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Director Sean Baker, Palme d'Or award winner for the film Anora, speaks during the closing ceremony of the 77th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 25.Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

At each year’s Cannes closing news conference, nine exemplars of film royalty have to put on brave faces and defend their award choices. This past Saturday night, jury president Greta Gerwig called the 22 films she had to sit through “an embarrassment of riches” and, sure, one of those words applies.

It’s wrong to assume that the best films at Cannes are always in competition, and critics fume when their favourites go home empty-handed, but art divorced from commercial or Oscar success isn’t what Cannes director Thierry Frémaux demands. Yet Gerwig’s awards provided us with a human surge. If my last dispatch mentioned embarrassments, below sees the riches, as the jury acknowledged a new generation of cinephile filmmakers.

The only unawarded standouts were a late-career masterpiece by David Cronenberg, and one-third of a hybrid masterpiece by Jia Zhangke. Much of the first two parts of Jia’s Caught by the Tides is composed of scenes and outtakes from his previous films, mostly 2002′s Unknown Pleasures and 2006′s Still Life, both starring Li Zhubin and Jia’s muse, Zhao Tao. (The first section, a dialogue- and plot-free reverie, explodes off the screen.) Part three, set during the pandemic with the same actors, gives the film a Chinese Boyhood quality. Jia is China’s greatest historian of the post-Tiananmen era, and here he shows how the hope for freedom has morphed into consumerism – how China’s recent past is content searching for form.

Even more conceptual than Jia’s film, Miguel Gomes’ Grand Tour is likewise about a woman searching for a man across time and space, both up the Yangtze no less. In 1918, British diplomat Edward awaits his fiancée Molly’s arrival on a steamer on the Rangoon docks, but flees minutes before she arrives. Part one follows him across colonial Asia, with contemporarily shot street scenes accompanied by a multilingual voiceover narrating Edward’s travels, intercut with dramatic sequences entirely filmed on set – a mélange that sounds complicated but works splendidly.

Inspired by Somerset Maugham and calling to mind such disparate filmmakers as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Masao Adachi and Patrick Keiller, Grand Tour also goes all in on “the magic of cinema,” as Gomes ups the emotional stakes when the film rewinds to Molly, a Katharine Hepburn type with a braying guffaw. Gomes truly is a dedicated lover of beasts big and small. As the tours wind from Burma through Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, there’s a procession of animals ranging from ram to pony to monkey to donkey until China arrives and, with it, that most majestic of creatures, the panda. Any day one gets to see a panda is a good day. Grand Tour is giant panda cinema, a film so abundant that you never tire of watching it play.

In the only major European festival without animal-shaped awards, Gomes won best director, and minutes later Payal Kapadia outed herself as a Gomes stan when receiving her Grand Prix for All We Imagine as Light, a major accomplishment considering it’s only her second feature film and the first Indian film in competition at Cannes in 30 years. A cross-generational portrait of spiritual sisterhood centred on a nurse, Prabha (Kani Kusruti), in a shabby hospital, All We Imagine as Light is a fully humanist film about friendship and the multiple faces of romance.

Replace a noisy, sweaty Mumbai with Hong Kong and we’re in the vein of In the Mood for Love, and, as I was in the mood, I loved it. Certain elements of the cinematography and staging might be too perfect, though Kapadia’s mise en scène aptly reflects the straitjackets of Indian society. After the first week’s punishment, all I needed was a big hug, like the one Prabha gives to a rice cooker she unexpectedly receives from her long unseen husband.

Women have problems in India, but it’s nothing compared with the repression of Iran’s vicious patriarchy. Filmed clandestinely and incorporating brutal Instagram footage of Woman, Life, Freedom protests in September, 2022, The Seed of the Sacred Fig received a moving five-minute standing ovation before its screening, acknowledging the director’s personal sacrifice: Rather than serve an eight-year prison sentence, Mohammad Rasoulof fled Iran on foot just before Cannes.

Rasoulof’s screed begins with a protagonist in the revolutionary courts who is newly responsible for approving death sentences. But the focus is on his wife and daughters, caught up in the tides of the Jina Revolution. If there are some problems with the film, which transforms from a high-stakes domestic drama into an allegorical, rural version of The Shining, I’ve got no problem forgiving them. The director’s sheer bravado, which, no joke, could get him executed, made the film an awards favourite, confirmed mid-festival when it was acquired by U.S. distributor Neon, which bought the last four Palme d’Or winners.

Rasoulof won a made-up Prix Special, but not to worry: Neon got its fivepeat with Sean Baker’s Anora, the first Palme d’Or win dedicated on stage to sex workers past, present and future. It’s Baker’s fifth consecutive film about vividly portrayed humans who earn their living in that industry, and you know he doesn’t hold back when the film’s first shot pans across a series of men receiving lap dances. (Full disclosure: Baker asked me to have a cameo, but I didn’t feel like paying to fly to New York to hit up a strip club.)

Better Things’ Mikey Madison breaks out as the titular erotic dancer/escort, who thinks she’s hit the jackpot when the hard-partying scion of a Russian oligarch takes a liking to her – think a Brighton Beach Cinderella or Pretty Woman. But the American Dream in the 2020s is inevitably shattered. His parents discover they’ve tied the knot, and chaos breaks loose. Yet again, a woman in pursuit of a cowardly man, and, as in Caught by the Tides and Grand Tour, it’s transformative.

Anora’s mix of fantasy, screwball comedy and absurd action was the most entertaining in show. At the closing news conference, Baker modestly said he’s trying to “give people a good time at the movies,” unconsciously evoking the Safdies, whose high-propulsive New York cinema is a grittier version of Baker’s. An ardent cinephile, Baker used the stage to plead for cinema’s continuance as a theatrical experience. The pleasantly surprising Palme d’Or win for Anora recalls a bit of graffiti on the elevator in Andrea Arnold’s Bird, one that simply reads: HOPE.

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