Cannes of the Dead

Jessica Hausner, Little Joe, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 100 minutes.

TYPICALLY A PRESSURE COOKER of divided interests and divergent opinions, the Cannes Film Festival concluded its seventy-second edition last Saturday on a rare note of unanimity: a Palme d’Or for the film that happened also to be the critical and popular favorite. The South Korean director Bong Joon-ho took the festival’s top prize for his virtuosic social satire Gisaengchung (Parasite), which was welcomed across the board as a return to form and perhaps even a career peak after a pair of conceptually elaborate if somewhat unwieldy international coproductions, Snowpiercer (2014) and Okja (2017). Parasite entwines the fates of two families—one cramped into a flood-prone basement apartment and struggling to get by, the other cosseted in a luxurious hilltop mansion and waited on hand and foot. This tragicomedy of aspiration and entitlement in the age of zero-sum late capitalism is—like the best of Bong’s work—a film of multiple, happily coexisting genres, relying on agile plotting, screwball rhythms, and more than a few thrillingly staged set pieces. Affirming his credentials as a master of class-conscious pop cinema, Bong flips the horizontal stratification of the locomotive-bound Snowpiercer on a vertical axis: Parasite puts a wickedly literal spin on the notion that there is always someone lower on the socioeconomic ladder.

Bong, as it turns out, is the first South Korean filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or—a curiously belated achievement given the country’s long and rich cinematic history. More than any other festival, Cannes has aligned itself with—and indeed been a defining force behind—the largely male, Eurocentric art-film canon that we know. For the second year in a row, though, this tradition-obsessed event presented an official selection that signaled an openness to incremental change. Whether by choice or necessity—responding to newly sharpened criticisms about the program’s historic lack of diversity (gender and otherwise) or simply navigating the choppy currents of the brave new post-streaming world (Netflix productions, which typically bypass French cinemas, remained off-limits)—Cannes has loosened its velvet-rope policy, expanding its guest list beyond the usual bold-faced auteurs. Eight of the competition’s twenty-one films were by newcomers to the Cannes pantheon (some had previously presented work in secondary sections), and two were feature debuts.

Mati Diop, Atlantics, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 104 minutes.

One significant though little-remarked tweak was in the composition of the jury, which is usually overpopulated with movie stars with red-carpet obligations but this year included a sizable contingent of such major filmmakers as Kelly Reichardt, Alice Rohrwacher, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Paweł Pawlikowski. Headed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the jurors unveiled a thoughtful slate of palmarès, ensuring that some of the fresher, more enigmatic titles did not leave empty-handed, as too often happens. Case in point: A well-deserved Grand Prix went to the French Senegalese director Mati Diop for her first feature, Atlantics. Going into Cannes, Diop had attracted headlines for being the first black woman in competition—another long overdue Cannes milestone—though for many, the anticipation for this first feature stemmed from her already formidable body of work. With the shorts Atlantique, 2009, Snow Canon, 2011, and Big in Vietnam, 2012, and the medium-length A Thousand Suns, 2013, Diop established a distinctive sensibility, finding in complex themes of exile and identity ample room for mystery and sensuality. Atlantics returns to the scenario of Atlantique—in which young Senegalese embark on a perilous sea voyage to Spain—but this time assumes the perspective of those left behind. The potent, hallucinatory moods of Diop’s previous works are beautifully assimilated here into an oneiric fable of migration and transmigration, suspended between realism and fantasy, the living and the dead, here and elsewhere.

In a tie, the third-place Prix du Jury went to another first feature—Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables, a timely evocation of banlieue unrest within an otherwise by-the-numbers policier—and to one of the competition’s least classifiable entries, Bacurau, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s follow-up to Aquarius, codirected with his regular production designer, Juliano Dornelles. Set in a near-future Brazil, where the fictional village of the title first disappears from the map and then comes under siege from a band of murderous thrill-seekers, Bacurau is a film of sudden ultraviolence, abrupt tonal shifts, and giddy genre promiscuity (sampling from science fiction, Westerns, and horror—the local school is named for one “João Carpenteiro”). Motivations remain obscure, and the symbolism is by turns blunt and murky, but this dystopian vision is all the more unnerving for its relative opacity—far from a one-to-one political allegory, Bacurau is a work of powerfully inchoate despair and rage.

Bertrand Bonello, Zombi Child, 2019, DCP, sound, color, 103 minutes.

The binge consumption of a film festival renders its attendees especially susceptible to running themes: A few coincidental recurrences can start to seem as if they’re the emanation of a collective unconscious. This year, it was impossible to escape the specter of the zombie, right from the deadpan quips and copious citations of the opening-night film, Jim Jarmusch’s postapocalyptic The Dead Don’t Die. Zombification also emerged in the supernatural turn of Atlantics and in Jessica Hausner’s sly, eerie body-snatcher parable Little Joe, which won Emily Beecham the best actress prize. The most direct confrontation with the zombie figure, however, could be found in Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, a highlight of the parallel Directors Fortnight section, and indeed of the entire festival. Bonello’s previous film, the provocatively ambiguous terrorism-themed Nocturama, was deemed too much of a hot potato for Cannes. Equally unafraid of the potentially problematic, Zombi Child alternates between Haiti in 1962—loosely dramatizing the well-documented case of Clairvius Narcisse, who is said to have been zombified through a combination of poisons and psychoactive substances—and present-day Paris, where a new Haitian student becomes an object of fascination at an elite girls’ boarding school. As always with Bonello, the film is both conceptual and visceral as it builds up a dialectical charge between its two storylines and functions equally as a delirious teen-horror reverie, a serious study of the zombie myth, and an open-ended riff on the persistence of the colonial past.

Reanimation took on a different meaning in one of the festival’s more gratifying subplots: the renewed vigor of old masters. Marco Bellocchio, who turns eighty this fall, delivered his best film in years with The Traitor, an energetic chronicle of several decades’ worth of Cosa Nostra trials, as seen through the eyes of a mob boss turned informer, Tommaso Buscetta (an excellent Pierfrancesco Favino). Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar’s richest work since All About My Mother (1999), is a barely disguised self-portrait, an autumnal memory piece that arrives at a state of hard-won grace and serenity; it’s also a gift to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator Antonio Banderas, who plays a soulful and wryly self-aware aging, blocked filmmaker (he won the best actor prize). Pain and Glory made for a suggestive companion piece with Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso, which screened out of competition; here it’s a brilliant Willem Dafoe who plays the director’s alter ego in a raw-nerved everyday psychodrama of recovery that also stars Ferrara’s wife, Cristina Chiriac, and their young daughter, Anna.

Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Hollywood, 2019, 35 mm, sound, color, 159 minutes.

The Cannes press corps always has its nose to the ground for scandals, though none of this year’s controversies-in-waiting gained much traction. Some quarters had their knives out for Quentin Tarantino even before the premiere of his hotly anticipated Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood—and his press conference was duly contentious—but his requests not to spoil the film mean that the debates have yet to fully play out. Suffice it to say, this superbly textured rendition of a prelapsarian Hollywood—for me the most pleasurable movie of the festival—turns the counterfactual gambits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained toward more personal ends. Its unending California dream is the expression of a palpable, deeply poignant yearning. Abdellatif Kechiche, who won the Palme d’Or the last time he was here, for 2013’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, did his part for the festival’s twenty-four-hour outrage cycle with Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo, the middle installment of a planned trilogy about youthful lust, this one set mostly in a nightclub and with the camera trained for long stretches on gyrating female rear ends. While many French reviewers greeted it with rapturous praise, their Anglophone counterparts seemed to have sat through the three-and-a-half-hour film mainly for the opportunity to squeeze as many posterior-themed jokes as possible into their copy.

Albert Serra, Liberté, 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 132 minutes.

For the festival’s most bracing treatment of the erotic imagination, we had to look to the eighteenth century, and to Albert Serra’s Liberté, which somehow won a prize in the Un Certain Regard section, despite being the most radical and confrontational film in the official selection in recent memory. The culmination of a project that originated as a play at the Volksbühne and also took the form of a two-screen installation at the Reina Sofia, Liberté unfolds over the course of one long, eventful night in a forest clearing outside Berlin, where an ensemble of bewigged, dissolute pleasure-seekers engages with varying degrees of enthusiasm in an assortment of Sadean activities (from light whipping to advanced stump torture). With a sound track of rustling leaves and chirping insects, and its dominant mood more lassitude than arousal, this plotless nocturne accommodates both comedy and tedium, sometimes simultaneously. Throughout, Serra poses—or, rather, encourages the mind to alight on—questions of desire and morality, illuminates the tensions between the visible and the hidden in representations of the sex act, and entangles the gazes of the characters, the camera, and the viewers. Especially in the context of Cannes and contemporary film culture, where so much seems dutiful and obligatory, Liberté more than lives up to its title, suggesting that a truly free cinema is one that still believes in the possibility of subversion.

The Seventy-Second Cannes Film Festival was held May 14 through 25.