Actually from afar, the Cannes Film Festival delivers films worth celebrating

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One of the wilder films I’ve seen from the primary 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 3 in the grip of a pesky virus might seem either aptly or poorly timed, but this one, adapted from a story by Alexey Salnikov, has been conceived and shot prior to the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak. Full of nagging coughs, hallucinatory sequences and beguiling story detours, it’s a madly disorienting romp through a wintry post-Soviet labyrinth that buttons time frames and perspectives as though it were succumbing to a series of fevers, though here the condition being identified is less a physical malady than a spiritual and institutional one.

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

A scene from the movie "Petrov's Flu."

The scene from the movie “Petrov’s Flu. ”

(Sergey Ponomarev / Hype Film)

If Serebrennikov was missed in Cannes — a placard keeping his name was left over an empty seat at his premiere, a sadly common tribute to dissident filmmakers that 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 presence. Was that a reflection of the quality of the program, or just a collective expression associated with delight at the mere fact of being back in Cannes once again? Having elected to skip the celebration this year personally, I couldn’t really say. But if the 20 or so Cannes titles I did manage to discover, most of them at screenings here in Los Angeles, are any indication, it seems safe to say how the excitement is far from unfounded.

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With Cannes 2020 called off, Cannes 2021 reaped the benefits of not one yet 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 inside a 17th century monastery, plus “The France Dispatch, ” Wes Anderson’s comic homage to a bygone era associated with journalism — were originally selected for the 2020 celebration and opted to hold back their own releases a year in order to elite at Cannes. Such was also the case with “Memoria, ” the long-awaited latest in the revered Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, back in competition 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 and SBS Productions)

Silently and sometimes not so quietly mesmerizing, “Memoria” represents the departure for Weerasethakul in certain respects: Set and photo in Colombia, it’s his first feature made outdoors Thailand and his first to feature a Hollywood star, in this instance Tilda Swinton. (Swinton has been one of the queens of Cannes this year, having also made an appearance in “The French Dispatch” and Joanna Hogg’s outstanding “The Souvenir Part II, ” which premiered outside the official selection in Directors’ Fortnight. ) But the variations are superficial; happily, Weerasethakul hasn’t dulled his sensibility or skimped on the sluggish, graceful magic that seems to flow forth from their movies like water. For all their mystical underpinnings, their stories are premised around the simple notion that outstanding things — beauty, hilarity, connection, transcendence — are everywhere around us, in the event that we’re only patient sufficient 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 times and nights are disrupted by mysteriously loud, thudding noises that apparently just she and the audience may hear. For a while the movie follows her as she attempts to figure out the nature and origin of these sounds, a journey that becomes sadder plus stranger, more revealing and more baffling, as she wanders out into the jungle. Presently there, friendly faces, painful techniques and ancient histories then lie in wait, as do the sights and sounds of a natural globe in richly suggestive blossom. Building to a conclusion that will left my jaw over the screening room floor, “Memoria” casts a spell such as nothing else I’ve seen from Cannes this year; I hope you’ll get the chance to see it as well when Neon releases this in U. S. movies building.

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 name, this one premiering in the festival’s Special Screenings section, was “The Year of the Long lasting Storm, ” a collection of 7 short films that offer revealing glimpses of the pandemic’s influence all over the world. The seven filmmakers who contributed to the task are Jafar Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, Jesse Lowery and Weerasethakul themself, all of whom were tasked with filming under restricted restrictions and without leaving their very own lockdown confines. Like most omnibus works, it’s a fascinatingly mixed bag, though I was particularly fond of Panahi’s “Life, ” the latest work through 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 prolonged isolation.

The particular impact of the pandemic furthermore 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 film from Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, who was previously within Cannes with “Asako We & II. ” Abundantly expanded from the Haruki Murakami short story of the exact same title, the movie follows a grief-stricken actor and movie director (an excellent Hidetoshi Nishijima) who takes on an artist’s residency in Hiroshima, exactly where he’s assigned a motorist (Tôko Miura) who, such as 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 Vehicle. ”

(The Match Factory)

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If that sounds like the setup for a conventional drama of behind-the-wheel bonding, well, it is and it also isn’t. Hamaguchi is known regarding his elongated running moments, but “Drive My Car, ” which lasts almost three hours, doesn’t waste materials a single minute: Nearly every scene of this richly novelistic film 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 vehicle window. (It’s been an interesting Cannes for car films: “F9” screened in the festival’s designated Hollywood blockbuster slot machine, while French director Julia Ducournau galvanized the competition with her body-horror thriller “Titane, ” which had several critic invoking David Cronenberg’s classic of vehicular erotica, “Crash. ”)

Another strong competition entrance that touches glancingly for 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 (a sensational Renate Reinsve) as she navigates career changes, romantic partners (Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum), wayward impulses and a pervasive sensation of being out of step along with others’ expectations, and possibly her very own. Funny and charming plus 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 official energy — and all the particular boundless sympathy — that he brought to his earlier youngsters dramas like “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st. ”

A partially unclothed woman and a man lie on the floor.

Renate Reinsve, still left, and Anders Danielsen Sit in the movie “The Most severe Person in the World. ”

(Oslo Pictures)

One of the pleasures of “The Worst Person in the World, ” another forthcoming Neon discharge, is that its heroine’s indecision — about love, intercourse, work, family — is what propels the narrative at every turn. Something similar might be said of the filmmaker played by Vicky Krieps in “Bergman Island, ” a playful, wistful meta-charmer that will unfolds almost entirely upon Fårö, the Swedish isle where Ingmar Bergman made his home and chance 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 unfamiliar person and less determinate, one that doesn’t really pay homage to Bergman — the individuals on Fårö have that will base amply covered — so much as use their legacy as a jumping-off point.

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Like most pictures that premiere in Cannes, “Bergman Island, ” which will be released by IFC Films, encountered a mixed reception; for each journalist who admired Hansen-Løve’s cleverness and restraint, there is another who found the girl latest too coy plus slight by half. In case auteurial understatement is always something of a Cannes specialty, this particular year’s festival also made room for more emotionally earnest fare: If you didn’t care for the heavy-handed lyricism associated with Sean Penn’s competition misfiring, “Flag Day, ” you could at least warm to the beautiful animated images and serious speeches of “Where Is definitely Anne Frank, ” a good 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, still left, Sydney Kowalske and Mr. bieber Chon in the movie “Blue Bayou. ”

(Focus Features)

But for sheer emotional force, couple of movies wielded as bluntly effective a sledgehammer as “Blue Bayou, ” the most recent from Korean American author, director and actor Mr. bieber Chon (“Gook, ” “Ms. Purple”). Screening in El Certain Regard, a section dedicated to younger emerging filmmakers, film production company stars Chon in an excellent performance as Antonio LeBlanc, an underemployed tattoo artist and loving family man who has lived in Louisiana the majority of his life, having been adopted from Korea when this individual was 3. But as a result of stroke of bad luck and a few long-ago misfiled paperwork, he is soon threatened with deportation and separation from their wife (Alicia Vikander) plus their kids.

It’s a loaded scenario, psychologically and of course politically, that Chon cranks up to 11 with a wildly unsteady directorial hands and some questionable narrative options, but also a commitment to their 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 assault inherent in the act of tearing a family asunder. Thunderously received in Cannes and due to be released September. 17 by Focus Functions, this is an anguished, imperfect film that captures something of the raw imperfection of lifestyle.