Brave New World: the 2021 Cannes Film Festival


If the focus of my report until now has been on the official selection, this is not to slight the Quinzaine, organised autonomously under the auspices of the Société des réalisateurs français. 2021 marked the second edition that Paolo Moretti helmed this section of the festival, and the first year, one senses, that he could really impose his vision on its program. The result was the best slate of films for the Quinzaine in over a decade, its quality rising since the last edition in inverse proportion to the decline of Un certain regard. While the competition continues to monopolise media interest in the festival, the most interesting, formally ground-breaking and thematically incisive films tended to cluster at the Quinzaine screenings, held a few hundred metres down the road from the festival palace. For all the speculative gossip about stars and viruses (which seemed to vie with each other for the front pages of the trade journals), the ascent of the Quinzaine was, for my money, the big story of Cannes 2021. Correspondingly, no film in any part of the festival was more of a stand-out work than Jean-Gabriel Périot’s adaptation of Didier Eribon’s memoir Retour à Reims, in which the sociologist charts the social decay of the post-industrial northern French town. By appending “[Fragments]” to the film’s title, Périot signals that his intention is not to somehow do justice to the dense, multi-layered book as a whole. Indeed, in a Q&A after the Quinzaine screening, he specifically defended the decision to avoid the homosexual elements of Eribon’s life by claiming that the material was too close to his own personal situation. Instead, Périot combines excerpts from the source text (read out by Adèle Haenel) with found footage from French cinema and television in order to fashion a historical overview of French working-class life over the last century. Following his earlier archival films Une jeunesse allemande (2015) and Nos défaites (2019) by marshalling material from some well-known examples of political cinema (La vie est à nous by Renoir, Tout va bien by Godard, La Crise by Coline Serreau), as well as other far less well-known examples of left-wing or pedagogical programming, Périot shows a proletariat that managed to find a way out of the endemic poverty and deprivation that was its fate until deep into the 20th century, a path that came principally from the development of mass political organisations representing its interests, whether in the shape of trade unions or working-class political parties (most notably the communist party, which had been dominant among the country’s industrial working-class for most of the post-war era). But in the second part of the film, Périot moves onto the moment of betrayal and defeat in the 1980s, embodied above all in the crushing disappointment of the Mitterrand presidency’s neoliberal retreat after being elected on an ambitious social-democratic platform. In this account, the right-wing volte-face of the socialists, the evaporation of a more radical left in the conservative 1980s, and the spate of de-industrialisation and mass unemployment that accompanied this shift, left behind a political vacuum from which the ultra-nationalist right (the Le Pens and their stooges) have been the principal beneficiaries. The reactionary turn of the neoliberal era is also, in Retour à Reims [Fragments], marked by a media transformation: transitioning from the filmic images of the post-war period – which even in “cheap” formats like black-and-white 16mm has a peerless beauty to it – to the degraded televisual aesthetic of the 1980s and 1990s. Périot does cap his essayistic documentary with an epilogue showing activist-captured footage of more recent waves of militant struggle, among them the Nuit débout occupation and the Gilets jaunes protests, which have revitalised a combative opposition to the political status quo. But the invigorating addendum does not entirely dispel the prevailing melancholy that suffuses Périot’s film as much as it does Eribon’s source text.


Daniel Fairfax
Sense of cinema
august 2019