Cannes 2021 Contenders: Here’s a Look at the Likely Winners

Cannes 2021 Contenders: Here’s a Look at the Likely Winners

While the pandemic failed to vanquish awards season in 2020, one key prize was left out of the picture. For many filmmakers, the Palme d’Or is the most revered accolade on the planet, and in 2019, it set the bar high. After Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” won the Competition and went on to commercial and critical success — not to mention that historic Oscar for Best Picture — many expected that it would place renewed focus on Cannes as a major launchpad for international cinema. That didn’t happen in 2020, as the festival canceled its physical edition, but it’s back to business as usual in 2021.

With Spike Lee as its president, the return of the Cannes Competition looks to be one of the most unpredictable in years. He’s joined by an international group of filmmakers and actors, mostly women, whose work suggest a wide array of sensibilities in play: The other directors are Mati Diop, Jessica Hausner, Melanie Laurent, and Kleber Mendonca Filho; the performers are Mylene Farmer, Tahar Rahim, and Song Kang-ho. If they all voted for movies that looked exactly like the ones they make, the safe money’s on it a real outside-the-box choice.

But there’s the honest truth: There is no real exact science to predicting the Palme d’Or winners, as jurors spend 10 days watching two movies a day and can shape their decisions on the basis of whatever they want. While the president may have a right to be the loudest voice at the table, everyone ultimately gets one vote, and sometimes they go to unexpected places.

In fact, some filmmakers seem most inclined to reward the films most unlike their own. Everyone remembers that Jane Campion was the first (and so far only) woman director to win the Palme d’Or for “The Piano,” but few recall that David Lynch was the jury president. Steven Spielberg, who is not known for sexually explicit lesbian romances, went for “Blue is the Warmest Color.” The year that “Mad Max” auteur George Miller led the jury, rumors persisted that he wasn’t a fan of critics favorite “Toni Erdmann,” and the Palme didn’t go to other beloved entries like “Paterson” or “American Honey,” either: Ken Loach’s far more traditional “I, Daniel Blake” won instead.

In short: Nobody knows anything until the golden trophy arrives. Still, the speculation is a fun excuse to engage with the Competition as it unfolds, one day after the next, and the race intensifies.

The following predictions will be updated throughout the festival, so bookmark this page to stay up to date as this year’s big global cinema comeback story continues. The Palme d’Or ceremony will take place on Saturday, July 17 at 7:15 p.m. CET.

1. “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds”

“Lingui, the Sacred Bonds”


Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is one of the few African filmmakers with a regular presence in Cannes Competition, most recently with “Grisgris” and “A Screaming Man.” His latest effort is an early Palme favorite for several reasons. Haroun’s first movie to center on a female protagonist takes place in a small traditionalist village, where a single woman works every possible angle to get an abortion for her teenage daughter, even though it’s considered a taboo with dangerous consequences.

The weighty subject matter merges nicely with Haroun’s sturdy approach to the drama, as he maintains the tension of the story throughout as the mother-daughter bond deepens under gripping circumstances. “Lingui” isn’t the kind of explosive Cannes movie that reinvents the wheel, but it’s a genuine story of female empowerment from an underrepresented country, which could puts it in a good position to remain a jury favorite during the festival. Spike Lee was spotted publicly showing his appreciation to Haroun at the Cannes premiere, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

2. “The Worst Person in the World”

“The Worst Person in the World”

Norwegian director Joaquim Trier completes his so-called “Oslo Trilogy” by following “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st” with this multilayered tragi-comic look at a young creative woman (Renate Reinsave) who drifts between two lovers as she struggles to find her identity in a fast-moving world. Trier’s complex tonal juggling act includes heavy voiceover as it unfolds across 12 chapters to explore its protagonist’s life, with inventive curveballs that deal that include a memorable mushroom trip and a foray into cancel culture.

The dramedy has been compared by many to “Frances Ha,” and in favorable terms. However, that kind of formula isn’t exactly the most groundbreaking, and as the competition continues, the jury may be more inclined to reward more daring material. Still, “Worst Person” is accomplished enough to remain a contender, perhaps for screenplay or for Reinsave in the best actress category.

3. “Ahed’s Knee”

“Ahed’s Knee”

Israeli auteur Nadav Lapid follows up in Berlinale-winning “Synonyms” with another searing look at the paradoxes of Israeli identity, this one focused on a filmmaker (Nur Fibak, possibly a stand-in for Lapid) who roams around the Arabah desert while musing on his frustrations over military service and government censorship as he plots an audacious new film.

This kind of navel-gazing meta material can go wrong in a lot of ways, but Lapid’s shocking, inventive approach continues to keep the drama surprising and inventive, including a couple of abstract musical numbers with soldiers that inject the movie with a furious sense of purpose. Its fragmented approach and wandering narrative style may not click for all of the jurors, but they’re likely to respect its distinctive outlook. It may not be an obvious consensus title, but these sort of adventurous works often score other prizes at the festival, like the Grand Prix. It will almost certainly remain in the conversation.

4. “Everything Went Fine”

Francois Ozon is one of the most prolific and versatile filmmakers working in France today, and has been a regular crowdpleaser in Cannes Competition, where recent entries include “Young & Beautiful” and “Double Lover.” His latest entry finds him working in a fairly conventional mode, with the story of an aging father (André Dussolier) who asks his daughter (Sophie Marceau) to help him end his life.

The story, which largely takes place in a hospital, might not be the most rousing subject matter in a year of much bolder storytelling swings. However, the movie has played well to audiences and critics who recognize its emotional accessibility as a key strength. If the jury ends up divided over many of the more experimental films in Competition, the sturdiness of “Everything Went Fine” might work in its favor. But it’s still not a strong Palme contender given that the respectful but muted response almost certainly extends to some of the jury.

5. “Annette”

Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver on the cover art for “So We May Start” from “Annette”

Sony Music

The Cannes opening night selection brings outré director Leos Carax back to the festival for the first time since his formally adventurous “Holy Motors,” and almost a decade later, he remains a bold, surprising filmmaker whose work divides and excites audiences in equal measures. He’s also delivering his highest-profile effort to date, a peculiar rock opera composed by Sparks that stars a propulsive Adam Driver as a failing comedian and Marion Cotillard as his wife, and a wooden puppet as their titular puppet.

“Annette” divided audiences right on schedule, but those who took kindly to it responded to Carax’s moody surrealism, the constant energy of the soundtrack, and Driver’s utter commitment to a bonkers performance. Opening night films rarely win the Palme, in part because the jury is so far removed from them by the time vote arrives, and this wide range of reactions on this one make it an unlikely title to top the festival (even if some of the jurors undoubtedly took kindly to it).

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