Eight Contenders in Cannes

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Lingui, the Sacred Bonds (2021)

With just a few more days to go before the awards are presented on Saturday, now is a fine time to begin taking stock of this year’s competition in Cannes. So far, some films have kicked up more noisy debate than others, but in general, critics seem impressed with this year’s official selection. “Sorry to be sunny about every film I review at Cannes,” tweeted Variety and Guardian critic Guy Lodge a few days ago, “but you want me to lie and tell you they’re bad?” Let’s take a look at how eight contenders have been received in the order that the festival has presented them.

In François Ozon’s Everything Went Fine, Sophie Marceau plays Emmanuèle, whose eighty-five-year-old father (André Dussollier) asks her to help him end his life after a stroke leaves him partially paralyzed. The film is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Emmanuèle Bernheim, who worked with Ozon the screenplays for Under the Sand (2000), Swimming Pool (2003), 5x2 (2004), and Ricky (2009) before she passed away in 2017. Writing for Sight & Sound, Elena Lazic suggests that “the director’s affection for this frequent collaborator undoubtedly plays a part in the tenderness that permeates the film even in its most heart wrenching moments.”

Screen’s Tim Grierson admires the way that Ozon “refreshingly refuses to succumb to the mawkishness and histrionics that usually accompany such a sad tale.” The cast features Charlotte Rampling and Hanna Schygulla in small roles as, respectively, Emmanuèle’s depressive mother and a Swiss self-euthanasia advocate. The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney finds the film “notable for the laser focus of its short, pared-down scenes, making this a social issues film more interested in subtly observed personal responses and family dynamics than the bigger ethical questions raised.” At Slant, Pat Brown calls Everything Went Fine “an openly, almost assertively bourgeois drama that wears its politics on its business-casual sleeves but can in no way be mistaken for a polemic.”

Neither can Lingui, the Sacred Bonds. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun tells the story of Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), a single mother seeking an illegal abortion for her fifteen-year-old daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio). As Mark Asch writes at Little White Lies, the film “includes some acute indictments of Chadian society,” yet it is also “surprisingly low-key, matter-of-fact, and optimistic, emphasizing [Haroun’s] characters’ resourcefulness rather than their victimhood.” At the Playlist, Robert Daniels “can scarcely recall a score to this film or an overt editing choice,” and yet “every time I watch his films, from Abouna [2002] to A Season in France [2017], I always feel a sense of becoming, wherein the narrative is so open it carries a sense of incompleteness only to abruptly shock me with its sudden emotional truthfulness.”

We should note here that all five of Haroun’s previous fictional features are up on the Criterion Channel—but only through the end of this month. Lingui is Haroun’s first film to focus on women’s stories. He tells Tambay Obenson at IndieWire that in Chad “we have this thing we call Patriarca, which is just the dominating power of the men who are in charge who make these laws.” Women “are acutely aware of their condition, the ordeals they face, and they have always known how to manage . . . It’s a feminism that doesn’t openly ask for anything, but is extremely active.”

By comparison, Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World may come off as a comedy of first-world problems, but reviews have been mighty strong across the board. It’s “a sweet, sad, extremely funny character study that gets to the heart of how it feels to be on the cusp of true adulthood and completely ambivalent about it,” writes Hannah Strong at Little White Lies. Julie (Renate Reinsve) is twenty-nine, has abandoned plans for a career in medicine, then psychology, and is now dabbling in photography while working in a bookstore, where she falls for an older comic book artist, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie).

When she meets a barista, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), things get complicated. “Trier and his regular cowriter Eskil Vogt tell their story in twelve chapters plus a prologue and epilogue, and both the neatness of this approach and the thrilling sure-handedness of Trier’s filmmaking confer a gleaming narrative clarity on the romantic chaos ahead,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson suggests that the film’s bottom line is that Julie’s “aimlessness can be just as valuable, just as worthy, as another person’s certainty.” And Reinsve is “a perfect interpreter of the film’s tone, luminously embodying Julie’s grand and human jumble.”

Anyone walking into a film based on Judith C. Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy from the director of Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995), and Elle (2016) should know what to expect. In Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, Virginie Efira plays Benedetta Carlini, a nun given to visions of the divine and seduced by a newcomer to the convent, Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia). “Digital serpents, Jesus as a hot and lethal knight, and the already renowned wooden dildo whittled from the bottom of a Virgin Mary statuette lend levity to the provocations,” writes Blake Williams for Filmmaker. “It’s what I wanted it to be, how I wanted it to look—agreeably devilish.”

Benedetta is, as a matter of course, “outrageous, bombastic, flamboyant,” as Leonard Goi writes in the Notebook, but it also “relishes in all the madness with a contagious insouciance.” And as the mother superior, Charlotte Rampling is “its crowning glory. Her performance is a triumph of understated gestures—a twist of lips, an eye roll, a smirk, and her Felicita crystallizes all the defiant swagger Benedetta brims with.” In the New York Times, Kyle Buchanan has a few quibbles with Verhoeven’s idea of historical accuracy: “would it surprise you to learn that when these lithe nuns strip down, they’re as toned and well-manicured as a Playboy centerfold?” In the press conference, Daphné Patakia remembers “reading the script to myself and thinking, ‘There is not a single normal scene.’ There is always something destabilizing. So, I immediately said yes.”

Two films have flopped on the critical front, which doesn’t make for a bad ratio, considering past editions of Cannes. In Catherine Corsini’s The Divide, Raf (Valéria Bruni Tedeschi)—another comic book artist!—and her girlfriend, Julie (Marina Foïs), find themselves all but trapped inside a Parisian hospital while protests rage outside. “Part gritty public service dystopia, part modern-day farce about the yellow vests movement that ripped through the country in late 2018, the film can be both entertaining and surprisingly funny, especially if you’re familiar with France’s politics and current economic woes,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer, summing up quite well the critical response so far. The Divide, he finds, is “too on-the-nose about what it wants to say, or rather, shout as loud as it can, regarding the country’s accumulated social wreckage—to the point that the movie winds up drowning out its own main ideas.”

In 2016, The Last Face, Sean Penn’s fifth feature as a director, “pretty much got him booed off the red carpet,” recalls the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.Flag Day, starring Penn himself as real-life con artist John Vogel and Dylan Penn, Sean’s daughter, as Vogel’s daughter, is faring only slightly better. Bradshaw finds Flag Day to be a “very watchable and well-made family drama,” but few other reviewers agree. “Like an overworked Sam Shepard melodrama beneath the hubris of a John Huston lens, Penn apes all his favored darlings for this seedy beat caricature which can’t quite hit the high notes of the trauma porn it aims to be,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “Unforgivably campy and stupendously dull, it’s the product of an egomaniac who clearly admires the New American Cinema heyday of the 1970s but cheaply emulates it.”

In 2016, Juho Kuosmanen won the top award in the Un Certain Regard section for his black-and-white boxing movie The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, and now his Compartment No. 6 has premiered in competition. Finnish archeology student Laura (Seidi Haarla) is taking a train from Moscow to Murmansk when she’s joined by a rude vodka-swilling Russian, Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov). They do not hit it off. Instead, they back into it.

Writing for Variety, Jessica Kiang finds both actors “extraordinary at portraying ordinary.” Borisov “buries his soulfulness under a restless, constant physicality—he even seems to sleep tensely.” Haarla is “even more subtle, magnificent in her lank-haired, sensible-sweatered normalcy, her almost palpable insecurity constantly in flux with her quiet self-worth. Separately—for they are lonely individuals—the actors are wonderful in conveying the smallest of changes in chemistry between the characters, and together, there is not a moment of their relationship that you do not believe. Love is supposed to blossom, but theirs is nothing as fragile as a flower; it’s a trainyard weed, scrubby and unlikely, but hardier than the pretty red roses of other people’s affections.”

After Olli Mäki’s “early-’60s town-and-country clothes and locations, this is another out-of-the-park smash for Kuosmanen’s costume and production design teams,” writes Mark Asch for Little White Lies. “The textures of late-’90s Russia, the dying Yeltsin years, are so vivid—the scratchy nylon winter parkas and leftover fashions—and the train itself is a marvel, from the titular Compartment No. 6 to the berths with their threadbare curtains to the wan food in the dining car and the ancient laminate-wood panels.” Time Out’s Dave Calhoun finds that “as bleak as the settings may be,” Compartment No. 6 “has a delicious black comic streak and shares the buzz of personal re-awakening without ever feeling obvious or cheap.”

We wrap this round with the film that’s currently leading in the grades given by the twenty critics on Ioncinema’s panel and the ten on Screen’s jury grid. Little White LiesDavid Jenkins writes that, with their adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story Drive My Car, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi and cowriter Takamasa Oe “dutifully haul Murakami’s core text to the screen; they reform it, spin out sections and recalibrate the weight given to certain characters; and, finally, they seamlessly usher in Hamaguchi’s own abiding fascinations with the ways performance permeates our everyday lives, the cathartic qualities of confession, and the inability to truly know even basic truths about our friends, lovers, and acquaintances.”

For Diego Semerene at Slant, the “pleasures to be had in Drive My Car lie mostly in its first act, when the layers of the film unfold with a voluptuous slowness and a sense that narrative endpoints are irrelevant.” Theater actor and director Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima) spend their days in marital bliss, “making love and brainstorming ideas for supernatural television dramas.” Two years after Oto’s tragic death, Yusuke is assigned a driver, the mysteriously melancholic Misaki (Toko Miura), when he agrees to direct a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Day by day, the chill between them begins to thaw.

Just a few months ago, Hamaguchi won the grand jury prize in Berlin for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and in Drive My Car, his “filmmaking, always accomplished, reaches new heights of refinement and sensory richness,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety. Cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s camera “marks fine changes in light and air as the story progresses from Tokyo’s unyielding urban surfaces to the muffling foliage and pastel mists of the Setouchi coastline, and eventually to the sharp monochrome contrasts of Japan’s snow country—all bound by the black ribbon of road that remains Yusuke and Misaki’s happy-unhappy place.”

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