Women Win Top Awards in Cannes

Agathe Rousselle in Julia Ducournau’s Titane (2021)

Spike Lee made the closing ceremony of the seventy-fourth Cannes Film Festival a night that won’t soon be forgotten, and not just because he was the first Black president of the jury. When, at the top of the evening, master of ceremonies Doria Tillier asked him if he could tell the audience what the first award would be, he understood “first” as “top,” as in “best of the best,” and to the immediate horror of his fellow jurors—Mati Diop, Mylène Farmer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jessica Hausner, Mélanie Laurent, Kleber Mendonça Filho, Tahar Rahim, and Song Kang Ho—he announced that Titane had won the Palme d’Or.

By the end of the night, it hardly mattered. After waiting nervously for confirmation that she had indeed become the second woman to win the “first” prize in Cannes—Jane Campion won in 1993 for The Piano, though she shared her Palme with Farewell My Concubine director Chen Kaige—French filmmaker Julia Ducournau graciously said, “This evening has been perfect because it’s been imperfect.” And she thanked the jury “for letting the monsters in.”

The title of Ducournau’s second feature, a follow-up to Raw (2016), refers to the titanium plate implanted in the head of young Alexia after a near-fatal car accident; her father, played by Zombi Child director Bertrand Bonello, was at the wheel. Years later, Alexia, now played by writer, photographer, fashion designer, and model Agathe Rousselle, has developed a sexual appetite for cars and allows herself to be impregnated by a Cadillac. After a gory killing spree, Alexia breaks her nose, tapes down her breasts and swelling belly, and presents herself to a lonely fireman, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), as his long-lost son, Adrien. For Leonardo Goi in the Notebook, “what’s most shocking about Titane is the compassion it wrings out amid the madness, which grows more vivid as the bond between Alexia/Adrien and Vincent turns into an unlikely parent-child rapport.”

Titane has a few detractors, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw among them, but most reviewers have been enthralled, and nearly every one of them mentions Crash (1996) at least once. Among the most eloquent and enthusiastic of Titane’s champions is Jessica Kiang, who wrote the outstanding essay that accompanies our release of David Cronenberg’s winner of a special jury prize in Cannes. “Nodding to Cronenberg and anime and Claire Denis (there’s Beau travail in the many men-with-men dancing scenes, and there’s a little High Life fuckbox in the car-intercourse scenes) and Holy Motors and Nicolas Winding Refn (if he had the stones),” writes Kiang for the Playlist, “Titane is bold in its reference points, no-holds-barred in its approach to some of the hottest-button issues of the day, and brash—and often very funny—in its deliciously grisly and inventive image-making. But underneath the broad strokes and the bit where Vincent uses the Macarena as a teaching aid for CPR, there is deft, detailed filmmaking at work, too.”

Dispatching to Filmmaker, Blake Williams agrees that Titane is “an ostentatiously muscular production, and it wants our attention on, among other stylistic choices, its handful of showy, extended tracking shots that wind through dense, crowded spaces; a sound mix with the bass dialed well beyond ten; and brutal, startlingly visceral displays of violence inflicted on so many human torsos and faces—wounds that, significantly, are rarely if ever delivered from a man to a woman . . . Titane is a massively well-crafted film that I found both juvenile and uncommonly invigorating.”

Two Ties

Twenty-four films premiered in competition this year, and the jury evidently had a hard time sending so many home empty-handed. So they’ve given two awards to two films each. The Grand Prix goes to both Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, which has been pretty well-received, and Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No. 6, which has been very, very well-received. The Jury Prize goes to two tonally opposing works, Nadav Lapid’s furious Ahed’s Knee and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, which, as Mark Asch writes for Little White Lies, “lulls you into its rhythms, gives you the sparse outlines of an intellectual framework, then hits you with the full weight of accumulated lyricism that must be pure cinema.”

Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, a Scottish botanist in Colombia who is awakened by a low, booming rumble that only she can hear. Her search for the origin of these disturbances leads her to a sound engineer, Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), and then into the jungle and “toward a confrontation with the horrors of the past that linger in the air and the stones on the ground,” as Pat Brown writes at Slant. “Building to a conclusion that left my jaw on the screening room floor,” writes the Los Angeles TimesJustin Chang,Memoria casts a spell like nothing else I’ve seen from Cannes this year.”

Leos Carax won best director for Annette, the musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and featuring songs by Sparks. After the first round of reviews, Giovanni Marchini Camia wrote for Sight & Sound that opening this comeback edition of Cannes with a film by Carax, “a director whose every outing is at once a celebration and a reinvention of the art form, was brilliantly apropos. In fact, the legendary critic Serge Daney anointed Carax as cinema’s savior during the festival back in 1984, upon discovering the then-twenty-three-year-old’s debut, Boy Meets Girl.” For Amy Taubin, writing for Artforum, what makes Annette “formally complex and compelling is the marriage of Sparks’s precise but driving percussion and rhythm sections and Carax’s expansive, unpredictable, even Wagnerian onslaught of lighting and camera moves.”

Last Tuesday, we scanned early critical response to Drive My Car, which won the best screenplay award for Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe as well as the prize for best film in the competition from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). Renate Reinsve won this year’s best actress award for her turn as an aimless woman going on thirty in Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World. 

Best actor goes to Caleb Landry Jones for his performance as mass shooter Martin Bryant in Justin Kurzel’s Nitram. Bryant is not named in the film, which takes its title from his nickname—Martin spelled backwards. The 1996 shooting at Port Arthur, the Tasmanian heritage site, led to strict—and effective—gun control laws in Australia. “There have been some hammily exploitative portraits of real-life sociopaths of late, but this isn’t among them,” writes the Telegraph’s Tim Robey. Nitram is “told from a cool, analytical remove, and clings with painstaking sobriety to its point of view . . . There’s a moment of bestial howling on a bed which Jones knocks out of the park: he’s never begging for any unearned sympathy as this national figure of hate, but captures a doomed psyche breaking apart with eerie conviction.”

Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović, born in Dubrovnik and based in New York, took home the Caméra d’Or (the award for the best first feature) for Murina, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight. It’s “a superb study in sustained subliminal menace,” writes Screen’s Tim Grierson, “with Gracija Filipović especially skilled playing a young woman learning how to utilize her sensuality to secure her freedom—unless, of course, her dad (a wonderfully repellant Leon Lučev) doesn’t clip her wings first. Taking place on and around a gorgeous Croatian island, this tense drama takes aim at the patriarchy with sinister restraint, promising an explosion within a powder keg family that can no longer maintain its facade of civility.”

Tang Yi’s fourteen-minute All the Crows in the World has won the Palme d’Or for best short film. Chen Xuanyu plays Shengnan, an eighteen-year-old student who is invited to a mysterious party where all the guests turn out to be leering middle-aged men. She surprises herself, though, when she strikes up a friendship with one of them, Jianguo (Xue Baohe).

Un Certain Regard

Announcing the awards in the Un Certain Regard program, jury president Andrea Arnold noted that in her discussions with fellow jury members Daniel Burman, Michael Covino, Mounia Meddour, and Elsa Zylberstein, “the two things we were constantly saying were, ‘this film is very brave’ and ‘this film comes from the heart.’” From a selection of twenty competing films that reflects the festival’s efforts to refocus the section on “the discovery of emerging filmmakers,” Arnold’s jury has chosen to present five awards and a special mention.

Thirty-one-year-old Russian director Kira Kovalenko won the top award, the Un Certain Regard Prize, for Unclenching the Fists, “a welcome and exciting discovery” for Morris Yang at In Review Online and “a film of surprising energy and subdued menace” for Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. Ada (Milana Aguzarova) works as a cashier in an isolated mining town in North Ossetia in the Caucasus, and each evening when she returns home, her father, Zaur (Alik Karaev), locks her and her brother, Dakko (Khetag Bibilov), in their apartment. Yang writes that Kovalenko’s film “masterfully surveys through its character study” a “broader topography of economic and cultural alienation.”

Unclenching the Fists is Kovalenko’s second feature. She studied under Alexander Sokurov, and one of her classmates was Kantemir Balagov, who won the Un Certain Regard best director award in 2019 for Beanpole. “Sokurov was demanding, he was strict, and it was hard for us sometimes to meet his demands,” Kovalenko tells Variety’s Christopher Vourlias. “He always told us that we need to show him more about ourselves. Show us how you love, show us how you live, how you treat each other, what’s going on in your families. This was always the most important task for me.”

As David Katz writes at Cineuropa, Franz Rogowski “has to be one of the most exciting young acting talents working today.” The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney calls Rogowski the “smoldering center” of Austrian filmmaker Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom, the winner of the jury prize. Rogowski plays Hans Hoffmann, a real-life gay man imprisoned over and again between the end of the Second World War and 1969, when Germany finally got around to decriminalizing homosexuality. “Tender where most films of its kind are tough,” writes Jordan Cronk for Reverse Shot, “Great Freedom is nonetheless unflinching in its emotional honesty and highly detailed in its artistry. Shot by Crystel Fournier, it’s a beautifully rendered portrait of an ugly and inhumane time, one that, as Hans’s eventual reemergence into the dark night of the real world confirms, we haven’t fully left behind.”

The cast of Good Mother, the second feature directed by Hafsia Herzi, received the Ensemble Prize. In Marseille, a middle-aged woman holds down two jobs while caring for her sprawling family. “Anchored by non-pro Halima Benhamed (who had never acted and merely accompanied her daughter to an audition) as radiantly stoic central character Nora, the film’s always-convincing narrative is a seemingly effortless example of all the intersectionality, diversity, and women in front of and behind the camera anyone could possibly want,” writes Lisa Nesselson for Screen.

A Courage Prize goes to La Civil, directed by Belgian-Romanian Teodora Ana Mihai and coproduced by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Cristian Mungiu, and Michel Franco. Arcelia Ramírez plays Cielo, a mother searching for her teenage daughter who has been kidnapped by a cartel in northern Mexico. “Mihai straddles a fine line of pulpy revenge drama and a more naturalistic study of systemic corruption as Cielo has to become her own private investigator,” writes Stephen Saito, “but impressively for as much as the director leans into both ends of that spectrum, La Civil never loses its balance.”

Here we should make note of the jury’s special mention for Tatiana Huezo’s Prayers for the Stolen, as it, too, addresses the constant threat of abduction that young women face in some regions of Mexico. Prayers is set in a mountain village where workers harvest poppies for the production of opium. In the Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden is taken with the film’s “moments of astounding emotion delivered by the six first-time performers who play a trio of friends at two different ages. Halfway through the film, Huezo jumps from the girls’ childhood to their adolescence, when they’re old enough to understand the peril of human trafficking and the reason they wear their hair short, like boys.” For Guy Lodge, Prayers is “a coming-of-age story of unique urgency and scope.”

In Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb, which won a Prize of Originality, Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason star as a couple who discover a mysterious newborn on their remote sheep farm in Iceland. Lamb is a “wild and weird folkloric drama, laced with brooding genre elements that veer into horror and a vigorous jolt of WTF humor,” writes David Rooney, while at the Playlist, Elena Lazic finds that it is “more of a slow build-up of dread than it is a real shocker, and Jóhannsson does know how to rack up the tension with long takes, long silences, and sparse set design.”

FIPRESCI gave its Un Certain Regard award to Playground, the first feature from Belgian director Laura Wandel. Lisa Nesselson calls Playground “a sit-up-and-take-notice blend of outstandingly natural performances enhanced by spot-on cinematic choices.” Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme’s camera moves in tight on seven-year-old Nora’s (Maya Vanderbeque) face and stays there as she witnesses her brother (Günter Duret) being bullied at school. “Playground is practically an exercise in the use of off-camera space, and a masterful and refreshingly consistent one at that,” writes Diego Semerene at Slant. The film is also “an unvarnished contemplation of the cruelty of children and the negligence of adults.”

Cannes’ 2021 edition has been notable in all sorts of ways, but one that needs emphasizing is the fact that the Palme d’Or, Caméra d’Or, Un Certain Regard Prize, and Palme d’Or for best short film have all gone to women directors. Critic Caspar Salmon argues that artistic director Thierry Frémaux and his programmers now need to “make sure we don’t go back. We must have parity in the competition. It’s easily achievable: we know there are tons of brilliant films by women out there, as they won everything. Women can’t keep winning awards if they make up fifteen percent of the selection.”

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