By the time the first red carpet rolls out at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, it will have been more than two years since the usual crowd of festival fans, cinephiles, journalists, filmmakers, stars, and assorted gawkers and hangers-on descended upon the small seaside city for one of the world’s most lauded festivals. The 2020 edition of the festival was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and while the festival still named a number of films as part of its Official Selection, 2021 marks a return to “normal” festival-going that feels both scary and worth celebrating.
A number of films bestowed with those asterisked 2020 laurels will finally make their bow at the 2021 festival, along with a slew of brand-new titles (including a few even made during the pandemic), some returning stars, and some major new names to know. Of the dozens of films set to premiere at Cannes, we’ve honed in on a handful that have us most excited for the return of Cannes (and, yes, cinema at large), including new works from some of our favorite filmmakers and a few curiosities that have piqued our interest.
This year’s festival runs July 6 through July 17. Read up on all of IndieWire’s coverage right here.
“Ahed’s Knee,” Nadav Lapid (Competition)
It would be an understatement to say that Nadav Lapid (“Policeman,” “The Kindergarten Teacher”) has never made an uninteresting film, but there was no way of adequately preparing for his 2019 Berlin-winner “Synonyms,” a sui generis work of tormented genius about the violence of an Israeli expat trying to replace one national identity with another. Whatever Lapid made next would be an event worthy of premiering on the film world’s glitziest stage, and so Cannes seems like a fitting place to bend “Ahed’s Knee” for the first time.
Continuing Lapid’s career-long fascination with the impossible knot that ties a person to their country, “Ahed’s Knee” tells the story of a renowned Israeli filmmaker who travels to a screening of his new film in a remote village. So far, so Hong Sang-soo. But things escalate quickly from there, as the protagonist becomes involved in “a bitter, relentless battle to save his country’s freedom of speech and free-falling democracy.” Few Israeli auteurs (if any) have engaged in a more hostile relationship with their own Israeliness than Lapid, and with “Ahed’s Knee” we can only hope that he’s made a film capable of meeting the darkness of its moment. —DE
“Annette,” Leos Carax (Competition)
“Every Leos Carax film is an event,” Pierre Lescure, President of the Festival de Cannes, said in a statement announcing the official addition of the latest from Leos Carax, and in this case, it seems like an event worth waiting for. “Annette” marks Carax’s return to Cannes competition following his last directorial effort, 2012’s “Holy Motors.” “Annette” was originally set to world premiere at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, but the pandemic canceled the event and pushed the musical’s premiere into 2021. Now, the film will open the 2021 edition of the festival.
“Annette” stars Adam Driver as a stand-up comedian and Marion Cotillard as his wife, a world-famous opera singer. Their glamorous life takes an unexpected turn when their daughter Annette is born, a girl we only know has “a unique gift.” The film co-stars “The Big Bang Theory” actor Simon Helberg and features original music from the band Sparks, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. Early looks at the film have, quite appropriately, played up its musical bonafides (and anyone who recently saw Edgar Wright’s Sparks documentary, “The Sparks Brothers,” was treated to some thrilling behind the scenes looks at Carax’s film), teasing big emotion underneath all that pageantry. —KE
“Bergman Island,” Mia Hansen-Løve (Competition)
Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest project may not be an outright homage to its namesake — her fans know better than to expect anything too portentous from the director of breezy al fresco dramas like “Things to Come” and “Goodbye, First Love” — but the plot is still possessed by Ingmar Bergman’s spirit in unexpected ways.
A semi-autobiographical drama about a wayward filmmaker (Vicky Krieps) who joins her celebrated auteur partner (Tim Roth) on a writing trip to the Swedish island where Bergman shot everything from “The Seventh Seal” to “Scenes from a Marriage” and continues to cast a long shadow, “Bergman Island” is refracted through a glass (not so) darkly when Krieps’ character begins imagining her next screenplay with an intimate vividness so intense that it seeps into reality.
Are Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie playing fictional characters in a film-within-a-film, or is their existence more intricately braided around the fates of the “real” people in this movie? We’ve been waiting for years to find out the true nature of what Hansen-Løve describes as “a story about how film tends to replace my memories of what really happened,” and it won’t be much longer before the film she’s made finally replaces our expectations of what might happen in it. —DE
“Drive My Car,” Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (Competition)
The last Murakami Haruki adaptation that premiered in Cannes was “Burning” in 2018, and it was a masterpiece. The last Hamaguchi Ryusuke movie that premiered anywhere was “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” just a few months ago, and it was as close to a masterpiece as anyone has been able to make during the pandemic. Needless to say, the hype is real for “Drive My Car,” a three-hour drama that Hamaguchi has extrapolated from the Murakami short story of the same name (“Burning” was derived from similarly thin source material).
The film concerns a well-known stage actor and director who — in a desperate bid to cope with the grief he continues to feel after losing his wife two years earlier — accepts a Hiroshima theater’s invitation to come and direct a new production of “Uncle Vanya.” This being a Murakami tale at heart, our hero’s chauffeur naturally turns out to be a beautiful and mysterious young woman who speaks to some unknowable part of his soul. We can’t wait to see where Hamaguchi steers the story from there. —DE
“Memoria,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Competition)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first feature-length effort since 2015’s “Cemetery of Splendor” was originally part of the Cannes 2020 selection and is exactly the sort of pure cinematic gamble that deserves to wait for its big festival debut. Directing a movie outside his native Thailand for the first time, Weerasethakul brings his surreal approach to Colombia, and applies them to the ever-formidable acting talents of Tilda Swinton.
The movie revolves around a woman traveling through Bogotá when she begins suffering from “exploding head syndrome” (a real thing!) that causes her to hear loud bangs that materialize out of thin air. As she ventures deeper into the countryside, the sudden noises take on a more profound dimension as she wakes up to the nuances of the world around her. At least, that’s the premise on paper for the intriguing new effort from a master of filmmaking as poetry, whose work has to be fully absorbed to understand its true significance. Bring it on. —EK
“Mothering Sunday,” Eva Husson (Cannes Premiere)
Two years after bowing her sophomore feature “Girls of the Sun” in competition, French filmmaker Eva Husson is preparing for a return to the Croisette, care of her third feature, a big screen adaptation of Graham Swift’s slim novel “Mothering Sunday.” While the basic plot of Swift’s well-received 2016 book might sound familiar-ish — it follows a young maid in post-World War I England who is engaged with a long-time affair with a local nobleman, which is about to end — Swift’s story unfolds into a rich, time-spanning drama that’s equally concerned with the single day of its title and everything that comes after.
Husson, armed with a script by Alice Birch (who most recently adapted Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” for the small screen), has assembled an enviable cast: Odessa Young (hot off another literary-minded feature in “Shirley”) plays the maid Jane, with Josh O’Connor on deck as her long-time lover. Colin Firth, Olivia Colman, and Ṣọpẹ́ Dirisu co-star. It sounds lush and aching (like all good historical dramas with a painful love story at their center), but its narrative conceit and the talent behind it hint that it may pack an even more fantastical punch than already hinted at. —KE
“Neptune Frost,” Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman (Directors’ Fortnight)
Acclaimed slam poet Saul Williams first made an impact onscreen in Marc Levin’s 1998 debut “Slam,” which he co-wrote, and the movie won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Now, Williams is up for that first-time filmmaker award himself, with this long-gestating burst of Afro-futurism that he has teased as his attempt to “fuck shit up. With Beauty.”
More specifically, “Neptune Frost” centers on “the love story between an African intersex runaway and a coltan miner, and the virtual marvel born as a result of their reunion,” according to an official description. Also: It’s a musical! While “Annette” promises to kick off Cannes with a surreal song-based narrative, it won’t be alone. In a year filled with musical revisions large and small, this one promises a truly distinctive vision, and its placement in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section — which has been launching filmmaking careers for decades — suggests that Williams is on the verge of becoming a true directorial talent to watch in 2021. —EK
“Red Rocket,” Sean Baker (Competition)
Sean Baker’s neorealist approach to unconventional movie characters is always a thrilling experience, whether he’s following counterfeit purse vendors in “Prince of Broadway,” the spiky trans heroines of “Tangerine,” or the impoverished mother-daughter survivors of “The Florida Project.” Now comes “Red Rocket,” which brings him back — at least on paper — to the territory of “Starlet” by following a porn star. Or, at least, that’s what the new movie’s central figure used to be.
Simon Rex stars as former porn actor who comes back to his small-town Texas community only to find himself confronted by people who never really wanted him around in the first place. One of Baker’s only credits to feature professional actors, “Red Rocket” was a last-minute Cannes addition that was quickly snapped up by “Florida Project” distributor A24, and the company clearly has high hopes for the dark comedy to make an impact as Baker graduates to Cannes competition. Here’s hoping that the filmmaker’s ever-absorbing approach to frantic characters continues to deliver a memorable ride. —EK
“The Souvenir Part II,” Joanna Hogg (Directors’ Fortnight)
A magnificent self-portrait of her formative years as a 25-year-old film student in 1980s London, Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir” premiered at Sundance in 2019 and — on the strength of Honor Swinton Byrne’s stunning turn as Hogg’s young proxy and Tom Burke’s dying animal of a performance as her heroin-addicted boyfriend — quickly earned the British auteur the attention she’s deserved for so long. The film was always planned as the first part of a diptych, and Hogg didn’t waste any time striking while the iron was hot; cameras rolled on the sequel less than six months after the original first screened.
“The Souvenir Part II” will pick up shortly after the original ended, with heroine Julie Harte grieving the loss of her troubled ex-boyfriend and trying to synthesize his memory with her burgeoning ambitions as a storyteller. The first installment showed brief flashes of Julie’s experience at film school, but this one will be immersed in it, as she plunges into her art headfirst in the hopes of finding a way forward at the bottom of it (Harris Dickinson and Joe Alwyn play two of the many collaborators who may not always understand what Julie is trying to do behind the camera). If the second half of “The Souvenir” lives up to the first, expect another searching, fragmented, and ravishingly well-remembered portrait of a woman becoming herself on film. —DE
“Titane,” Julia Ducournau (Competition)
After blowing away genre fans and regular old cinephiles with her compelling body horror debut “Raw” back in 2016 — a visceral coming-of-age cannibal tale that literally sent squeamish audience members running for the doors — Julia Ducournau seems poised to do it all again, care of a secretive second film. Her sophomore outing, “Titane,” is clearly a major event: Cannes opted to program it in competition, a rare feat for a budding filmmaker, especially a woman.
Distributor Neon, which plans to release the film stateside sometime this year, is staying cagey on its premise, not even providing an official synopsis for the movie alongside its tense first teaser. Instead, the studio provided a definition for the movie’s title: “A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys, often used in medical prostheses due to its pronounced biocompatibility.”
And while a January 2021 story from Cineuropa provides a bit more detail — “the script opens on an airport where custom inspectors pick up a young man with a bruised face. He claims his name to be Adrien Legrand, a child who disappeared ten years ago. For Vincent, his father, this marks the end of a long nightmare and he brings him home. Simultaneously, a series of gruesome murders places the region under pressure” — that does nothing to dissipate the sense that so much more is lurking under the surface.
The film stars rising actress Agathe Russell and French favorite Vincent Landon, who won a Cannes prize in 2015 for his performance in “Measure of a Man.” Ducournau’s short film “Junior” premiered at Cannes 2011 and won the Petit Rail d’Or, while “Raw” debuted at Critics’ Week during Cannes 2016 and won the FIPRESCI Prize. —KE
“Vortex,” Gaspar Noe (Cannes Premiere)
No filmmaker lights up the energy at Cannes like Gaspar Noé. There was the year his sprawling, cosmic ghost story “Enter the Void” showed up at the festival still wet from the lab, baffling and infuriating some audiences with its audacious technique and exhausting running time while others sang its praises. His pornographic 3D drama “Love” played to a packed midnight audience at the festival, where the wild enthusiasm was undercut by the realization that Noé had actually made a grounded romance. Noé’s hourlong meta-drama with Charlotte Gainsbourg playing both herself in a movie as a witch and possibly also an actual witch turned the Palais into a dazzling light-and-color show…and then never even made its way to the U.S.
Now, as Cannes lurches back to action, Noé is ready to meet it with another mysterious effort: “Vortex” was shot during the pandemic, and stars no less than Italian giallo guru Dario Argento and iconic French actress Francoise Lebrun (“The Mother and the Whore”) as an older couple dealing with the end of their lives. Given its cast, “Vortex” seems inclined to salute the work of Argento and Jean Eustache alike, finding a happy medium between horror and naturalistic human drama. If anyone is capable of striking that unlikely balance…well, it’s always worthwhile to watch Noé try something new. —EK
“The Worst Person in the World,” Joachim Trier (Competition)
Fifteen years after Joachim Trier kicked off his “Oslo” trilogy with “Reprise” in 2006, the Norwegian filmmaker is set to finish it off with “The Worst Person in the World,” a film that’s, funnily enough, all about love. The dramedy follows Trier’s 2011 Cannes debut “Oslo August 31st” in the loosely arranged trilogy, and again follows characters on the edge of some sort of breakthrough (or maybe even a breakdown).
Per a first look from Variety, “The plot revolves around Julie, who is turning 30 and sees her life as an existential mess. Several of her talents have gone to waste and her older boyfriend, Aksel, a successful graphic novelist, is pushing for them to settle down. One night, she gatecrashes a party and meets the young and charming Eivind. Before long, she has broken up with Aksel and thrown herself into yet another new relationship, hoping for a new perspective on her life. However, she soon comes to realize that some life choices are already behind her.”
The cast includes Renate Reinsve (“Oslo August 31st”), Anders Danielsen Lie (“Oslo August 31st,” “Reprise,” “Personal Shopper”), and Herbert Nordrum (“Beforeigners”). Overall, it sounds like a lighter touch for Trier, who recently turned his attentions to the English-language family drama “Louder Than Bombs” and the dark thriller “Thelma,” though its position as part of his name-making trilogy promises more of the probing character work Trier is so skilled at making. —KE