CANNES, France — “May we now start?”
I suspect the very moment the programming committee of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival heard the first song in Leos Carax’s “Annette” — an infectiously energetic, fourth-wall breaking overture that hits gonzo heights the movie never really reaches again — its destiny as the opening-night film was set. “So may we start?” Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard sing. “May we now start?” the ensemble responds spikily, announcing the intention, rather than seeking the permission, for the film, the festival (which canceled its 2020 edition), and life as Cannes’ regular attendees know it, to begin. Reader, it started.
Written by Carax and the art-pop duo Sparks, “Annette” is an oddity that met a wildly divided reception, but no one was left unmoved by that first number. After the exhausted conclusion of Cannes on Saturday, its excitable beginning feels very long ago, but there could have been no more hopeful, no more unifying moment than that anthem of impatience, played in that context. The only possible dissenters might have been the team presenting Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” which had been widely tipped for the coveted slot but wound up premiering later in the week, to an unusually cool reception (despite the significant joy I took in it). Presumably that will teach Anderson to include a “Let’s get this show on the road!” or a “Here we go, everyone!” song at the beginning of all future films.
“May we now start?” was far from the only earworm to wriggle into the collective attendee subconscious during these past hot, hassled, happy days. Given that all festivals are kaleidoscopes of moods, genres and tempos, Cannes 2021, after so much silence, was at least partly a musical.
I puttered down the Croisette humming Vanessa Paradis’s “Be My Baby” for days after hearing it used, to such jagged, incongruous effect, in Nadav Lapid’s brilliant, excoriating “Ahed’s Knee.” I bopped out of Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir Part II” — unequivocally the best film of the festival not actually in the festival, it being part of the separate Directors’ Fortnight — to the strains of Eurythmics’ “There Must Be An Angel,” which is used to such transcendent effect. I irritated my flatmates with shower renditions of Desireless’s ’80s Euro megahit “Voyage Voyage,” after being thoroughly charmed by Juho Kuosmanen’s strangers-on-a-train romance, “Compartment No. 6.” It was only displaced, to my chagrin and doubtless that of those within earshot, by ’N Sync’s heroically vacuous “Bye Bye Bye,” a recurrent theme in Sean Baker’s terrific, deceptively loose-limbed “Red Rocket.”
Not having any love for comic operetta, I spared everyone my version of the Gilbert and Sullivan singalong that occurs in Justin Kurzel’s exceedingly tense and disturbing mass-shooting true story, “Nitram.” Nor did I try to emulate the budding Moroccan rap stars of Nabil Ayouch’s scrappy, not-quite-tight-enough gritty hip-hop musical “Casablanca Beats,” much to the rap genre’s relief.
But Cannes was not all song and dance; it also did a nice line in body horror. And a press corps kept constantly aware of the dictates of biology because of all the drooling into little tubes and all the brain-tickling nasal swabs we endured during our mandatory 48-hourly coronavirus tests, was ideally primed to respond to this earthier, grislier, bawdier element. We most obviously did so with Kirill Serebrennikov’s widely admired, feverishly deranged “Petrov’s Flu” a wildly imaginative head trip that plays like a post-Soviet “Ulysses” rendered in imagery so livid with viral contagion that to watch it is to wish you had several more masks on.
On a less discomfiting, far more salacious note, Paul Verhoeven’s winkingly trashy and lurid nunsploitation drama “Benedetta,” in which Virginie Efira plays the 17th-century Italian nun who was the subject of the Roman Catholic Church’s only trial for lesbianism, duly features some mortifications of the flesh, among significantly more scenes of its gratification.
But apart from the unforgettably lewd use that Benedetta’s lover finds for a small, well, dildo-size statue of the Virgin Mary, the moment from this film that stuck with me most was a relatively demure line. “Your worst enemy is your body,” Benedetta is told when she arrives at the convent as a child and must exchange her fine silks for a scratchy sackcloth shift. “It is best not to feel too at home in it.” That awful admonition reminded me of Tatiana Huezo’s sublime “Prayers for the Stolen,” in which the mothers in a cartel-controlled Mexican village make their adolescent daughters look boyish, through short haircuts and oversize clothing, in an effort to keep them safe from the ever-present specter of kidnapping and rape.
But the nun’s words also spoke to a basic skill that many of us in Cannes were having to suddenly relearn: that of being outside, in a body, in the world among all its perils. I heard of four separate incidents in which bodies, not used to the physical demands of festivalgoing after nearly 18 months of trekking only between sofa and fridge, betrayed their owners. A toe was broken, a kneecap lost its mooring, an arch fell and an ankle was sprained — this last I know about because the ankle was mine. On the day before the festival began, blithely walking with my nose in my phone, not noticing a split in the notoriously uneven Cannes sidewalk, I fell as flat as Sean Penn’s “Flag Day” would a few days later.
So while many of us were struggling with body horrors of our own, “Benedetta” — the type of film in which a random character will pull a heavy breast from her bodice and contemptuously squirt milk into Charlotte Rampling’s eye — also introduced the subgenre of birth horror. The most surprising Cannes exemplar was a documentary: Andrea Arnold’s “Cow,” which with strict formal rigor, focuses on Luma, a handsome Holstein Friesian kept permanently pregnant, and therefore lactating, on a British dairy farm. But as a theme, this vein of horror also looped through Valdimar Johannsson’s classy, witty Icelandic fable “Lamb,” in which a taciturn couple on a remote farm raise the surprisingly cute hybrid offspring of an ewe and a malevolent mythical entity. And the subgenre finally found its apotheosis — although it is motor oil that is expressed by the breast here, not milk — in Julia Ducournau’s astoundingly audacious, hyperstyled “Titane,” which won the Palme d’Or, by far the most impressively daring choice for that top prize in recent memory.
Sometimes Cannes was a fast-moving car out of which we could stick our heads and yell in elation like the irrepressible little boy in “Hit the Road,” the delightful debut that introduces the director Panah Panahi, son of revered Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi. Sometimes it was a road movie of a different order, like Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s exquisitely observed drama of gently momentous connection, “Drive My Car,” a film that takes three hours and not a minute too much, to tease out a relationship built on confidences hesitantly exchanged during a daily commute.
Briefly, around the time of the European Championship final, particularly among English and Italian attendees, Cannes became a sporting documentary.
But mostly, like Joachim Trier’s radiant, beloved “The Worst Person in the World,” Cannes 2021 was, for me, a lovely, imperfect romance. There’s a moment in the film when Julie (deserving Cannes best actress winner Renate Reinsve), having resolved not to cheat on her boyfriend but deeply attracted to a stranger she’s just met at a party, plays a game of “everything but” with him. They tell their deepest secrets. They watch each other pee. And in the garden at dawn they share a cigarette, the one blowing smoke into the other’s mouth in slow motion, giving the festival its sexiest scene as well as a sigh of nostalgia for a time when such an act would not have come tinged with transgression, when neither participant would have been thinking the words “airborne transmission.”
Cannes in the time of corona is also Cannes before corona and Cannes after corona, because it is about cinema, which is still the medium I love for its ability to propel me into recreated pasts and fling me into imagined futures. And sometimes, to wrap me in the exact moment, letting me breathe in an image like smoke and letting me feel it breathing back.
This was, for so long an event that no one even fully dared believe would happen, and now it’s over. For 12 days, we unpaused our lives and found, to our surprise, that despite twisted ankles, in-person conversations that did not feature mute buttons, and a level of moment-to-moment uncertainty that may simply become an continuing feature of life, something of the old rhythm remains, something of the old pleasure is awaiting rediscovery.
May we now start? I think — I hope — we may.