James Mottram

IF there’s an anthem for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it might be Phil Collins’ Against All Odds. Quite how festival organisers have staged the world cinema’s biggest annual gathering in the middle of a pandemic almost defies belief.

The answer is testing, testing, testing, especially if you’re outside the European Union, where double-vaccinated festival-goers have been able to swan in and out of the Palais with their precious EU digital ‘health pass’. For the rest of us, including UK visitors – thanks Brexit – it meant getting PCR tests at a nearby centre every 48 hours.

Even then, rumours swirled around this most strange of festivals. Not least that the French government may impose a curfew on the region to curb the spread of coronavirus, or even shut the entire event down. Actress Léa Seydoux also tested positive for Covid before Cannes.

She has four films in the festival, including a lead in Bruno Dumont’s competition entry France, playing a powerful TV journalist, and a part in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, which was due to open last year’s cancelled festival.

One actress who did make it to Cannes is Scotland’s own Tilda Swinton, who has three films unspooling at the festival. This included a return as the sympathetic mother in The Souvenir Part II, the follow-up to Joanna Hogg’s celebrated semi-autobiographical film from 2019 about her early years as a film student in 1980s London.

HeraldScotland: Actress Tilda Swinton, left, and actress Honor Swinton Byrne, right, pose for photographers during the photo-call for the film 'The Souvenir' at the 2019 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. (Gregor Fischer/dpa via AP).Actress Tilda Swinton, left, and actress Honor Swinton Byrne, right, pose for photographers during the photo-call for the film 'The Souvenir' at the 2019 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. (Gregor Fischer/dpa via AP).

Playing in Director’s Fortnight, Part II picks up directly after the first film leaves off, with Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne reprising her role as aspiring artist Julie, trying to make sense of the grief she’s been enveloped by following the death of her mysterious older lover. It was more of the same – in a very good way.

Swinton also pops up as a flame-haired art critic in The French Dispatch, Anderson’s “love letter to journalists” that was easily the starriest movie on the Crosiette. Set in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, it’s all set around the offices of a supplement to a Kansas newspaper, dedicated to reporting back on all things Gallic.

An anthology of ‘articles’, as if you were leafing through the magazine, the number of cameos (too many to list here) was remarkable, though nothing outshines the beautiful production design from Anderson regular Adam Stockhausen.

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What is surely going to be Swinton’s most substantial role at the festival has – at the time of writing – yet to be unveiled. The film is Memoria, and marks her first collaboration with Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who previously won Cannes’ coveted Palme d’Or for his 2010 tale Uncle Boomee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. This promises to be no less meditative, with Swinton cast as a woman from Scotland travelling through Colombia who becomes haunted by ghostly visions.

While no British films played in competition this year, everyone was certainly talking about Andrea Arnold’s Cow. A Cannes regular, with films like Red Road and American Honey, Arnold’s latest is her first documentary.

Shot over a few years, it chronicles the life of a dairy cow, from the daily drudge of being milked to the occasional frolic in the pastures. The bovine equivalent to the recent Gunda, which largely focused on the titular sow in arty black-and-white, this is more down’n’dirty, though no less shocking. It’ll be interesting to see how many vegans are spawned from watching this.

For all the difficulties the festival has endured, the quality of the filmmaking has been of a very high standard. It started with a crash-bang, thanks to the Sparks-scored musical Annette. Marking French director Leos Carax’s first English-language movie, it was every bit as bonkers as the earlier films that he built his career on like Les Amants du Pont Neuf and Holy Motors. Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard play a troubled couple in the spotlight – he’s a stand-up comic, she’s an opera singer. The real draw, though, are the songs by Sparks siblings Ron and Russell Maels. Definitely one for the Spotify playlist.

François Ozon’s competition entry Everything Went Fine is among the very finest of the prolific French director’s extensive body of work. Adapted from the novel Everything Went Well by Emmanuèle Bernheim, it sees a fine turn from Sophie Marceau (remember her?) as the daughter of an ageing, no-nonsense father (André Dussollier), who calmly announces that he wants to die. While euthanasia is illegal in France, Marceau’s character reluctantly must organise for his wishes to be carried out in a clinic in Switzerland. Peppered with black humour (just the right amount), it never moralises about the ethics of assisted suicide. The result was hugely satisfying.

Another surprisingly affecting work was Ari Folman’s Where Is Anne Frank. The Israeli director launched his career a few years ago in Cannes with the adult-skewed animation Waltz With Bashir, and after his detour with the part-live-action sci-fi The Congress, this is a return to the cartoon medium that made him. Examining the well-told story of the young Anne Frank, and her famous diary written whilst in hiding during World War II, this pings between the 1940s and one year in the future. The lead is not Anne but Kitty, the imagined girl Frank addressed her diary too, who seems shocked at the commercialisation of Anne Frank’s life – her name adorning bridges, schools and theatres. There’s a real spirit to the film, one that can be enjoyed by all ages.

Also playing out of competition was Stillwater, an absorbing thriller from Tom McCarthy, who previously won an Oscar for Spotlight, his methodical look into the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Here, Matt Damon plays a Trump-supporting oil rig worker who comes to Marseille to help his imprisoned daughter (Abigail Breslin), now five years into a nine-year sentence. It’s one of Damon’s best performances in ages, as a fish-out-of-water who finds the world is bigger than his narrow Republican viewpoint.

Undoubtedly, the most controversial film of the selection has been Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta. Another hold-over from last year’s festival, this historical drama about a 17th Century novice nun who begins a love affair with another woman at the Italian convent she joins caused both sniggers and uproar in equal measure, with some critics accusing it of blasphemy. The most talked about scene comes as Benedetta (played by Virginie Efira) is pleasured with a statue of the Virgin Mary, which has been whittled into a phallic shape. Still, it seems typical of Verhoeven, the director of Basic Instinct and RoboCop, to go for the jugular.

To the festival’s credit, there is also a new strand this year focusing on films with an environmental message. Already, the organisers are encouraging attendees to bring their own refill bottles for water rather than contributing to more plastic waste. Which is just as well, when you see some of the films on offer. The India-set Invisible Demons from filmmaker Rahul Jain and Bigger Than Us, which has been produced by Marion Cotillard, both address, among other things, the problems of plastic pollution. Some of the images on show in both films, of huge landfill sites, will turn your stomach. These may be the most important films of this year’s Cannes.