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Cannes 2021: The 10 must-see films from this year’s festival

Agathe Rousselle in Titane
(Image credit: Altitude)

To say it’s been an unusual year for the Cannes Film Festival would be a gargantuan understatement. After the world’s most prestigious film festival was cancelled for the first time since WW2 in 2020, Cannes returned in full force this year with some long-anticipated premieres (Wes Anderson’s star-laden The French Dispatch, Adam Driver/Marion Cotillard musical Annette), and new features from the likes of The Florida Project’s Sean Baker and Raw’s Julia Ducournau.

Not everyone made it to the red carpet (Léa Seydoux, who had four films at the festival, couldn’t attend after testing positive for Covid), but the line-up of films proved to be among the strongest in years. Whether anything will replicate Parasite’s success and scoop the Palme d’Or on the way to Oscar glory remains to be seen, but there’s much to look forward to over the next year. Here are 10 of the best, and barmiest.

The French Dispatch

Timothée Chalamet in The French Dispatch

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Wes Anderson’s latest is his most dense production to date, a star-studded portmanteau movie set in the realm of boutique magazine publishing. Bill Murray binds it all together as Arthur Howitzer Jr, the ex-pat editor of the titular publication, who runs his operation from the sleepy French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. Mimicking the sections of a glossy magazine, taking in culture, art and current affairs, Anderson’s film shows the director at the top of his game; beneath the fussiness and perfection there’s a genuine pathos here and a real respect for writers who sacrifice their personal lives in the interests of a good story. DW

Benedetta

Virginie Efira in Benedetta

(Image credit: Mubi)

Held over from last year’s cancelled Cannes, Paul Verhoeven’s historical erotic drama was easily the most controversial film at the festival. Some critics accused this true-life tale of the titular 17th Century novice nun as blasphemous. Played by Virginie Efira, Benedetta joins an Italian convent, but sees her head turned by a wild newcomer to the order. The scene where she gets pleasured by a statue of the Virgin Mary, which has been carved into the shape of a sex toy, will stand as notorious in Verhoeven’s career. And that’s saying something, coming from the man who directed Basic Instinct and Showgirls. JM

Titane

Agathe Rousselle in Titane

(Image credit: Altitude)

The surprise (but not unwelcome) winner of this year's Palme d'Or, Julia Ducorneau’s follow-up to her 2016 cannibal drama Raw simply explodes with hallucinogenic ambition, starring newcomer Agathe Rousselle as Alexia, a twerking serial killer who has sex with cars, shaves her head and poses as a missing boy to escape a police dragnet operation. Vincent Landon is the father who accepts her, warts and all, even though she is clearly not his son – and her pregnancy is starting to show. It’s another gorefest, this time with a more explicitly Cronenbergian riff on body horror, but newcomer Rousselle is the standout, giving her all in a part that somehow grounds all the story’s violent excesses. DW

Lamb

Noomi Rapace in Lamb

(Image credit: A24)

Arriving the same day as Titane (see above), Lamb somehow stole the crown away from that as the weirdest film in Cannes this year. Playing in Un Certain Regard, Icelandic director Valdimar Jóhannsson’s debut blends mythology and folk horror into a touching tale about a childless couple (Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Noomi Rapace) living on a remote sheep farm. The secret of Lamb may already be out the bag, but we’re not going to spoil it here. Suffice it to say, try not to read anything more about it and watch it as soon as you can. It’s baa-my. JM

Red Rocket

Simon Rex in Red Rocket

(Image credit: A24)

After two female-led stories (Tangerine and The Florida Project), Sean Baker takes us into a man’s world, that of Micky Saber (Simon Rex), a washed-up former porn star who rocks up at his old Texas stomping ground to the strains of NSYNC’s 2000 hit Bye Bye Bye. Moving in with his ex-wife and her mother Lil, Rex picks up where he left off, dealing weed to workers at the local chemical plant, but his head is turned by a pretty redhead called Strawberry who works at the donut shop. By turns funny, sexy and crushingly sad, it’s another deep dive into one of modern America’s forgotten communities. DW

The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground

(Image credit: Cannes)

Todd Haynes delivers his first ever documentary and it’s a doozy. Focusing on The Velvet Underground, led by the irrepressible Lou Reed, Haynes pulls together a stunning look at the 1960s New York art and music scene, with this pioneering group hanging out with Andy Warhol at his infamous Factory. Contemporary interviews with ex-Velvets John Cale and Moe Tucker, alongside bystanders to the scene like filmmaker John Waters and critic Amy Taubin, add flavour, but it’s the skilfully mixed archive footage that really brings the film alive, as Haynes does for the documentary what his avant-garde Bob Dylan film I’m Not There did for the music bio. JM

Paris, 13th District

Lucie Zhang and Makita Samba in Paris 13th District

(Image credit: Cannes)

A former Cannes winner with Dheepan, Jacques Audiard is not exactly known for contemporary romances. But this black-and-white take on the comics of American cartoonist Adrian Tomine is a vibrant and sexy take on dating in the 21st Century. Newcomer Lucie Zhang delivers a knockout performance as Emilie, who lives in her grandmother’s flat in the 13th arrondissement of Paris and falls for her new lodger (Makita Samba). There’s a second story involving Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’s Noémie Merlant as a mature student that intertwines to create a compelling look at sex and the City (of Lights). JM

Vortex

Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun in Vortex

(Image credit: Cannes)

Written on ten pages in January then filmed in secret during April and May, Vortex is almost the mirror image of Gaspar Noé’s 2018 dance banger Climax. Lasting nearly two and a half hours and filmed using a forensic split screen process, it stars Dario Argento – yes, that one – as a film critic with a troubled junkie son who is losing his wife of many years to dementia. Dedicated to “those whose brains will decompose before their hearts”, Noé’s film features none of his usual visual fireworks, just an agonisingly committed performance by 76-year-old Françoise Lebrun, star of Noé’s favourite film, The Mother and the Whore. DW

The Souvenir Part II

Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir Part II

(Image credit: Film4)

Joanna Hogg returned with her follow-up to her 2019 semi-autobiographical tale The Souvenir, picking up almost immediately where that left off as film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) tries to process the death of her mysterious lover (Tom Burke). In this next instalment newcomers like Joe Alwyn and Harris Dickinson enter the fray, while Richard Ayoade’s cameo as a tantrum-throwing filmmaker from the first film is expanded into a more substantial role, as he becomes something of a mentor to Julie, who sets out to work on her graduation film. Very much more of the same, in a good way. JM

Ali & Ava

Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook in Ali & Ava

(Image credit: Altitude)

Clio Barnard was sadly unable to come to Cannes due to travel restrictions returning to the UK, where she is currently shooting mini-series The Essex Serpent for Apple TV+. But she was able to send her latest film, Ali & Ava, playing in Director’s Fortnight. Set in Bradford, this tender, low-key, interracial love story starring Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook is a sensitive and yet hard-hitting contemporary tale of love across racial divides. Also featuring Ellora Torchia, who has just been in Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth, it’s a mini-masterpiece that never outstays its welcome. JM