Cannes report: The French festival strives for relevance in turbulent times

The film event of the year makes a comeback with the usual suspects and a diverse array of new faces.

In a heroic effort, the first live edition of the Cannes Film Festival since the pandemic began strives for relevance in turbulent times.

The competition lineup includes the usual suspects: European auteurs Nanni Moretti and Bruno Dumont, as well as Americans Wes Anderson and Sean Penn. (Canada has no films in competition but is represented by Aline, a musical biopic loosely based on Celine Dion’s life, premiering at Cannes on July 13.) Again there are no Netflix films this year. The festival is still feuding with the streaming service due to its insistence on releasing films online simultaneously with their theatrical debut.

But the programming is also more diverse than usual this year, featuring Chadian filmmaker Mahamat Saleh Haroun, Iran’s Asghar Farhadi and Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand, among others. Spike Lee heads the majority-women competition jury that also includes French-Senegalese Mati Diop, winner of 2019 Cannes Grand Prix for  Atlantique. Judy Foster, awarded an honorary Palme d’Or for lifetime achievement, walked the steps with her wife and received her prize from South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, whose Parasite won the Palme d’Or in 2019. Women directors competing this year include Hungarian Ildikó Enyedi and French Mia Hansen Løve, among others, overall inching toward gender parity.

This scene is a far cry from 20th-century Cannes, when (mostly) white men competed for directing prizes while white female stars posed for photographers in bikinis, as evidenced in Morceaux de Cannes (Emmanuel Barnault, 2020), complied at the National Audiovisual Institute from newsreels of previous festivals and posted on the festival website ahead of this year’s event. That film is still available and is worth watching for delightful glimpses of a blasé Alfred Hitchcock, and of François Truffaut as he closed the festival in solidarity with striking workers and students in 1968.

Annette, the opening film at Cannes 2021

Pandemic-era Cannes is muted, however. Fewer people fill the theaters, the film market takes place mostly online and health screenings slow things down (participants have to take PCR tests every 48 hours). I flew in via Moscow, classified as a dreaded “red” COVID zone in France, and therefore had to quarantine for 10 days. As a result, I missed the first three days of the festival, including, sadly, the premiere of Leo Carax’s Annette, a current critics’ favourite starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.

That’s why I was predisposed to like Alexei German Jr.’s House Arrest (Delo in Russian), where a literature professor, confined to his apartment by the courts, fights a charge of embezzlement, trumped up in retaliation for publicly criticizing a corrupt mayor of his small town. Anyone who lived through a pandemic lockdown (as Montrealers have) could relate to David (Merab Ninidze) as he navigates his piles of books, paintings and dirty clothes, a setting masterfully designed by Elena Okopnaya. Occasionally he ventures as far as 10 metres into the yard to meet with loyal students or his devoted mother (played by the inimitable Roza Khairullina, who is, as usual, impeccably dressed).

This story references the fate of Kirill Serebrennikov, a Russian film and theatre director who spent several months under house arrest, accused, then convicted of embezzlement, in retaliation for his anti-Putin political views. Russian authorities did not allow Serebrennikov to come to Cannes this year to present his own competition picture, Petrov’s Flu. German’s claustrophobic film explains why.

Alexei German House Arrest Cannes festival
House Arrest by Alexei German

Unfortunately, along the way, German’s political satire gets bogged down in details that feel muddled and overblown. David is a hyperbole as a person and a victim. He is Georgian and also Jewish; knows six languages and also draws — it was his viral caricature of the mayor copulating with an ostrich (never actually shown) that started his misfortunes. His ex-wife, estranged daughter and colleagues all abandon him. The city cuts off water in his apartment, his mother dies without him by her side, the mayor’s goons rough him up and his health grows worse. By the time his doctor refuses to treat him, his persecution loses all credibility. Props and characters come into view to convey David’s suffering, then inexplicably disappear. David stands trial along with his female colleague — we see her in television reports. Yet he is completely unconcerned about her fate, nor does he ever communicate with her about their joint defence. Then there is his mother’s dog, whom he adopts after she dies. When David leaves for the final trial session with a bag packed for prison, he abandons the adorable pup in the locked apartment. 

A metal sculpture, an outline of Lenin’s head in profile, looms in the background every time David ventures outside. David, German suggests, is the heir to the Soviet dissident intelligentsia. Yet the Goliath of Russian oligopoly today requires a collective organized protest, more than a navel-gazing professor could provide. ■

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