John Carpenter looms over a day of madness and violence at Cannes

John Carpenter looms over a day of madness and violence at Cannes
Bacurau Photo: Director’s Fortnight

Of the three film festivals that happen at the same time as Cannes in Cannes, Quinzaine (or Directors’ Fortnight) is the one that comes closest to rivaling the main one in prestige, importance, and quality of selections. Two days in, it’s too early to say how this year’s Fortnight will measure up to this year’s Cannes. But the little festival has bested the big one already in at least one respect: The former’s opening ceremony was way more tolerable. Broadcast live in some 700 theaters all over France, Cannes’ kickoff was like Oscar night in miniature: A celebrity host, actor and social-media sensation Édouard Baer, bounded around the stage doing excited shtick, like the Gallic answer to Billy Crystal—playing piano, introducing the jury, failing to amuse Jim Jarmusch, director of disappointing opening night film The Dead Don’t Die. Aside from a brief tribute to the late, great Agnes Varda, and one live-stream candid cutaway to Bill Murray nodding off during jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu’s speech, it was a very long 45 minutes. (Granted, most of the ceremony was in French—though judging from the muted reaction in the room, understanding the jokes might not have done them favors.)

Opening night at Fortnight went much lower on pomp, circumstance, and red-carpet prelude. It had the benefit, too, of a very special guest. While Cannes dragged things out with a highlight-reel tribute to Iñárritu’s work—earning a long “Boo!” from someone in the adjacent Debussy Theatre, where the press dutifully watched the livestream—the Fortnight commencement roughly 24 hours later cold opened with a more elegantly assembled montage celebrating a worthier artist: director John Carpenter, recipient of the fest’s Golden Coach lifetime achievement award. As a fog machine pumped some billowy atmosphere into the venue, representatives from the French director’s guild played a live rendition of the director’s iconic Halloween score. Carpenter, decked out in a tux, took the stage moments later, citing The African Queen and Forbidden Planet as the films that got him hooked forever on cinema. It made me wish I could have justified carving out time for Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece, The Thing, which screened in the same theater hours earlier; it’s unlikely I’ll see a better movie over the next few days in Cannes.

But who knows? The thrill of this festival (or these festivals, again) is the hanging possibility of transcendence: the idea that every time the house lights dim or the projector flickers back to life, it could be the start of something major. I’ll confess to harboring low expectations for a new film by Quentin Dupieux, the French electronic musician-turned-director, whose latest was selected to open this year’s Fortnight. But Deerskin (Grade: B) is a much more inspired dabble in Dadaist lunacy than his earlier whatsits, like Rubber or Wrong. In a sense, it provided another contrast with Cannes proper: a deadpan meta horror-comedy, à la Jarmusch’s, except actually funny and pointed.

The Artist’s Jean Dujardin—looking uncannily like Mandy Patinkin—stars as Georges, an oddball nobody who drops a hefty chunk of his life savings on what will become his most prized possession: a 100% deerskin jacket. Locked out of his bank account by his infuriated wife, Georges checks into a hotel in some French backwater, where he impulsively begins to masquerade as a filmmaker (the jacket came with a small digital video camera), mostly to bilk a local bartender and amateur editor (Adèle Haenel) out of whatever money she’ll give him for a nonexistent project. Almost accidentally, he becomes an actual filmmaker (violent vérité is his genre), but only as means to realize his true goal: not just to be decked out always in deerskin, but to be the only person in the world with a jacket. (The first evidence that he’s far from just a harmless, self-sabotaging kook are the conversations he has with the jacket itself.)

It’s really just one joke, scrupulously played out at feature length. Which is to say, Dupieux is working in an absurdist mode not far removed from that of his previous art-comedy pranks. But Dujardin, in what may be his most restrained comic performance, commits to the pathetic, deranged pathology of the character, scoring tons of laughs through his hapless bumble into “creativity,” which leads into much darker territory. And there’s a real idea, maybe even a sly auto-critique, in the premise: Georges becomes an artist just to feed his peculiar, particular obsession; whatever talent or genius his newfound funder sees in his “work” is a side effect, the unintended outgrowth of his true aspirations. In other words, Deerskin is goofing on the sometimes-wide chasm separating the perception of a filmmaker’s vision and the less sophisticated reality of it.

Speaking from the stage before the screening, Dupieux acknowledged a creative debt to Mr. Carpenter, presumably both cinematic and (given his work as Mr. Oizo) possibly musical, too. Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho has also cited the maestro of widescreen dread as a major influence, and if that was only obliquely clear in sprawling previous features like Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius, it becomes downright explicit in the batshit Bacurau (Grade: B+), which he codirected with his regular producer and production designer Juliano Dornelles. Playing as part of the main competition at Cannes, this truly unhinged genre fusion initially promises a very different kind of movie than what it becomes. Set in the near future, the film opens with a woman (Barbara Colen) returning to her hometown in the remote backstretch of Brazil for her grandmother’s funeral. The village is populated by a bustling collection of eccentric characters—among them a stern doctor played by Filho’s Aquarius star Sônia Braga—and for a stretch, the filmmakers appear to be laying out a kind of ethnographic ensemble drama, getting into the entwined conflicts of the community, including a dispute with a greedy politician (Thardelly Lima) over a water shortage caused by a new dam in the region.

But why has the town disappeared from Google Maps? And why does no one’s cellphone work anymore? Much more shouldn’t be said of the plot, but once Udo Kier shows up as an American businessman, you know that things are going to take a turn for the worse. Bacurau’s slips into unexpected madness and violence reminded me not just of Carpenter, whose music the filmmakers sample in a key moment, but also of the early, tables-turning revenge thrillers of Wes Craven; of the first Rambo movie, First Blood; and, in a long, punchy, midfilm dialogue scene that drastically shifts the perspective, of the work of the other Quentin who’s brought a movie to Cannes 2019. There are those who will surely argue that this is not a tonally coherent film. But I was nonetheless rather elated by the way Filho weaves in so many outside touchstones while still maintaining his core interests in social dynamics and anti-capitalist sentiment, all while finding a new B-movie application for his expressive use of oranges and blues. And there’s real bite to the film’s ferociously rebellious backstretch; if Jarmusch closed his nutty, apocalyptic genre movie with a kind of sigh of resignation, Bacurau meets its own assertion that “This world is upside down” with something closer to baptizing rage.

Given its title, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that another competition film, Les Misérables (Grade: B-), has revolution on the brain, too. Co-written by its first-time director, Ladj Ly, this is not an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s literary classic but rather an urgent but bombastic police drama set in the Paris commune of Montfermeil. The setup is basically Training Day, with a country cop (Damien Bonnard, from previous Cannes competitor Staying Vertical) paired off with a couple of corrupt officers, who opportunistically bulldoze their way through the various, at-odds subcultures of their district, exercising excessive force whenever they please and leaning on various local kingpins for favors and perks. Earlier this year, Dragged Across Concrete inspired a lot of debate regarding its ambiguous attitude towards police brutality. Les Misérables is definitely a film for anyone who wishes that movie came down clearer and harder on dirty, violent cops—it’s hard to object to its politics. But while I admired the one-day-in-David-Ayer-hell energy of the movie, I also found it bombastic and contrived. It’s the police drama as police baton.

Tomorrow: Mati Diop, who appeared in Claire Denis’ essential 35 Shots Of Rum, makes her feature directorial debut with Atlantique, the first film by a black woman to make the competition lineup at Cannes. Plus, two-time Palme winner Ken Loach returns with another undoubtedly incensed social-realist diatribe, and I chase the buzz on an Un Certain Regard selection, Beanpole.

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