On his second-to-last day in Cannes, our Festiville correspondent and jury-of-one Brian Formo announces his personal winners, is transported by Memoria, and troubled by Nitram.
Tomorrow is when the 2021 Cannes Jury—president Spike Lee and his fellow jurors Song Kang-ho, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mati Diop, Mélanie Laurent, Tahar Rahim, Jessica Hausner, Mylene Farmer, and Kleber Mendonça Filho—give out their awards. Since I’m an awards slut—peep my website where I hand out prizes for every year from 1920 onwards—I am awarding my personal picks before the Jury announces theirs.
First, a primer. The above jury votes only on the films shown In Competition. I’ve seen 26 films in ten and a half days, and of them, these are the sixteen competition titles that I made it to: Ahed’s Knee, Annette, Benedetta, Bergman Island, The Divide, Drive My Car, Everything Went Fine, Flag Day, The French Dispatch, A Hero, Memoria, Nitram, Paris, 13th District, Red Rocket, Titane, and The Worst Person in the World.
The eight films I missed: Casablanca Beats, Compartment No. 6, France, Lingui, Petrov's Flu, The Restless, The Story of My Wife, and Three Floors. All told, I watched two thirds of the films eligible for the main slate awards. The ones that I wished I would have seen, based on some trusted reviews, are Compartment No. 6 and Lingui. I will catch them later.
For the purposes of Brian’s Personal Cannes Prizes, I am only including those I managed to see. First, the awards for what’s essentially first place, second place, and third place, have these names: the Palme d’Or (1st), the Grand Prix (2nd), and the Prix du Jury (3rd). The jury also hands out awards for Best Director, Best Actor/Actress, and Best Screenplay. (There is also one Best Short Film award but I only saw one—the beautiful Bill Duke-starring noir The Vandal).
Unlike the Oscars, which comes after many other precursor awards, and has a voting body so large that it’s hard to be truly surprised, there are only ten people voting at Cannes. Though we know how critics feel about certain movies, we have absolutely no idea what Spike Lee et. al., actually enjoyed. Pundits’ predictions are usually based on the types of movies that a few of the jurors seem drawn to make, but Lee and fellow jurors are not beholden to a specific genre. It should make for interesting choices.
Without further ado, here are my awards:
I keep vacillating between my number one and two films from this year’s festival, but Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero and Julia Ducournau’s Titane are the only two films that completely blew me away at Cannes 2021. And they couldn’t be more different. A Hero is a dialogue-based morality play with a complex script of minute details of timing and speech, structured as a fight between self preservation and the right thing to do. Titane is all mood, and shocking carnage, with an eventual release. It’s dangerous and bold. A Hero doesn’t take as many swings, but it is steady, engrossing, and through-provoking throughout whereas Titane takes so many audacious swings, time will tell if every swerve lands.
I saw Titane and A Hero twelve hours apart. My highlight of the festival was going to bed with my mind blown by Titane then waking up to a completely different cinematic experience the next morning, with A Hero. One grabbed a hold of my attention immediately—with images that still disturb my mind days later—the other steeped like tea, and the complexities of its flavor were well worth the wait.
Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director): Julia Ducournau, Titane
Many directors stumble with their second film after being granted more budget and scope. To follow Raw, Ducournau does not rein anything in, and Titane is immensely exciting and beguiling because of it. The less you know the better because there are many stomach-turning and tender surprises. But I’ll just say that everything has a purpose, the startling twists and turns are not just there to shock for shock’s sake, but ultimately gender roles and sexual expectations are being played with from the first moment to the last.
I am immensely impressed with Ducournau’s ability to keep all of it moving forward without any wreckage. I have no doubt that she is the Best Director of Cannes 2021.
Prix d'interprétation féminine (Best Actress): Renate Reinsve, The Worst Person in the World
Best Actress at Cannes is much like the past decade of Best Actresses at the Oscars: far more competitive and interesting (to me) than the Actor category. Sophie Marceau (Everything Went Fine), Virginie Efiria (Benedetta), and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (The Divide) all turn in great work in dramas with a comedic streak but it’s Renate Reinsve who carries the entirety of The Worst Person in the World on her back.
Without her charming, introspective, and wickedly funny performance, the movie doesn’t work. She makes her character so likable that while she does some hurtful and objectionable things, I always understood where she was coming from and continued to root for her.
Prix d'interprétation masculine (Best Actor): Caleb Landry Jones, Nitram
On the opposite side of Reinsve, in Nitram, Caleb Landry Jones is tasked with not making his character sympathetic but instead giving a realistic portrayal of mental instability, violent outbursts, and a fateful desire to fit in. Jones is playing the mass murderer whose violence changed Australia’s gun laws in 1996. While that massacre occurs off screen, Jones’ performance is a difficult task, and the Get Out actor—who has the ability to ramp up in extremes—is instead quite careful with his coiled rage here. There is a desire to please and a bafflement at his wrongdoing.
This selection might be more controversial, but like Reinsve, the whole movie lives and breathes on the lead actor’s ability to not become a caricature. Other leading man performances that resonated with me included Simon Rex in Red Rocket and Adam Driver in Annette. All of these performances are toxic characters who can’t find blame within themselves. Ultimately, Jones’ steadiness from the first frame to the ending is what had me choose him.
Prix du scénario (Best Screenplay): Asghar Farhadi, A Hero
Throughout its evocative mood, inventive framing, and whirling camera, A Hero’s greatest strength is an impeccably plotted screenplay.The struggle to prove what is true to someone else is a theme throughout Farhadi's work and A Hero is special because it adds a new wrinkle to his formula: public perception, and how our desire to have every feel-good story be as pure as possible, means what once made us feel good eventually makes us feel bad.
But while the audience gets to move on to the next potential perfect story, the consequences of that hot/not approach to a news story falls on someone who is discarded if the purity test isn’t passed. And the bars to surpass are immense.
Personal awards ceremony aside, I also managed to also see two films today. Let’s dive in.
The latest cinematic meditation from Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady) has landed and the payoff for Memoria is immense, but it’s largely how it sends you back out into the world. The minimal story in his expansive runtime is of a woman (Tilda Swinton) who starts to hear a disturbingly loud thudding noise that no one else can hear. She attempts to recreate it with a sound mixing artist and eventually finds herself next to a babbling brook talking to a man who is unplugged from technology and in tune with his surroundings.
Weerasthakul uses sound in many intriguing ways throughout the film and he does provide a clear answer to the origins of the thud, though I did hear some divisive reactions to that explanation. For me, the explanation wasn’t a problem, nor was it one of the more important parts of the movie. What was most important to me is that I left the theater and paused to gaze across the sea air, observing the space between yachts and the soft pinks and blues on the horizon; I closed my eyes and listened. A few steps further, I noticed some neon signs I’ve walked past for days but never stopped to look at before. Memoria put me in tune with my surroundings in a different way, which I think is largely his intent.
I am someone who can drive long distances in silence, collecting my thoughts, observing my surroundings, and hearing the hum of rubber on the road. I don’t need outside stimulation at all times, particularly in my ears. I don’t meditate outright but I practice meditation often through silent tasks. And that’s where Memoria clicks for me: in returning to the outside world.
However, I was so beguiled by my surroundings on my walk back to my hotel, I totally missed that my wallet had slipped out of my pocket in the screening room. This immediately shook me from that transformative state and sent me sprinting back to the theater, skipping the line for the next film, pleading with security to just let me up the steps, eventually getting to the helpful ushers in blue and red and finding my wallet. On the run back to the Soixantième I was calculating how many hours I could survive without the ability to withdraw cash or make card purchases. I was thankful that I always keep my passport in the safe. But thank heavens we were reunited—though I’m disappointed by how jarringly my meditative state was jostled by money worries. C’est la vie.
Weerasthakul’s glacial pace is certainly an acquired taste, so the Letterboxd reviews are all over the place. Douglas Greenwood raves that Memoria “wraps itself around you slowly until you meet the pay-off, which is so moving.” But Andrew Crane laments that “the ending was ruined by a reveal that didn’t need to be explained.” And while pretty much all reviews singled out the impeccable use of sound, Maelancholia also remarks that Tilda Swinton is “perfect.”
Nitram is the true story—with liberties—of the young man who massacred 35 people in Tasmania—the largest shooting spree in Australia’s history, which changed their gun laws within just twelve days. As an American, our reference point for this massacre is in the ability of Australia’s government to achieve gun control and gun buybacks, something we keep being told is impossible to do in the States—even though we have mass shootings with extreme frequency. Justin Kurzel’s film, however, includes a postscript text update that’s maddening.
The film will no doubt be controversial for the subject matter, but the killings are off screen, so they are not sensationalized; but still, the killer is in every shot of the film, something that carries a potentially dangerous notoriety. So, while this is competently made, with increased unease, and Jones is spectacular, there is a murkiness that hangs over the film. And the murkiness will remain because, accurately, Kurzel (True History of the Kelly Gang) isn’t attempting to explain why Nitram (Martin, spelled backwards) committed the killings but instead to observe his erratic behavior long before the murders were carried out.
There isn’t a shade of sympathy, in my opinion, but the moment he steps into a gun shop and is told he’d only need a gun license if he wanted to buy a handgun—not a semi-automatic rifle—is when the growing pit in my stomach becomes hardened. Judy Davis is great as Nitram’s mother, who attempts to keep him on his medications, provides firm boundaries, but also watches on as her son abuses her husband (Anthony LaPaglia) right in front of her.
This will be the last film I see at the Cannes Film Festival, no palette cleanse other than whatever I choose to watch on the plane back to Los Angeles. What makes Nitram feel of the moment and not exploitative is that text at the end of the movie. Ultimately, it’s a warning that this could happen again.
On Letterboxd, Moka highlights the relationship between Jones and Essie Davis (The Babadook) by labeling it “Harold & Maude meets Elephant.” Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or-winning film is brought up in a number of the reviews. Hunter Frieson writes, “I have cramps from being so tense throughout the runtime. Like Elephant, the film doesn’t overly explain how its main character descends into madness, only because real life isn’t that simple.” Morris Yang penned a lengthy back-and-forth, wrestling with the film’s motives and history; well worth a read in its entirety.
Soon, we will find out the actual winners from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Until then, you’ll find me at Antibes, checking out a different local beach, different cobblestone streets, and some Picasso paintings. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to make it back to Cannes, so a day trip is worth it.
As such, this will be the end of films for me. I saw 26, I enjoyed 17, and I think one or two might be a masterpiece. The final report tomorrow.