Dennis Broe reports from Cannes 2019, where zombies, aliens, manhunters and the ghost of Netflix walk the cinemas
Welcome to Cannes 2019. Zombies, aliens and manhunters walk the cinemas in Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, the Cannes premiere, and the Brazilian Bacurau where a North Brazilian Afro-village is stalked a la The Most Dangerous Game by tech-savvy Anglo killers.
These are just two of several versions of the apocalypse onscreen, while the offscreen apocalypse which these films are only slightly overdramatizing continues apace. The Kering luxury goods company, largest in the world, and key sponsor of the festival, has just paid 1.25 billion dollars for tax evasion. Meanwhile Monsanto and Coca-Cola have each been implicated in padding and suppressing their own company scientific research about the alleged cancer- causing elements of Monsanto’s pesticide used in much of our food, and denying research on the diabetes and obesity that results from indulging in Coke’s sugary drinks.
The European elections take place just as Cannes ends and France’s president Macron is attempting to convince everyone here that the only choice is between his neoliberal globalists in En Marche which features the market-oriented and anti-labor policies of this ‘President of the rich’ as he is now most often referred to, and the neoliberal nationalism of Marine Le Pen, who under the guise of being for working people simply promotes anti-immigrant hate while economically also doing the bidding of the rich.
In the US it’s like saying there is absolutely nothing beyond Joe Biden and Donald Trump, while in Macron’s case the entire gambit is not to encourage democracy but to prevent it by damping down the hopes of people who might really vote for change, in order to keep them away from the polls.
This 2019 edition also evokes two previous versions of the Festival. The first is the 80th anniversary of 1939, the first year where the festival was slated to open but which instead showed only Hollywood’s Hunchback of Notre Dame – and then closed because the Nazis invaded Poland the day the festival began. The Nazis were eventually defeated, but for the opening the French did invite in Hollywood as their alternative to the fascist powers, which has proved much more difficult to get rid of. Hollywood is now in the midst of its latest attempt to overwhelm European film production through Netflix and Amazon and the forthcoming streaming services like Disney, now merged with Fox and Warner/ATT&T.
The threat of invasion by the streaming services, aligned with the impending arrival of 5G to enhance streaming, hovers in the background of this edition of the festival. Netflix is still banned from the main competition, though all the streaming services are very active, if not above ground in the competition in the Palais, then below ground in the market where they are gobbling up product for their onslaught to come.
Fest Pres Pierre Lescure is very savvy about the potential to simply short-circuit the distribution process of cinema to television to DVD to Video on Demand, by simply releasing worldwide in streaming, and he pleaded with Disney to be lenient on this distribution chain and respect its own stake in cinema releases. It is not likely that plea will be answered.
The other spectre that haunts the festival this year is that of the 50th anniversary of Cannes 1969, a year after the festival was halted by directors Jean-Luc Godard and Francoise Truffaut, who in the wake of the ‘68 Paris student protest against Vietnam asked “why speak about cinema when the world is burning?” ‘69 carried that rebellion into the cinema, and was the year of If, Easy Rider, the emergence of the Brazilian Cinema Nuovo, with the Cannes winner being Costa Gavras’ political anti-Greek dictatorship thriller Z.
This year filmmakers have on their minds two overwhelming questions. One is inequality and the increasing gap in income not only between North and South in the globe but everywhere between rich and poor, addressed metaphorically in Bacurau and directly in Ken Loach’s masterful examination of the gig economy Sorry We Missed You. The second is climate change – or more accurately climate destruction – addressed in The Dead Don’t Die.
Variety did not like Jim Jarmusch’s zombie film, finding that it did not advance the genre and add yet more heightened zombie elements or more rampant splatter effects. More likely what the trade publication did not appreciate was the way it did advance the genre, making the politics of the zombie film explicit, calling attention to itself as a vehicle to break the fourth wall, and being enacted by a cast of outsiders who magnified the genre’s subversive potential and lifted it out of the apocalyptic-for-the-thrill-of-it, Walking Dead approach.
The zombie outbreak is caused by polar fracking, impacting Trump’s America in the remote and average town of Centerville. The zombies themselves, both victims of and then victimizers in the climate catastrophe, are also imprinted with the material memory of their strongest desire which is often simply their favorite commodity, pointing to the way desire has been channeled.
Thus Iggy Pop’s zombie intones the word ‘Coffee’ again and again, while later zombies mention ‘Chardonny’ and ‘Wi-fi.’ It’s true that George Romero has covered this ground in Night of the Living and Dawn of the Dead but Jarmusch, in breaking the fourth wall – Adam Driver’s lanky hayseed cop keeps predicting it will end badly because, he finally reveals, he read it in the script – is pointing to the fact that the political content of the film is more important than playing referential games. Though they are also there is abundance – the tombstone the first zombie rises from is labelled ‘Samuel Fuller,” a revered B-movie director.
Tom Waits’ hermit comments on the action of humanity in the thralls of destroying and then feasting on itself as the world goes to hell in a handbasket, in a role that is much like what his songs accomplish outside the film.
Another stunning metaphor was that of Kleber Mendonca Fihlo’s Bacurau, about a remote village in Northern Brazil, the site of massive slave uprisings in the country’s history and always a seat of rebellion, nowadays against the US inspired ultra-right wing regime of Jair Bolsonaro. The village has had first its water supply cut off by a corrupt politician of a larger township, and then faces invasion from the sky and the ground, first by armed motorcyclists from Sao Paolo, the financial capital, and then by European and American hunters out for sport.
The film cannily mixes Brazilian folklore from the Cinema Nuovo era – one of the producers is Carlos Digues whose Quilombo charted the history of slave rebellion in the North – with cheesy ‘50s science fiction in a flying saucer drone and the use of that eras wipes between scenes and Sergio Leone-style close-ups in a battle scene that is about the Southern hemisphere’s resistance to this new, now technologically driven invasion from the North.
Mendonca Fihlo was last seen at Cannes with Aquarius, featuring an ageing Sonia Braga battling a rapacious landlord. At Cannes he and his crew protested the coup that ousted Dilma Rousseff and led eventually to the installation of Bolsonaro. This is a much tougher, harder, violent film but perfect for a time when the struggle in Brazil has hardened, now that Bolsonaro has declared war on Brazil’s environment and its indigenous peoples.
Also exhibiting this harder moment is the American indie Bull, which we assume is going to be about the triumph of a poor Texas teenager who eventually fulfills her dream of riding in the rodeo. That film, director Annie Silverstein has decided, belongs to the not-so-distant past. Instead the story centres on the girl’s battle to remove herself from selling drugs in the wake of the OxyContin epidemic, and tackle her own prejudice about being befriended by an African-American ex-cowboy, in order to be able to just get in the saddle. The narrative, though it does end in a glimmer of hope, displays the way the American success story for the poor may instead play itself out now as agony and defeat.
A word now and more later, about two films which do not employ metaphor but use the genres of documentary and of socially conscious cinema to make explicit the criticism of the inequality spawned in the neoliberal era. One is a film not in competition but which should have been, the market entry Capital in the 21st Century, based on Thomas Piketty’s book, with Piketty explaining that the level of inequality in this century sets back the clock and begins to look like the aristocratic, colonial era of pre-World War I and of the 19th century.
It’s a condition that this film – expertly peppered with film clips, concerned economists, and graphics – claims also sets up for the kind of desperation that brought Hitler to power. Finally, there is Ken Loach’s stunning examination of the gig economy from the point of view of a male and female worker and their family caught up in it, in Sorry We Missed You.
Loach’s focus on how a delivery worker is oppressed by a system that supposedly makes him his own boss but which finally leads him to exhaustion at every level shuns genre emphasis on exaggerated catastrophe, but is the most eloquent depiction of what the pressure of the gig economy – where the most precious work tool is the bottle the driver is given to pee in so he doesn’t lose time and wages by taking a bathroom break – does to those workers who are supposed to remain faceless and invisible and who are now subjugated totally to that economy’s algorithms.
Cannes 2019 so far is an onscreen dose of reality, in both its genre and more realistic films.
Dennis Broe is a culture critic whose latest work is Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His art and architecture criticism appear on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and at Culture Matters and People’s World.