Zombies, drones and how the global economy grinds us down have been remarkable recurring themes of the films in the first days of the 72nd Cannes Film Festival.
With cinema searching its soul to extend its life in the face of Netflix and home streaming, Cannes decided to experiment with the possibilities of genre this year. While the business end was talking about format, the artists (and the critics) were debating form.
Things even opened with a zombie movie, a B-movie staple not usually associated with this temple of cinematic high art but, like they say in the Coen brothers: you know, for kids…
And it was directed by Jim Jarmusch, the grey-coiffed Ohio auteur is one of the festival’s favourite sons and he was granted the opening berth and duly responded by packing his film with his own darlings.
A cast to wake the dead, screamed the French posters (Un casting a reveiller les morts!) and there’s something very meta about seeing Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny do their thing again – joined rather smartly by the world’s biggest Instagram influencer Selena Gomez.
It’s a droll affair of a film, though not particularly funny, set in a town called Centerville, when the world has been jolted off its axis by “polar fracking” creating conditions that re-animate the dead. Three cops called Robertson, Peterson and Morrison (Murray, Driver and Sevigny) try and deal with the zombie hordes taking over the town with their regular allegorical consumerist thirst for good. The undead stumble around muttering single words of the one thing they desire. “Coffee,” says Iggy Pop re-animated. “Chardonnay” squeaks zombie Carol Kane, while other crave “WiFi”, “Ambien”, “Snickers”, or even “Snapple…” Who the hell drinks Snapple?
There’s some mirth in these last days on earth – Driver’s character keeps telling everyone “This won’t end well,” – but there’s more melancholy at the heart, an existential sense of the futility of our existence as slaves to the consumerist machine. Or maybe it was just a gag about all Cannes festival-goers’ eventual state, wondering the Croisette in search of expresso and the next wifi password.
Whatever, zombies and undead appeared to be a deliberate theme, rather more artistically and hauntingly applied to Atlantique (featured image), a beautiful if elusive film by Senegal’s Mati Diop, the first female black film maker ever to be in Competition here.
This is set in Dakar under the shadow of a giant, gleaming, skyscraping hotel being built using local labourers who aren’t getting paid. It features a terrific scene of our lead girl Ada excitedly sneaking out of home to meet her lover Suleiman at a nightclub. When she gets there, all her girl friends are sitting around at the bar or on banquettes looking dazed. “The boys have gone,” says her mate. And they have, all taken a “pirogue” boat to Spain in a bid for a salary and a better life.
We’ve seen films and docs about the migration crisis before, but not from the point of view of those communities left devastated by the departure of its males. What’s left for these young women now? No one to earn the cash, no one to dance with, no one to love…
Diop keeps things ghostly and elliptical. There’s a policeman investigating a spontaneous fire and someone claims that they’ve seen Suleiman back in town. Things get weird, the spirits of the boys at sea returning to haunt the city they left. Diop is clearly influenced by the films of Claire Denis (for whom she starred as a young actress in the marvellous 35 Shots of Rum) and the Thai film maker Apichatpong Weerasetakul – but don’t let that put you off…
Ancient spirits are invoked in Brazil’s Bacurau, when a village in the sertao – the scrubby outback in the state of Pernambuco, above Recife – is cut off and wiped off the map before coming under attack from some Western vigilantes. What’s going on? The villagers call on their ancient traditions of resistance and survival to fend off yet another colonial invasion in a violent, exploitation movie that’s also a meditation on (ok, an outright attack against) globalisation and corruption.
I suppose the genre of Les Miserables is the ‘film de banlieu’, a genre that exploded in Europe with the arrival of La Haine in 1995, a film that itself owed much to Spike Lee’s Palme d’Or losing classic Do The Right Thing, which was outrageously beaten by Barton Fink here in 1991, much to the continued bitterness of Lee.
Anyway, you know the genre, taking us into the heart of the teeming Paris suburb of Montfermeil, just to the east of the city where, in 2005, the riots kicked off prompting Sarkozy into his infamous description of the “racaille”. It’s also where Victor Hugo set much of his novel, placing the Theynadier’s inn in Montfermeil. Master of the house, and all that.
Things haven’t changed much, seems to be the point of debut director Lady Ly, who grew up there, making this significantly different from La Haine, being authored by someone who knows the community – or several clashing communities in the area – very well and who has studied them. Indeed, along with Atlantiques, this is another film in Competition to have stemmed from an original short documentary, which the film maker has turned into their debut feature.
Les Miserables also uses three cops as our way in – two grizzled neighbourhood lads showing a newbie around on his first day in the ‘hood. Yes, Training Day is a close model, too.
Ly does it brilliantly. The Africans, the Muslim brotherhood, the gypsies and their circus, the kids in the tower blocks, the drone operator spying on the girl in their windows, the self-proclaimed “Mayor” who runs things, and the cops who think they can keep the fragile peace during 24 hours when the summer temperature is rising and the unifying euphoria of France’s World Cup win – when the whole city draped itself in the Tricolore for a moment of pride – is fading fast.
The film has energy, anger, insight and bags of tension. The characters are great and its full of testosterone-fired men facing each other off while women are mainly worried mothers confined to the kitchen. I’d love to see more of every character actually – it felt like the pilot to a scintillating new TV series, a Paris Narcos, or a Gomorrah, or even a Line of Duty. If it is, I’d watch the whole thing.
That space between TV format and big screen feature is where cinema is at. Ken Loach has known this for years – his seminal Cathy Come Home played on the BBC over 50 years ago and still has a legacy, as did his I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or but was hugely influential when it later played on the BBC. His latest – his 14th in Cannes – has a similarly intimate, quotidian style, almost like that of an episode of a soap opera: it’s probably no coincidence that one of the characters is pictured walking along a road called Coronation Street.
It’s called Sorry We Missed You, about a family man who decides to work for a parcel delivery firm, using his own van. He’ll be a franchisee, having his own business. Only he’ll work himself to death to pay for it. This is the story behind all those parcels we get, all those little notes telling you Sorry We Missed You, it’s with a neighbour, or behind the bins. But what Loach takes them to really means is that society is missing you, passing you by – we’ve forgotten to care for each other.
Obviously political, this film doesn’t have the sledgehammer power of Blake, nor the big scene in the food bank, but it has a quiet power and tenderness that spreads out from the strain and stress of a hundred little defeats that reduces the man to a zombie relentlessly driving to meet his delivery targets, surveyed and controlled by numbers and surveillance, like a drone. And it shows the fragile line can that lead a family – and an audience – to heart-breaking point.
Another Cannes regular returning to the top of his game was Pedro Almodovar. Many are tipping him to at last win the Palme after seven previous attempts from this major voice in European cinema. As soon as they begin, you know you’re in an Almodovar film, a Pedro world and Pain and Glory is one of his most personal films ever. Maybe you need to know a bit about him and have seen his work stretching back into the 80s to really get this one – but maybe you could just start here and get swept away.
Antonio Banderas has never been better (in fact never been anywhere near this good) as a veteran film maker Salvador Mollo, forced to look back over his life when the Madrid cinematheque restore one of his early films, during the shoot of which he fell out with one of his star actors. They tentatively reunite for a Q&A session – hilariously staged – and their rekindled friendship becomes a drug-addled reminiscence for Salvador, with giddying flashbacks to his childhood – his mother is played by Penelope Cruz in one of those exaggerated comic peasant performances she sometimes gives, washing her sheets in a stream. Come on Pen, you’ve never done the laundry in your life…
Of course, it’s all in the filmmaker’s heightened imagination, but this is a bright, moving scintillating comedy, utterly unique and beautifully delivered, with several unforgettable moments of sentimental tenderness of the kind that only Almodovar can muster. It’s one of his very best films.
Talking of Latin style and swagger, icons don’t come much bigger than Diego Maradona. The Argentinian player is the latest popular figure to come under the documentary lens of Asif Kapadia, following (Ayrton) Senna and Amy (Winehouse). Maradona gets ‘the first name treatment because Kapadia sees him as a split personality – Diego is the boy from the slums who loves his Mum; Maradona is the icon, the character he created to play like a God and be treated like one.
Kapadia has got the art of turning documentaries into big screen feature films – this one has the most exciting and gripping opening sequence I’ve ever seen in a doc, a car journey through the streets to a montage of goals and crunching fouls, and adulation and drugs and personal tussles. The film never lets up but mainly tells the story of Maradona’s time in Naples, the crumbling, bankrupt, passionate, crime-riddled city to which he brought unprecedented glory, even while he was also single-handedly (pun intended) winning the World Cup for Argentina.
The big climax takes us to Italia 90 and a little fact that gets forgotten – while England were losing that mythic shoot out to Germany in Turin, the other semi was Argentina v Italy: in Naples. Maradona pitted himself against his own legend, urging Naples to support him, not Italy. It broke everyone’s heart and spirit and Diego became the Devil and even the Camorra turned their back on him.
You can watch a thousand clips of him doing the same thing but Kapadia is an ace at archive and makes time stand still in the edit, so Maradona looks like a dancer, choreographing his way past Terry Butcher et al. “A little bit of a cheat with a lot of genius,” says someone, and that game against England in 86 is Diego Maradona, the man and the movie, in micro.
I was struck by the similarity between Diego and another drug-addled icon, Elton John, although Elton did actually turn up at Cannes, a feat beyond the still-addled Argentinian.
In Kapadia’s film, Diego sort of plays himself – who could realistically act Maradona? – but Elton is embodied by Taron Egerton in the biopic Rocketman, which glittered and shimmied and soared and tumbled. Hugely enjoyable and a little bit sad, Dexter Fletcher’s film did clever things with the familiar numbers, reframing them as musical extravaganzas or roundelays, Elton’s Mum singing a line, then his Dad or Gran, or his manager John Reid (a smarmy Richard Madden) or the excellent Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin.
And in the middle is Egerton, doing all the singing, looking a bit like Elton but just one step away from an impression, bursting through endless doors in outrageous costumes to cheers, headlines and adulation. It’s dizzying stuff – but honestly not as good as the moment, back in real life, when at the film’s after-party here in Cannes, a curtain came down and a tubby man shuffled past me and sat at a piano and hammered out I’m Still Standing. Right there, on the Carlton Beach, where Elton made his come back in 1983 with that famous Russell Mulcahy video (starring Strictly’s Bruno Tonoli, fact fans), a clip which features so beautifully in the movie, with Taron digitised in.
You couldn’t get more symbolic – I felt digitised in myself, watching Elton bash away at the piano before the real Egerton joined him for a duet on Rocketman. It was a sublime moment, time almost standing still, a merging of reality and movie life. Even a zombie would have been impressed.