Cannes 2021: return to film festival normalcy

Despite a harrowing testing process, revisiting the French Riviera was worth the wait

I am experiencing a welter of emotions as I sit at Nice airport, departing the 74th Cannes Film Festival after an absolutely bonkers 12 days. Arriving on the Riviera and seeing festival goers and holiday makers frolicking in the sunshine, unmasked, was a forceful reminder of the freedoms we took for granted until March 2020, which were snatched away.

To get into the Palais, the festival’s main venue, aroused a different emotion — fury — as we were told that even the double vaccinated delegates, if not from the EU, would have to undergo a Covid test every 48 hours and present the negative results at security to be granted entry. The test process was charming — hawking and spitting into a funnel attached to a tube to collect a goodly amount of saliva. But, as with all things in this pandemic era, we got used to this too.

Once inside the cinemas, masks had to be strictly worn throughout the screenings. As each screening began with the Cannes logo animation, it was greeted with thunderous applause, signifying hope and relief that we are back to doing what we love — experiencing cinema in a theatre. And, when the opening credits began rolling on Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero at the Grand Theatre Lumiere, tears welled up in my eyes from the sheer joy of being there to experience it.

Actor Adrien Brody and British actress Tilda Swinton arrive for the screening of the film ‘The French Dispatch’
| Photo Credit: Anadolu Agency

And so to the films… As people expect me to work for a living, I didn’t see as many as I would have liked to. A Hero, another Farhadi examination of a cross section of Iranian society, sees a master working at the peak of his powers. Wen Shipei’s Are You Lonesome Tonight? features the redoubtable Sylvia Chang and Eddie Peng, is another addition to the burgeoning Chinese neo-noir genre and pays homage to many filmmakers including Jia Zhangke, Wong Kar Wai and Edward Yang, to name just three. The stars, including Timothee Chalamet, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray, were out in force for Wes Anderson’s The French Despatch. Lea Seydoux had to cancel her visit as she tested positive for Covid.

I watched Bangladeshi filmmaker Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s searing Rehana with our own Anurag Kashyap and we were both left shell-shocked by the sheer power of the film. The film is a systematic takedown of patriarchy and features a tremendous central performance from Azmeri Haque Badhon, one of Bangladesh’s top actors. The film deservedly got a standing ovation and Badhon was overcome with emotion at the reception it received. Rehana is already going places, is all I can reveal at this stage.

A still from ‘Rehana’

Rahul Jain’s Invisible Demons, a terrific — and scary — look at pollution in Delhi, also received a standing ovation. The film is a worthy follow up to his Sundance-winner Machines. Like Saad, Jain is also going places. Mark Cousins’ The Storms of Jeremy Thomas is a free flowing look at Oscar-winning producer Thomas’ (The Last Emperor, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Crash) eclectic career. It was a pleasure to speak at length to them after the film.

Not every film was good, so let’s leave it at that and move on to that other aspect of Cannes, the parties. From sales agents’ soirées to private barbecues in the hills to a raucous Philippines karaoke night, I managed to show my face at a few, purely for anthropological reasons, I hasten to add. And at the after party following the world premiere of a French film, which we got into because my filmmaker friend knew the director’s sister, as one does, I felt another emotion — fear. People were crammed together, mask-less, by a hotel rooftop terrace, and I for one, felt gratitude that the festival was making us test every 48 hours.

The 2021 edition of The Cannes Film Festival ends on July 17

Naman Ramachandran is a journalist and author of Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography, and tweets @namanrs.

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