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The Cannes 2021 Lineup Proves That Cinema is Alive

After a year of uncertainty, cinema remains alive and well. Luke Hicks breaks down the best of the recently announced Cannes 2021 lineup.
Cannes 2021 Lineup Breakdown
By  · Published on June 5th, 2021

In what is undoubtedly the grandest movie news since the closing of movie theaters and the best movie news since The Great Parasite Oscars Sweep of 2020, Cannes has announced the lineup for its 2021 festival, set to take place on the Croisette from July 6-17 with none other than Spike Lee presiding over the jury. (Is Spike the only 2-year President of the Cannes jury?) The selection of 63 films — 24 in Official Competition — is overflowing with highly anticipated releases from across the globe. Festival chief Thierry Frémaux and the selection committee have managed to squeeze what, after a year relatively void of big releases, seems like an inordinate number of renowned directors into the lineup. Then again, that’s how most Cannes lineups feel.

As it was announced a while back, Leos Carax’s psych-fantasy musical Annette, led by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and co-written by Ron and Russel Mael of art-rock duo Sparks, will open the festival where Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch would have last year. Anderson was one of many slated last year that waited it out for this year’s edition, his star-studded love letter to journalism still set to premiere in the Palais. Annette marks Carax’s English-language debut alongside several other noteworthy directors. 

Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul broke from the setting of his native Thailand for his English-language debut, Memoria, which stars a moody, ghostlike Tilda Swinton and deals with the concept of memory. Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, focused on a filmmaking couple played by Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps (who seem to mirror herself and Olivier Assayas) who travel to the storied Fårö island to write their respective screenplays, marks her English-language premiere and competition debut. 

Krieps is one of a select few who will appear in multiple titles, also at the center of actor-director and Cannes regular Mathieu Amalric’s Hold Me Tight, which will play in the newly added Cannes Premieres section alongside films from other well-known names, like Hong Sang-soo (would it be a festival without him?), Arnaud Desplechin (same), and Kornél Mundruczó. 

Léa Seydoux is another multi-movie attendee, with Bruno Dumont’s On a Half Clear Morning playing the Cannes Premiere section and Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi’s The Story of My Wife playing in competition. The latter is another English-language debut, this time a Milán Furst adaptation about a romance between a sea captain and a woman in a cafe. Out-of-competition title Mothering Sunday will mark Eva Husson’s English-language debut, Odessa Young starring in a role that calls Shirley to mind: a maid in a house overseen by an idiosyncratic couple in Olivia Colman and Colin Firth. How that will manifest remains to be seen, but it sounds like a good recipe. 

Between the directors mentioned above, it might sound like Cannes 2021 is closer to gender parity than in the past, but few if any strides have been made on that front. Though, it’s worth mentioning that steps haven’t been taken backward either. Only four of the twenty-four films in competition are directed by women — matching the most ever in competition — with Julia Ducournau’s (of carnal Raw fame) Titane and Catherine Corsini’s La Fracture filling out the rest.

This is where the Cannes Premieres selections come back in. The section was created for anticipated and formidable releases from recognizable filmmakers that didn’t get selected for competition. Out of nine titles, four were directed by women. Three are documentaries, which have an uncharacteristically robust presence at the 2021 festival. Films from Charlotte Gainsbourg on her mother Jane Birkin, Andrea Arnold on cows, and Ting Poo and Leo Scott on the life and times of Val Kilmer are already gaining major buzz alongside Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground and Oliver Stone’s JFK Revisited: Through The Looking Glass.

Five new filmmakers will make their debut in the Uncertain Regard section, including Gessica Généus from Haiti, the Romanian-Belgian Teodora Ana Mihai, and Jiazuo Na from China, all of whom could be names to look out for by the end of the fest. Other noteworthy mentions include Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou, which follows a Korean-American man settling his family in Louisiana, and Kogonada’s sophomore feature After Yang, which finds Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith wrapped in family complications after an AI malfunction in the near future.

Gainsbourg and Amalric aren’t the only actor-directors making exciting debuts, Sean Penn poised to return with Flag Day, which had better be more interesting than its title, and Shlomi Elkabetz set to premiere Black Notebooks in the Special Screenings section, where Ukrainian realist Sergei Loznitsa and the Brazilian-Algerian Karim Aïnouz will have new films. And perhaps most notable in Special Screenings is The Year of the Everlasting Storm, a collection of pandemic-themed shorts from Jafar Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, David Lowery, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (again). These short-film, all-timer projects don’t usually pan out, but here’s to hoping restlessness breeds brilliance. 

It feels like we haven’t scratched the surface without mentioning the new films from Nadav Lapid, Sean Baker, Asghar Farhadi, Justin Kurtzel, Tom McCarthy, or Jacques Audiard, to name a handful, or without noting Jodie Foster being awarded an honorary Palme d’Or, or without recognizing the fact that Director’s Fortnight and Critic’s Week, both major players in the lineup, haven’t announced their films yet. And somehow, in the excess of it all, there are still big titles missing, like Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog and Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, both belonging to Netflix, who rejected the offer for the films to play out of competition, keeping the four-year stalemate between Netflix and Cannes alive and well.

But not scratching the surface is the nature of the Cannes beast. It is, among other things, a reminder that film is flourishing. As Fremeux said in his announcement, “Cinema is not dead.” It continues to peak, thriving in every form imaginable from country to country, an accessible, communicative, collaborative, and evolutionary artistic expression that captures global attention for good reason.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.