Cannes 2021: Titane didn’t deserve the Palme, but it had guts, drive – and an anthro-automotive hybrid devil child

annes let rip a punk power chord of glorious mischief by giving the Palme d’Or to Julie Ducournau’s gonzo genderqueer body-horror shocker Titane, and the jury and the movie’s many fans will have savoured the delicious applecart-upsetting thrill of it all. It’s the biggest épat since Lars Von Trier won it for Dancer in the Dark — and, 중요하게, it’s an award that makes Julie Ducournau only the second female Palme-winner in the festival’s history, since Jane Campion.

I must admit I was not a fan of Titane, being in my view not the best movie in competition, and not the best film that Ducournau has directed — being less interesting than her first film, the more complex and more shocking Raw. But I’m an enormous fan of challenging the consensus and overturning the tyranny of anaemic good taste, and perhaps there’s something in the perennial stateliness of cinéma that cries out to be trolled, a bit. Tonight Titane put its steel toe-capped boot through the origami flower of received wisdom. And there’s something refreshing in that.

Newcomer Agathe Rouselle gave it everything she had — which was a heck of a lot — as Alexia, a young woman who has grown up with a titanium steel plate in her head, after surviving a car crash in childhood caused by her useless dad. Making a living as a dancer, she takes extreme retributive action against a creepy, abusive male fan and goes on the run disguised as a boy, where she finally falls under the unexpectedly tender protection of fire chief Vincent (played by grizzled, rumpled French cinema veteran Vincent Lindon).

But she’s also had transgressive Ballardo-Cronenbergian sex with a vintage Cadillac, leaving her pregnant with an anthro-automotive hybrid devil child. Titane could well come to be savoured as a cult classic to rival Eraserhead, although perhaps being turned down for the Palme d’Or would have done just as much for that elevation. I have to be honest and say that I still found something a little bit silly and pointless in Titane, but it is obviously the work of a supremely talented film-maker who calculates her effects with masterly precision, and we are seeing the beginnings of a great career.

The second prize was split between two films: the Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No 6 and Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero. This latter film was hugely admired here in Cannes with many tipping it for the big prize: the complex, subtle story of a man imprisoned for debt who thinks he can get out of his jail sentence by paying off his creditor by secretly selling the gold coins that his girlfriend has found by a bus-stop – and then when that looks tricky, muddles his way towards another idea: pretending to be a hero of honesty and returning them to their owner. It’s an intriguing high concept, though I wondered about something rather forced and contrived in some of the plot transitions. It has understated, excellent performance from Amir Jadidi as the self-pitying anti-hero himself. (I think he should have got best actor.)

I loved Compartment No 6, and its unexpected success tonight was one of the evening’s real pleasures: a love story aboard a train, with a touch of the French New Wave, as a Finnish archaeology student gradually falls for a tough, boorish Russian guy who has a heart of gold.

It turns out that the “bronze medal” level, the Jury prize, was also a split decision. It was shared by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s freaky, visionary slow cinema jewel Memoria, about an expatriate Englishwoman in Bogota (played by Tilda Swinton) who hears the strange booming noises (perhaps like the terrifyingly elemental ou-boum noise in the cave in EM Forster’s A Passage to India) and Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee, about an Israeli movie director stricken with rage and guilt at being complicit in his country’s institutional cruelties. 나를 위해, Ahed’s Knee was directed and lit and edited with exciting energy and hyperactivity which mimicked its hero’s turmoil, but it’s script led it into some feeble evasions. Memoria is a wonderful film, but I can see how it would divide a jury.

My own (inaccurate) tip for the Palme d’Or itself was Ryu Hamaguchi’s fascinating and mysterious movie Drive My Car, elegantly inspired by the Murakami short story; as it turned out, Hamaguchi had to content himself with the best screenplay prize with his co-writer Takamasa Oe, and there is justice in this: the script was extremely well turned both in the building-blocks of narrative and the line-by-line distinction of its dialogue.

Leos Carax has found getting movies made such a personal trial in recent years that it is pleasing, in a way, to see the best director prize go to him for the uproarious, tonally ambiguous musical Annette, composed by Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as the bad-boy comedian and refined opera singer who have a child together: the troubled girl singer of the title. 다시, Carax’s direction was authoritative enough, especially as he was working in English, but I would have preferred to see this prize go to Sean Baker for Red Rocket, his story about a Trumpian failed porn star, or Jacques Audiard for his Paris, 13th District, the intercutting love stories in the Les Olympiades district, films which sadly were passed over this evening.

As for the acting awards (and it is arguably a mark of Cannes more highbrow image that these are less important than for the Oscars), Caleb Landry Jones, who is so often cast in challenging and disturbing roles, won best actor for his very disquieting performance as Martin Bryant, in Justin Kurzel’s Nitram: Australia’s most notorious mass killer. It’s a powerful performance, although there is something a bit obvious in this choice.

My favourite award of the whole evening was the best actress award to the relative unknown Norwegian actor Renate Reinsve, in Joachim Trier’s relationship comedy The Worst Person in the World, for her superbly judged, beguilingly vulnerable performance as a young woman realising that to fall in love is to make an unalterable life-choice. I wasn’t the only one at Cannes to say, swooningly: “A star is born” – but it’s true.

But the real star getting born tonight is Ducournau for her film Titane; she has made history with her victory, and what a rock’n’roll ending to a richly enjoyable festival.

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