Out of the welter of the Cannes Film Festival, with hundreds of movies showing every day, the pattern-happy critic eager to discern trends finds them in places both obvious and abstruse.
This year, zombies are everywhere, sometimes on screen. From the festival’s opening film, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, through aging French provocateur Bertrand Bonello’s stab at the genre, Zombi Child – the missing “e” signals the original Creole spelling – in the Director’s Fortnight, and The Curse of Hobbes House in the Market, whose one-minute “teaser” suggests a posh, talky British take on the zombie apocalypse, the undead are ubiquitous on the Croisette. Whether they collectively represent a metaphor for our catatonic times or merely a reliance on tired genre tropes remains debatable.
Other emerging themes midway through the festival:
- Felliniesque: The imminent centenary of Italian master Federico Fellini reminds us of his continuing, mostly unfortunate influence on current cinema. Though il maestro’s most conspicuous acolyte and Cannes favourite Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) does not have a film here this year, Fellini’s influence is shamelessly evident in Québécois director Monia Chokri’s La femme de mon frère, a histrionic comedy set in the intellectual world of Montreal, which was unaccountably accorded the prestigious opening slot of the Un Certain Regard sidebar. And Pedro Almodovar seems to rely on Fellini’s 8 ½ in his lugubrious memory film, Pain and Glory, an exhausted and exhausting film about exhaustion that rather dutifully intercuts scenes from its protagonist’s childhood, including those of his homosexual awakening at age 9, with his debilitated present as an aged recluse.
- Colour coding: No surprise that Almodovar once again runs through his usual full spectrum of reds in Pain and Glory, the autobiographical portrait of a film director whose physical agonies have forced him to give up his art and retreat into an art-filled apartment. Colour coding was also manifest in two of the festival’s most eagerly awaited films, Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole and Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe. Though as dissimilar as possible in subject, theme and style, both turned out to share one strong commonality: a reliance on the colour green as ironic signifier. The brilliant Balagov’s grimly convincing portrait of postwar Leningrad centres on two young women who fought in the Second World War, struggling to overcome the physical and psychic traumas inflicted by the war. Confirming the promise of his prodigious debut film, Closeness, Balagov proves himself not only a preternaturally mature observer of emotional states and unhappy families, but also a great director of actors. (His two neophyte actresses deserve every award extant.) If Balagov’s use of the colour green to suggest the stanched possibility of postwar renewal risks insistency, Austrian auteur Hausner deploys the verdurous hue even more adamantly in her airless sci-fi thriller, Little Joe. Hausner has always prized visual precision, and the antiseptic settings in her new film, mostly a laboratory where botanical engineers develop genetically altered flowers to take to market, deploy all manner of precise design effects to suggest a corporate world whose malevolence is disguised by a palette of nature’s green: mint-coloured lab coats and shamrock-shaded chairs.
- Islam: Many films deal with the tension between modernity and the dictates of the Islamic faith. Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, a portrait of an impoverished Parisian banlieu, which quickly became one of the festival’s most lauded films, includes scenes of Muslim Brotherhood elders policing the neighbourhood and features a once-thug turned in-house imam who runs a kebab house. Mounia Meddour’s powerful debut film Papicha recounts the actual events of a massacre of young women by Algerian fundamentalists during a violent campaign to enforce women to wear correct Islamic clothing in the nineties. Also set in what Algerians call the Black Decade, Amin Sidi-Boumedine’s Abou Leila focuses on two childhood friends who set off into the Sahara to hunt down the eponymous terrorist. And the latest from the dependable Dardenne brothers, The Young Ahmed, portrays a fervent 13-year-old Belgian who plans to kill a teacher to honour his religion after being radicalized by an imam.
- Witness: Two veteran leftist directors returned to Cannes with films that retraverse their respective territories. 82-year-old Ken Loach shows no diminishment of force or fury in Sorry We Missed You, an incisive exploration of the gig economy and its inexorable erosion of one working-class family. For those who find Paul Laverty’s didactic scripts for Loach a trifle overloaded, Sorry may recall the line from All About Eve that even the bloodhounds were snapping at her rear end, when a dog takes a chunk out of the harassed and exploited lead character’s backside – the script veers from realism to melodrama in visiting a few too many disasters on its put-upon protagonists to prove, as one character submits, “the world is out of whack.” Exiled Chilean auteur Patricio Guzman completes a trilogy of essay films with The Cordillera of Dreams, which intercuts interviews with various commentators about the crimes of the Pinochet dictatorship and the persistence of its values in contemporary Chile with a poetic meditation on the Andes mountains, the cordillera of the title. The film doesn’t manage to forge a convincing metaphoric analogy between geography and history, but nevertheless leaves one shaken with the idea that the current generation of Chileans does not know and may not care about the country’s repressive past in its pursuit of personal gain.
James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.