74th Cannes Film Festival Roundup: Part 1

by C.J. Prince

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 19, 2021

A moment from the trailer for 'Great Freedom.'
A moment from the trailer for 'Great Freedom.'  (Source:YouTube Still)

The Cannes Film Festival wrapped up its 74th annual function this weekend, closing off a historic event with the coveted Palme d'Or going to Julia Ducournau's body horror film "Titane," making her the second female director to ever receive the award. Concerns about the spread of coronavirus became more muted as the festival went into its second week, with frequent testing showing no signs of an outbreak among attendees (although the virus did keep one guest of honor away). Despite being unable to attend in person, I was able to catch some of the titles at this year's festival, getting an early glimpse at what world cinema has to offer for the rest of 2021.

"La Traviata, My Brothers And I"


Even the familiar can bring out a surprise every now and then, like with Yohan Manca's debut "La Traviata, My Brothers And I." Set over one summer around a housing project in the south of France, 14-year-old Nour (Mael Rouin-Berrandou) spends his time doing community work and caring for his comatose mother, playing her opera music every night by her bedside (her favorite kind of music, thanks to their late father). He lives with his three older brothers, all of whom have varying egos and tempers that get them in trouble when finding any hustle they can to make money and stop their uncle from placing their mom in a hospital. At the same time, Nour discovers an opera singing class at a community center and the teacher (Judith Chemla) takes a shine to him, letting him join the class for free and encouraging him to follow his interest in singing.

There's a lot that Manca juggles here with his first feature in terms of subplots, and the crowd-pleasing story of a plucky, impoverished child finding an outlet through the prestige-y world of the arts raises several red flags. Yet, "La Traviata, My Brothers and I" remains grounded throughout most of its runtime, leaning in on the specificity of the setting and characters when it could easily fall into broader, more melodramatic territory. Nour is not especially gifted at singing, and while his teacher pushes him it's in the pursuit of laying down the groundwork of an opportunity rather than functioning as some sort of perceptive mentor making a great discovery in an underprivileged community. Granted, I may be underselling Yanca's film by praising it for what it avoids rather than what it actually does, which is only because its blend of social realism and dramedy is all too familiar in a film festival lineup. While it doesn't make itself an exceptional example of the form it's operating within, there isn't much to hold against "La Traviata, My Brothers and I" for what it does. It's a solid, entertaining film, a strong debut, and will likely win over audiences in the future as more people get to see it.

"Softie"

Samuel Theis' "Softie" similarly hones in on a young, impoverished protagonist facing hard times, although its interests lie in the more emotional territory. In Eastern France, 10-year-old Johnny (Aliocha Reinert) puts up with his immature, hot-headed mother (Mélissa Olexa) who we first see getting evicted from their apartment. From the start, Johnny's portrayed as more aware and sensitive than those around him, a quality that his new teacher Mr. Adamski (Antoine Reinartz) immediately picks up on. Through his teacher, Johnny begins discovering more about himself, inevitably leading to a tension as his aspirations push him to a future beyond the boundaries imposed by his family and place in society.

Theis' first solo outing as a director (he co-directed "Party Girl" in 2014, winning him the Camera d'Or at Cannes for best first feature) shows plenty of confidence, even if the material can sometimes feel overdone in its handling of a poor, gifted student and their one neat trick of a good mentor helping them move up in life. Where "Softie" manages to overcome cliché is through identity, with Johnny beginning to discover his sexuality through a developing attraction to Mr. Adamski. It's thorny territory that Theis handles well, and through the dynamic of a developing queer identity, he finds a more productive avenue of exploring Johnny's feelings of alienation. What "Softie" does best is what it ultimately ends up being about: the realization of being different from your loved ones, and how the only path forward is one that will have to diverge from them.

"Olga"


"Softie" premiered at Cannes' Critics Week, a parallel program of the festival that also saw the premiere of Elie Grappe's directorial debut "Olga." Taking place in 2013, its titular character is a 15-year-old talented gymnast (played by Anastasia Budiashkina) on the Ukrainian national team training for the European Championship. Her mother is a journalist reporting on the Euromaidan situation, and after both of them survive a targeted attack by an unknown assailant, Olga is sent to Switzerland to continue training. The new environment makes her feel adrift; unable to be a part of the change in her home country, unsure about the safety of her mother, and faced with the choice of becoming part of the Swiss gymnastics team at the cost of giving up her Ukrainian citizenship.

Grappe shows promise in his ability to conjure up visceral moments, whether it's the attack on Olga and her mother or a vivid nightmare involving a raging fire that vanishes as soon as it appears. But once "Olga" establishes its central conflict, it stays in one place for too long, focusing on relationships between her teammates and extended family that underline the same point, repeating itself and spinning its wheels until arriving at a predictable conclusion where she finds a way to bypass the decisions she's forced to make. No matter how hard Grappe may try to get inside his protagonists' head, the limitations of the narrative and themes make "Olga" feel like a film that bites off more than it can chew, offering little satisfaction as a character piece or as an exploration of the Euromaidan conflict in Ukraine.

"Great Freedom"


Finally, the Un Certain Regard sidebar played Sebastian Meise's "Great Freedom," which ended up winning the Jury Prize. It's not surprising that the section's jury would take to the film, given the subject matter and its assured direction. Hopping in time from the end of World War II until the late 1960s, it follows Hans (Franz Rogowski), a gay man who was thrown directly from the concentration camps into jail due to German law making homosexuality illegal. From the 1940s until the law's abolishment more than two decades later, Hans finds himself in and out of jail repeatedly, where he befriends Viktor (Georg Friedrich), a convicted murderer and homophobe. Their relationship develops over the years, going from begrudging respect to an unconventional form of love.

It's hard to find much at fault with "Great Freedom," as every element of Meise's film feels meticulous in its construction and presentation. If anything, the film should speed up Rogowski's ascent to the status of one of Europe's best new actors, as his dramatic transformations here (including significant weight loss and gains for each timeline) help bring a physicality to his role that makes Hans' transformation over the years into a confident, rebellious gay man all the more believable.

But outside of the performances by both Rogowski and Friedrich (whose subtlety at bringing out his character's sensitivity complements his co-star's more showy elements), it's difficult to muster up more than a begrudging admiration for Meise's film. There's much to explore with Hans' sexuality and his defiance of the law, especially in the ramifications of the transgressiveness of homosexuality facing a more accepting world. Meise prefers to take a more reductive route, keeping his eye on the persecution of gay men and how it can take away from a person's life. There's nothing wrong with this choice, and one's mileage may vary in terms of how much they get out of what he chooses to explore. Given the talent and skill on display, I came out of "Great Freedom" with a feeling of wanting something more than what it offered, or at least willing to go into a bit of nuance on what its content to simply acknowledge in its final act. Certainly not the worst problem a film could have, and on its own merits "Great Freedom" is a fine effort.