right that the pandemic will hardly leave any traces in pictures because face masks rob the cinema of an essential expression. How films will deal with the pandemic in the future could, however, be symptomatic of the cinema’s reference to reality.
A strange feeling prevailed in the past two weeks: This year’s edition is above all a demonstration of power. The abundance of well-known names from the author and art house cinema had reached a lavish level, festival director Thierry Frémaux seemed to be just about crowding out the competition Berlin and Venice to go.
He wasn’t doing the festival or the films any favors. Established names such as Nanni Moretti, Bruno Dumont, the bear winner Ildikó Enyedi and Sean Penn were represented with their weakest films in the inflated competition, directors: inside with formally interesting films such as Kornél Mundruczó, Andrea Arnold (a documentary film about the agricultural recycling chain the perspective of a cow) and Gaspar Noé, who gave the horror impresario Dario Argento a tender age role, were parked in subordinate program series.
Lax handling of the mask requirement
This Cannes hubris continued directly in the extremely lax implementation of the Corona measures, which were already loose in France. Different rules seem to apply on the Croisette, and the atmosphere in the halls was accordingly irritable. There was seldom any trace of euphoria. Heckling, please put on the masks, were heard quite often during the demonstrations. But why should the audience take the announcements seriously when the Cannes boss himself sets a bad example on the red carpet? The cancellation of the vaccinated Léa Seydoux, who had to go into quarantine in Paris, did not change that.
Ultimately, the unbalance of a competition can only be compensated for through clever jury decisions. Spike Lee, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kleber Mendonça Filho, Mati Diop, Jessica Hausner & Co have done a lot right here that cannot be valued highly enough after too frequent questionable Cannes decisions in recent years. You have marked out exactly the right mix of classic auteur cinema and the few, but all the more concise, film experiments.
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The jury award is shared by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s delirious solo piece “Memoria” for a stunning Tilda Swinton, who was omnipresent again this year on the Croisette, and Nadav Lapid’s tour de force “Ahed’s Knee” through the Israeli border area. Films that convince with an original vision of cinema were in the minority, which is why the festival needed such accents from the jury in order to counteract the overly homogeneous impression of the competition and to work out the strengths of the selection.
Dominance instead of aesthetic refinements
In this respect, with the masterful moral piece “A Hero” by the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s very concentrated, very serious Murakami film “Drive My Car”, the loneliness study of a (again!) Car fanatic, the jury was able to pinpoint the two best representatives of one classic narrative cinema, which was disproportionately represented in the competition this year.
The fact that the still somewhat unpredictable Leos Carax won the director’s award with his art-pop musical “Annette” is not just a small bow to one of the most eccentric French people of today, but also to big star cinema (Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as a toxic, singing celebrity couple), which was otherwise only served by Wes Anderson with his equipment film “The French Dispatch” – but came away empty-handed.
So the festival, which was supposed to mark a new beginning, ends in a forgiving way. Cannes’ claim to hegemony, which is no longer about aesthetic refinements or a search for traces of new narrative forms, but about sheer dominance, seems out of date today. The jury got the best out of the offer – and with its decisions also made makeshift corrections to another tendency in the film industry that was already evident at the Berlinale: 18 out of 24 films in the competition came from Europe.
Should this Cannes vintage actually give a representative picture of international production, it is to be feared that the pandemic could continue to leave the remote regions of world cinema behind. This development would be worrying. With such a Eurocentric perspective, the festivals would undermine the artistic radiance of cinema – in comparison with the global strategies of Netflix, but also with more recent discourses in contemporary art.