Even from afar, the Cannes Film Festival delivers movies worth celebrating

Tilda Swinton in the movie "Memoria."
(Sandro Kopp © Kick the Machine Films, Burning, Anna Sanders Films, Match Factory Productions, ZDF-Arte and Piano, 2021)

One of the wilder movies I’ve seen from the main competition slate of this year’s Cannes Film Festival is a 2 ½-hour Russian drama called “Petrov’s Flu.” A film about a family of three in the grip of a pesky virus might seem either aptly or poorly timed, but this one, adapted from a novel by Alexey Salnikov, was conceived and shot before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Full of nagging coughs, hallucinatory sequences and beguiling narrative detours, it’s a madly disorienting romp through a wintry post-Soviet labyrinth that switches time frames and perspectives as though it were succumbing to a series of fevers, though here the condition being diagnosed is less a physical malady than a spiritual and institutional one.

A work of defiant social critique that gives way to passages of dreamy beauty and tenderness, “Petrov’s Flu” is the first new feature from the 51-year-old director Kirill Serebrennikov since his 2019 release from house arrest, a punishment that is widely believed to be retaliation for his outspoken criticism of the Russian government. His imprisonment kept him from attending the 2018 Cannes premiere of his previous feature, “Leto”; he wasn’t allowed to attend the festival this year either. Still, while Serebrennikov may be banned from leaving Russia, his imagination, as well as his cast and crew, have been left gratifyingly free to roam: In its form-bending construction and surreal imagery, “Petrov’s Flu” plays like the work of an artist thrillingly unbound.

A scene from the movie "Petrov's Flu."
(Sergey Ponomarev / Hype Film)

If Serebrennikov was missed in Cannes — a placard bearing his name was left over an empty seat at his premiere, a sadly common tribute to dissident filmmakers who are restricted from traveling — he was of course not the only one unable to attend this year’s resurgent but still COVID-impacted festival. Having been forced to cancel its 2020 edition in the immediate wake of the pandemic, the festival rebounded this year with an enormous lineup of movies that was hailed as an uncommonly exciting one by many of the journalists in attendance. Was that a reflection of the quality of the program, or just a collective expression of delight at the mere fact of being back in Cannes again? Having opted to skip the festival this year myself, I couldn’t really say. But if the 20 or so Cannes titles I did manage to see, most of them at screenings here in Los Angeles, are any indication, it seems safe to say that the excitement is far from unfounded.

With Cannes 2020 called off, Cannes 2021 reaped the benefits of not one but two years’ worth of new movies. Some of the highest-profile titles in contention for the Palme d’Or — like “Benedetta,” Paul Verhoeven’s tale of transgressive goings-on in a 17th century monastery, and “The French Dispatch,” Wes Anderson’s comic tribute to a bygone era of journalism — were originally selected for the 2020 festival and opted to hold back their releases a year in order to premiere at Cannes. Such was also the case with “Memoria,” the long-awaited latest from the revered Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, back in competition for the first time since his 2010 Palme winner, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.”

Nuns sit and stand in a room.
Virginie Efira in the movie “Benedetta.”
(Guy Ferrandis / SBS Productions)

Quietly and sometimes not so quietly mesmerizing, “Memoria” represents a departure for Weerasethakul in some respects: Set and shot in Colombia, it’s his first feature made outside Thailand and his first to feature a Hollywood star, in this case Tilda Swinton. (Swinton was one of the queens of Cannes this year, having also appeared in “The French Dispatch” and Joanna Hogg’s superb “The Souvenir Part II,” which premiered outside the official selection in Directors’ Fortnight.) But the differences are superficial; happily, Weerasethakul hasn’t dulled his sensibility or skimped on the slow, graceful magic that seems to flow forth from his movies like water. For all their mystical underpinnings, his stories are premised on the simple notion that extraordinary things — beauty, hilarity, connection, transcendence — are everywhere around us, if we’re only patient enough to look.

Or, as the case may be, to listen. Swinton, speaking mostly Spanish, plays a Scottish botanist who finds herself in Bogotá, where her days and nights are disturbed by mysteriously loud, thudding noises that apparently only she and the audience can hear. For a while the movie follows her as she tries to figure out the nature and origin of these sounds, a journey that becomes sadder and stranger, more revealing and more baffling, as she wanders out into the jungle. There, friendly faces, painful secrets and ancient histories lie in wait, as do the sights and sounds of a natural world in richly suggestive bloom. Building to a conclusion that left my jaw on the screening room floor, “Memoria” casts a spell like nothing else I’ve seen from Cannes this year; I hope you’ll get the chance to see it when Neon releases it in U.S. theaters. (It shared the festival’s jury prize, effectively third place, with “Ahed’s Knee,” the latest from the Israeli director Nadav Lapid.)

A woman walks through a field, with a windmill in the background, in the movie "Bergman Island."
Vicky Krieps in the movie “Bergman Island.”
(CG Cinéma)

Another Neon-backed title, this one premiering in the festival’s Special Screenings section, was “The Year of the Everlasting Storm,” a collection of seven short films that offer revealing glimpses of the pandemic’s impact all over the world. The seven filmmakers who contributed to the project are Jafar Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, David Lowery and Weerasethakul, all of whom were tasked with filming under tight restrictions and without leaving their own confines. Like most omnibus works, it’s a fascinatingly mixed bag, though I was particularly fond of Panahi’s “Life,” the latest work from an Iranian filmmaker sadly accustomed to shooting in confinement, and Chen’s “The Break Away,” a tense drama about a Chinese family feeling the strain of extended isolation.

The impact of the pandemic also manifested itself, briefly but eerily, in a couple of the features I saw from the competition. The best of these was “Drive My Car,” an exquisite slow burn of a movie from Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, who was previously in Cannes with “Asako I & II.” Richly expanded from the Haruki Murakami short story of the same title, “Drive My Car” follows a grief-stricken actor and director (an excellent Hidetoshi Nishijima) who takes on an artist’s residency in Hiroshima, where he’s assigned a driver (Tôko Miura) who, like him, is hiding some serious emotional turmoil beneath a coolly reserved surface.

A female driver and a male back-seat passenger in a car.
Hidetoshi Nishijima, left, and Tôko Miura in the movie “Drive My Car.”
(The Match Factory)

If that sounds like the setup for a conventional drama of behind-the-wheel bonding, well, it is and it isn’t. Hamaguchi is known for his elongated running times, but “Drive My Car,” which lasts nearly three hours, doesn’t waste a single minute: Nearly every scene of this richly novelistic movie — which won the festival’s screenplay prize — teems with ideas about grief and betrayal, the nature of acting, the possibility (and impossibility) of catharsis through art, and the simple bliss of watching lights and landscapes fly past your car window. (It’s been an interesting Cannes for car movies, and not just because “F9” screened in the festival’s designated Hollywood blockbuster slot. Notably, the French director Julia Ducournau galvanized the competition — and won the Palme d’Or, becoming only the second female director to do so in the festival’s history — with her body-horror thriller “Titane,” which had more than one critic invoking David Cronenberg’s classic of vehicular erotica, “Crash.”)

Another strong competition entry that touches glancingly on the pandemic is Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World,” a sharp Norwegian dramedy that follows an almost 30-year-old woman named Julie (Renate Reinsve, winner of the Cannes actress prize for her sensational performance) as she navigates career shifts, romantic partners (Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum), wayward impulses and a pervasive feeling of being out of step with others’ expectations, and possibly her own. Funny and charming and sexy as all get-out, but with melancholy shadows that unsurprisingly lengthen as time passes, it’s a portrait of millennial angst and indecision that Trier rattles off with some of the same dazzling formal energy — and all the boundless sympathy — that he brought to his earlier youth dramas like “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st.”

A partially unclothed woman and a man lie on the floor.
Renate Reinsve, left, and Anders Danielsen Lie in the movie “The Worst Person in the World.”
(Oslo Pictures)

One of the pleasures of “The Worst Person in the World,” another forthcoming Neon release, is that its heroine’s indecision — about love, sex, work, family — is what propels the narrative at every turn. Something similar could be said of the filmmaker played by Vicky Krieps in “Bergman Island,” a playful, wistful meta-charmer that unfolds almost entirely on Fårö, the Swedish island where Ingmar Bergman made his home and shot several of his films. Beginning as a sun-dappled cinephile travelogue, this competition entry from French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve (“Things to Come”) gradually shapeshifts into something stranger and less determinate, something that doesn’t really pay tribute to Bergman — the people on Fårö have that base amply covered — so much as use his legacy as a jumping-off point.

Like most pictures that premiere in Cannes, “Bergman Island,” which will be released by IFC Films, encountered a mixed reception; for every journalist who admired Hansen-Løve’s cleverness and restraint, there was another who found her latest too coy and slight by half. But if auteurial understatement is always something of a Cannes specialty, this year’s festival also made room for more emotionally emphatic fare: If you didn’t care for the heavy-handed lyricism of Sean Penn’s competition misfire, “Flag Day,” you could at least warm to the gorgeous animated images and earnest speeches of “Where Is Anne Frank,” an involving if overly didactic retelling of Frank’s story from Israeli director Ari Folman (“Waltz With Bashir”).

A woman, a little girl and a man sit in a truck.
Alicia Vikander, left, Sydney Kowalske and Justin Chon in the movie “Blue Bayou.”
(Focus Features)

But for sheer emotional force, few movies wielded as bluntly effective a sledgehammer as “Blue Bayou,” the latest from Korean American writer, director and actor Justin Chon (“Gook,” “Ms. Purple”). Screening in Un Certain Regard, a section devoted to younger emerging filmmakers, the movie stars Chon in a terrific performance as Antonio LeBlanc, an underemployed tattoo artist and loving family man who has lived in Louisiana most of his life, having been adopted from Korea when he was 3. But due to a stroke of bad luck and some long-ago misfiled paperwork, he’s soon threatened with deportation and separation from his wife (Alicia Vikander) and their kids.

It’s a loaded scenario, emotionally and of course politically, that Chon cranks up to 11 with a wildly unsteady directorial hand and some questionable narrative choices but also a commitment to his actors that just about holds it all together. “Blue Bayou’s” manipulations can be infuriating, but at its best, it makes you feel the director’s own rage against a punishingly unjust system; impressively, Chon refuses to soft-pedal the violence inherent in the act of tearing a family asunder. Thunderously received in Cannes and due to be released Sept. 17 by Focus Features, this is an anguished, imperfect movie that captures something of the raw imperfection of life.