Genre and disorder at Cannes 2019: a midway round-up

Halfway through this year’s festival, B-movie upgrades and distillations of societal collapse have run riot, with Mati Diop’s chimerical fable Atlantics and Céline Sciamma’s period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire looking likely candidates for awards.

Nick James
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Mama Sané as Ada in Mati Diop’s Palme d’Or candidate Atlantics (Atlantique)

Mama Sané as Ada in Mati Diop’s Palme d’Or candidate Atlantics (Atlantique)

Even though Cannes has been having a small identity crisis, the programme was quick to settle into a recognisable thematic chain of connection between films. Jim Jarmusch’s opener The Dead Don’t Die aptly led the most genre-driven Cannes programme I can remember, and that’s without much of an American studio presence (or, of course, any Netflix films). Upgraded B-movie conceptions have been abundant, as well as a mood of metaphorical and satirical commentary on the iniquitous state of world affairs and a taste for phantasmagorical fractured tales of mob rule.

 

Phantoms

The most visually arresting pair of titles I’ve seen at this stage are Mati Diop’s Atlantics (in competition) and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child (in Directors’ Fortnight). The former is a melodrama about money, class and no-wage slavery set in modern Dakar which has a contemporary undead element to it; the latter a meditation on Haitian voodoun that pairs a narrative about an enslaved 1962 zombie with the experiences of a present-day Haitian girl who becomes part of a sorority in an exclusive Lyceé in Paris. Both films are unafraid to use elisions and intuitive cross-cutting between scenes.

Atlantique’s sparkling cinematography and sound design makes the crashing surf a clamorous call to danger in this tale of thwarted romance in which Ada (Mama Sané) loves construction worker Souleimane (Ibrahima Traore), although she is promised in marriage to rich Omar (Babacar Sylla). When Souleimane and his friends – who haven’t been paid for months by Mr. N’Diaye (Dianku Sembene), the owner of the huge tower they’ve been building that looms above the city – vanish and are said to have fled to Spain by sea, Ada is obliged to go through with the wedding.

But the celebrations are interrupted when someone sets fire to the pristine marital bed, and Issa (Amadou Mbow), a local cop, suffering from a non-specific illness, is called in to investigate. He suspects Ada and the absent Souleimane. Meanwhile zombie-eyed ghost women invade Mr. N’Diaye’s house, demanding the missing men’s wages. Since the film is edited boldly and intuitively along the lines of Claire Denis’s The Intruder, the fact that the narrative occasionally stumbles can be forgiven, especially when the film’s evocation of Dakar life high, low and otherworldly is so rich.

 

Zombi Child

Zombi Child

In her press conference Diop said her priority was to see many more black faces on screen and Bonello’s Zombi Child obliges in an equally bizarre fashion. The ‘authentic’ zombi (creole spelling) part of this double narrative involves one Clairvius (Bijou Mackenson), who is drugged and entranced into a deathlike condition and buried alive, so that his memory is destroyed and he can be disinterred to work at night cutting sugar cane for his masters.

Intercut with his saga is the cautious friendship developing between Fanny (Louise Labeque), a privileged white teen, and Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), a rather distant Haitian newcomer to the Lycée. Fanny’s yearning for her absent boyfriend drives her to seek help from Melissa’s voodoo-practicing aunt Katy (Katiana Wilfort), which, this being a Bonello film, leads to some extravagantly wild possession scenes. That this intertwining of contrasting moods and eras works – an approximation would be Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie intercut with Lucile Hadjihalilovic’s Innocence – is down to the panache with which Bonello pulls it off. Some might accuse the director of appropriating a culture not his own, but his film is at least as fascinating as Diop’s.

 

There will be blood

Tilda Swinton as Zelda Winston in The Dead Don’t Die

Tilda Swinton as Zelda Winston in The Dead Don’t Die

Jarmusch’s so-what zombie movie The Dead Don’t Die was immediately followed by documentarist Ladj Ly’s energetic and taut banlieu fiction thriller Les Misérables, and the inventive Brazilian quasi-western Bacurau (co-directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles). Cannes obviously didn’t want us to settle into slow progress. Small connections triangulated these three films: there’s a UFO in The Dead Don’t Die, a flying saucer-like drone in Bacurau, and a rather crucial evidence-collecting drone in Les Misérables.

The Dead Don’t Die is drolly half-hearted about its slaughter; its zombies are as interested in their pre-death consumer choices – “Coffeeee”, “Chardonnayyyy” – as they are in chomping entrails. Watching Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny as cops who’re almost Twin Peaks-naïve alongside Tilda Swinton as a canny Scots samurai offers mild fun, but the script just isn’t funny enough, perhaps because the funniest element – the self-destructive nature of consumer culture – is it too painfully true.

 

Bacurau

Bacurau

Bacurau also has a heavy body count. It’s set in the remote titular village in Brazil’s desolate Northeast, which has had its water cut off by the government and no longer appears on electronic maps. The villagers are ornery, resourceful fun-loving folk who don’t take it kindly when a bizarre safari outfit gathers to attempt to slaughter them all. What plays out resembles a mix of The Magnificent Seven and The Most Dangerous Game with suspense and surprise the film’s main weapons. You have the predictable matter of Udo Kier being a fastidious bad guy, but the myth-embodying local outlaw Lunga (Silvero Pereira) balances him with convincing, eye-popping fury.

 

The fight goes on

Ross Brewster as Gavin in Sorry We Missed You

Ross Brewster as Gavin in Sorry We Missed You

At the screening of Sorry We Missed You Ken Loach wielded a broken arm in a sling as he said goodbye to Cannes, seemingly for the last time. It was a poignant moment for this British director whose films have so tirelessly fought for the victims of consumer society. Sorry is a bleak exposition of Catch 22 self-employment in the digital age that many were moved by and which has no consoling note of solidarity. Sadly for me it is one of Loach’s weaker films, drawn from a too-familiar script by Paul Laverty that scores all the right political points but is far too pat and unconvincing.

 

Blow It to Bits

Blow It to Bits

A more pungent sense of the current fate of the European white working class could be found in Lech Kowalski’s modest documentary Blow It to Bits, which follows angry workers – some wearing yellow hi-viz jackets – from a French auto parts factory as they try to use sit-ins and blockades to force a decent deal for those about to be laid off with nothing.

Another estimable documentary is Patricio Guzmán’s The Cordillera of Dreams, an impressive meditation on what Guzmán has missed out on in Chilean history while he’s been living abroad (the Cordillera is the strip of the Andes mountains that separate Chile from Argentina). It’s not quite as impressive as Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and The Pearl Button (2015) but it’s still a boom mic above most docs in terms of quality of thought.

 

Misfires

Ben Whishaw as Chris in Little Joe

Ben Whishaw as Chris in Little Joe

Overall, it’s been a three-star Cannes competition of consistently good rather than brilliant films. The two clunkers are Bruno Dumont’s Jeanne and Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, both of which I’ve already reviewed.

Weak too is Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, an injured-hoodlum chase movie (as its title suggests) that takes us through stunning Chinese noir locations and many lovely pastiches of great film noir moments but which itself lacks enough hangdog glamour to keep us enthralled.

One of the films I was most looking forward to was Jessica Hausner’s English language sci-fi movie Little Joe, but though it is superbly well-crafted, performed and designed I was underwhelmed by the basic conception of a flower that’s suspected of controlling the human psyche to propagate its species.

 

Damsels in distress

Adèle Haenel as Héloïse in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

Adèle Haenel as Héloïse in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

My early tips for the Palme d’Or, then, are split between Atlantics, Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (which I’ve reviewed here) and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The latter is an exquisitely sensitive costumer about Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a woman painter sent to an island home to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who’s fresh out of a nunnery and doomed to be wed to someone in Milan. The initial twist is that Marianne mustn’t let Héloïse know that she’s observing her for a portrait because Héloïse doesn’t want the marriage so won’t sit for it. When Héloïse’s mother, the Comtesse (Valeria Golino), goes away for a few days, relations between the two young women become passionate, with the abetment of housemaid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami).

All the actresses are superb, particularly the two leads, the film is entrancingly lit to look like nineteenth-century paintings and the subject of portraiture is used lightly as a pleasing commentary device. But Portrait is all about the nuances and grace notes of falling in love at a time when that love was inconceivable let alone forbidden.

 

Viktoria Miroshnichenko as Iya in Beanpole

Viktoria Miroshnichenko as Iya in Beanpole

If Kantamir Balagov’s Beanpole had been selected for competition instead of the Un Certain Regard sidebar I would have added that to my favourites. It’s an astonishing drama set amongst the Leningrad siege survivors of World War II – Leningrad having suffered an appalling two years cut off from easy supplies, during which death by starvation and freezing was all around and cannibalism rife.

Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed ‘Beanpole’ because she’s tall, is a nurse who herself is subject to occasional fits that leave her ‘frozen’ for minutes at a time. She is also devoted to her small, fragile boy, Pashka. Soon after a terrible accident kills Pashka, Iva is visited by returning female soldier Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), with whom she is clearly besotted but who turns out to be Pashka’s real mother and now insists that Iya, who finds men physically repulsive, have a child on her behalf, since she herself is no longer capable. Their relationship becomes ever more twisted by circumstance and by the nasty streak Masha’s appaling experiences at the front have left her with. It’s a film of rare intensity that investigates the huge psychological cost of total war with intricate precision.

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