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Cannes 2024 felt like a dud. But then the Palme d’Or race took off – and a great new talent arrived

A volley of superb late entrants, including Anora and All We Imagine as Light, created one of the closest races in decades

There was a bit of En Attendant Godot about the 77th Cannes film festival. The first half anyway. The critical community initially felt themselves shut off on a blasted plain with only their own complaints for entertainment. Not since the fabled drought of Cannes 2010 had there been so much moaning. Then it all changed. A volley of superb late entrants generated one of the closest and busiest Palme d’Or races in recent decades.

Sean Baker’s Anora, eventual winner, could hardly have gone down better. The American director, who played at Cannes with The Florida Project and Red Rocket, has a reputation as a gritty naturalist, but he is also at home to unrestrained comedy and stirring sentimentality. Following a sex worker – played by the unstoppable Mikey Madison – as she recklessly marries a Russian client, the film did as much to reinvent the screwball tradition as any film since Peter Bodganovich’s What’s Up, Doc?

That came at the middle of the event and, alongside The Substance, Coralie Fargeat’s viscera-soaked horror, helped change the weather dramatically. Two more late, late premieres turned the race for the Palme d’Or into a nail-biter. The final Thursday brought Payal Kapadia’s painfully humane All We Imagine as Light. There had already been much anticipatory chatter on La Croisette about the Indian director’s second feature – and, sure enough, it turned out to be a winner. Kani Kusruti, still as a midsummer pond, plays a nurse in Mumbai who is still processing the creeping realisation that her husband, now working in Germany, is not coming home. She passes some frustration the way of her younger flatmate. She tries to let down a doctor admirer gently.

All We Imagine as Light treads with the greatest care as it allows delicately drawn characters to tease out traumas they barely themselves acknowledge. The later scenes in rural India are hypnotic, but the film is most memorable for its largely generous portrayal of Mumbai. The enormous social problems are acknowledged by an unseen chorus, but the film still buzzes with urban poetry. Kapadia, possessor of a singular voice, deserved her Grand Prix. The film will now travel.

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Going into the awards ceremony, it looked as if we might have the latest screening of a Palme d’Or winner since Laurent Cantet’s The Class won here in 2008. Mohammad Rasoulof, an Iranian film-maker accused of making “propaganda against the system”, was recently sentenced to eight years in prison by his home government. The Seed of the Sacred Fig, the penultimate film in competition, saw him creating a domestic thriller that communicated the blend of justified fear and rank paranoia that attends life in contemporary Iran.

Missagh Zareh plays a lawyer who, on being appointed a judge, is placed in a state of tension with family and his own conscience. Anton Chekhov famously said that if a gun appears over the mantlepiece in the first act it must be fired in the last. Rasoulof plays an interesting twist on Chekhov. A pistol, much mentioned in the opening hour, goes missing, and an investigation follows that pulls the family apart. The late swivel in tone is both unnerving and revelatory. I was at the red-carpet screening, and for once the over-discussed standing ovation actually meant something. Rasoulof, now in exile, was being celebrated for both his bravery and his cinematic gifts.

The much-discussed critics’ grid published daily by Screen International, which aggregates competition reviews, had The Seed of the Sacred Fig just ahead of Anora on the last day, but Rasoulof had to settle for a special jury prize. He nonetheless made the week his own. “My only message to Iranian cinema is: don’t be afraid,” he said at the event. “They want to discourage us – but don’t let yourself be intimidated. They have no other weapon but fear. We have to fight for a dignified life in our country.”

Prizes also went the way of Jacques Audiard’s trans-narco musical Emilia Perez, Fargeat’s The Substance and Miguel Gomes’s characteristically oddball Grand Tour. That last film, again landing late, confirmed Gomes, a cerebral Portuguese director, as one of the era’s great cinematic anthropologists. Combining contemporary documentary shots and colour period footage, the film concerns a British civil servant in Burma (as it then still was) during the first World War who flees his fiancee in a state of moral confusion. Spoken entirely in the director’s native tongue, the film eccentrically pokes at political concerns while allowing a degree of exoticisation. Deserved winner of best director.

In Irish terms, Cannes 2024 was always going to register as a remarkable year. Fully five films in the official selection were listed as Irish productions or coproductions. Three of those were from Dublin’s Element Pictures. Yorgos Lanthimos, who worked with Element on The Lobster, Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite and the recent Poor Things, was here with an angular, sometimes scary, occasionally unfocused triptych titled Kinds of Kindness.

Element was also behind two interesting films in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Ariane Labed, collaborator and partner of Lanthimos, made her feature debut with the strange, unsettling September Says. Adapted from Daisy Johnson’s novel Sisters, the film concerns twin English girls who, following trouble at school, take a holiday in a version of rural Ireland much bedecked with pictures of the pope. The film seems uncertain how fully to grasp the absurd. Now it is naturalistic. Now we are back in the “Greek weird wave” from which Labed emerged. But there is important information here about the terrors of looming adulthood.

The best of the Irish coproductions was, for this writer, Rungano Nyoni’s excellent, uneasy On Becoming a Guinea Fowl. Set in Zambia – Nyoni is Welsh-Zambian – the picture begins with Shula (Susan Chardy) discovering her uncle’s dead body after a fancy dress party. It seems he died while using the services of a nearby brothel. Shula, with the help of an eccentric cousin, then sets about organising a funeral service. Nyoni, director of the much-admired I Am Not a Witch, nudges her characters towards increasingly grim revelations but tempers that strain with a feisty zest of absurdity. Nyoni deserved her Un Certain Regard best-director prize for a film that invites close rewatching.

Ali Abbasi’s The Apprentice had the Irish company Tailored Films as coproducer. Debuting to respectable reviews, the study of Donald Trump’s early years – featuring a bumbling Sebastian Stan as the future president and a ferret-eyed Jeremy Strong as his ruthless lawyer Roy Cohn – was soon attracting attention from Trump’s lawyers. By Friday, Variety was reporting that the legal team had sent a cease-and-desist letter to the film-makers “in an effort to block its US sale and release”. It sounds as if there will be a lot more to this story before the film makes its way before paying customers.

Completing the domestic sextet was Lorcan Finnegan’s The Surfer. The rugged drama, featuring Nicolas Cage as a misused father adrift in a hostile Australia, premiered to loud cheers in the small hours of the first Saturday morning of the festival.

What else? The much ballyhooed appearance of three North American greats became something of a remote sideshow. Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis was dire but still drew a surprising number of positive reviews from distinguished critics. Paul Schrader’s Oh Canada was touching and beguiling but still drew a surprising number of dreadful reviews from distinguished critics. Though hardly a smash, David Cronenberg’s The Shrouds, a deeply odd film concerning a process that allows bereaved to watch their loved ones decay, may have come out of that tussle the healthiest. The Shrouds is not a major Cronenberg release, but it is, in its cowed, whispery way, entirely certain of the ground it walks upon.

So not a classic Cannes (something 2023 probably was) but one that, at the top end, ultimately proved hugely satisfying. Anora is as strong a Palme d’Or winner as any in the past 20 years. All We Imagine as Light confirmed the arrival of a great new talent. The Substance is disgustingly something else.

Some things change here. Some remain exactly the same. Down at a beachside club on the penultimate day, I made one more visit to the stubbornly English event that is the Palm Dog. Awful puns. Beauty queens in sashes. The ceremony awarding best canine performance remains much as it was 20 years ago. The winner was the delightful Kodi from the Un Certain Regard entry Dog on Trial. We toasted him as, now 10, he moved into semi-retirement. Bonne nuit et bonne chance.