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If Film Is Dying, Then Cannes 2019’s Genre-Heavy Lineup Proved Death Is Only the Beginning

Cannes has a reputation as a zombified event, but this year's horror-driven fest achieved new relevance by bringing the dead back to life.

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Sony/YouTube

The jokes started before the screenings even began — hell, they practically wrote themselves: “The Dead Don’t Die” wouldn’t just be the opening night selection of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, it could also be its tagline. Har har.

If Cannes has managed to remain synonymous with the cinema itself, that’s partially because people talk about them both like they’re hospice patients. Every year, thousands of journalists from all corners of the globe come to the French Riviera dressed for a party, but prepared for a funeral. And while that attitude has become a bit pro forma (and performative) in the digital era, it’s hard to deny that the 72-year-old festival has aged into an elegant anachronism.

It’s a take as old as time: Cannes is a 20th century institution that defiantly leans into the headwinds of a 21st century world — it’s the most holy event of its kind, and also the most resistant to change. While the rest of the film industry marches forward, Cannes is happy to hold its ground; while other festivals embrace the future, this one is determined to honor the past. Sometimes that might be for the better (e.g. a refusal to unconditionally surrender in the streaming wars), and sometimes it’s definitely for the worse (e.g. a retrograde disinterest in female directors).

Whichever way you slice it, the fact remains that Cannes sees itself as a proud beacon of tradition in a time of unchecked progress, while critics are more inclined to think of it as a zombie in a tuxedo, muttering “cin-e-ma” from its cold blue lips as it lumbers down the red carpet outside the Grand Théâtre Lumière. In that light, kicking off the 2019 program with a meta riff on George Romero almost seemed like a calculated act of self-parody; like Cannes was insisting that it would sooner rot than join the revolution.

But if Jim Jarmusch’s meta riff on George Romero turned out to be a lifeless piece of work, the decision to screen it as the opening night selection accumulated an unexpectedly poetic resonance as the fortnight unfolded. What at first seemed like a trollish move from a festival that was sick of the discourse around it started to feel like something very different once “The Dead Don’t Die” was followed by several other, better films about zombies. Films about ghosts. Films about jinn, mythological creatures, and the monsters of memory.

Jarmusch’s misfire set the stage for the most genre-heavy Cannes in recent history; a Cannes which celebrated its supposed demise in order to illuminate a medium that’s found a new life beyond the grave. If Cannes is a festival out of time, this year’s edition achieved relevance and rare urgency by insisting that the past is always present, and that any future value of film might depend on the cinema’s unique capacity to remember that for us.

“The Dead Don’t Die”

Focus Features

Going to Cannes is always like taking a drive in a Delorean to a magical place where auteurs are gods and Netflix is a dirty word: but the festival’s 72nd edition felt like a full-on temporal collapse. The first hint of strange happenings came just a few minutes into “The Dead Don’t Die,” when a small-town cop played by Adam Driver notices that his watch has stopped working. Not only does that malfunction serve as a harbinger of imminent doom, it also locates Jarmusch’s film — which broadly subverts a Mayberry-like place with MAGA hats and Xanax-craving zombies — in an unstable pocket of time between then and now.

More accurately, “The Dead Don’t Die” occupies both then and now, in a way that films (or at least the experience of watching them) always do, and nothing else ever can. But what most sets this movie apart from the rest of its genre is that its zombies are defined by the myopia of their drives. In death, as in life, they’ve been reduced to their most basic desires; “brains” are old-fashioned, so now they shuffle forward with cravings for coffee, chardonnay, and the other immediate pleasures that once distracted them from populism, polar fracking, and the various other horrors being visited upon our world. It’s an idea too clear and obvious to sustain 100 minutes of movie: What the zombies want has blinded them to what they need, and their collective lack of cultural memory spells the potential end of all humanity.

Kleber Mendonça Filho’s dementedly furious “Bacurau” offered another, more complicated (and even more literal) allegory about the value of cultural memory and the dangers of forgetting. Filho’s psychedelic neo-Western is named after a remote Brazilian village that’s deleted from the maps as soon as its matriarch dies, and then attacked by a homicidal group of American tourists on some kind of human safari.

“Bacurau”

Set in the near future, but explicitly drawing from a wide variety of classic texts (“Seven Samurai” and “El Topo” are but two of many), this Jury Prize-winning whatchamacallit is more than an angry rebuke to a government that’s trying to suffocate the arts, it’s also an urgent fable about how vulnerable people become when they’re severed from the past, and how easy it is for people to be severed from the past when they’re deprived of a place to preserve it.

The film may never be read this way again, but in the context of Cannes it was tempting to see the village of Bacurau as a stand-in for the theatrical experience — for the idea of cinema as a holy place. When the violence starts, it’s no surprise that the Bacurau museum becomes the locals’ greatest resource in their fight against the future.

The films of Bertrand Bonello see time as less of a straight line than an uneasy churn; from “House of Pleasures” to “Nocturama,” his work obfuscates clearly delineated temporalities in order to suggest that history is always here with us. As its title suggests, “Zombi Child” finds the French director taking that idea to its logical and most literal conclusion. It’s baked into the time-hopping structure of his horror curio, which complicates the true-ish story of Clairvius Narcisse — a Haitian man who was said to have been turned into the walking dead — with a parallel narrative that follows Narcisse’s (fictional) granddaughter as she attends an elite boarding school in present-day Paris.

Cutting between his two plot threads until they knot together in a freaky third act, Bonello sees Vodou as a communion between spirits, but also as a communion between generations. The syncretic religion (or some bastardized Hollywood version of it) has been the subject of any number of movies, but “Zombi Child” keys in on its supernatural undercurrents as a response to the cultural severance of slavery and colonialism. From the eerie day-for-night scenes of an undead Narcisse wandering the fields in search of his family, to a climactic freak-out that evokes “Hereditary” scares in every sense of the word, Bonello’s film creates an inviolable bridge between identity and memory; the living and the dead. The past isn’t even past, and anyone who insists otherwise does so at their own peril.

Terrence Malick’s piercing and surprisingly holistic “A Hidden Life” offered a very different take on the dangers of only looking forward, and the power of religion to help keep things in perspective. While moored in the metaphysical realm of faith and divinity, Malick’s harrowingly topical anti-Nazi treatise was one of the few Cannes stand-outs not to flirt with genre.

atlantics

“Atlantics”

Netflix

Mati Diop’s “Atlantics,” on the other hand, dipped a too-hesitant toe into the waters of the supernatural in order to tell a vengeful ghost story about the costs of modernization. Less focused but more striking than many of the other films in Competition, Diop’s debut feature finds its strength as a warning shot to a Senegal that’s willing to bury its poor beneath the future they’re building for the rich. Like Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning “Parasite,” and Céline Sciamma’s Palme d’Or-deserving “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (both ghost stories in their own ways), “Atlantics” paints a world in which old and new — past and present — are living on top of each other; a world in which uniquely cinematic expressions of memory become the heroes’ best hope against being forgotten. It’s not spoiling what happens in the movie to say that Diop looks to the dead for direction.

Given Diop’s steely insistence that the future ought to fear the present, there’s something a little ironic about the fact that “Atlantics” was ultimately acquired by Netflix. On the other hand, her film — the first by a black woman to ever screen in Competition at Cannes — offered a perfect example of how film culture can refocus its fundamental power by expanding and growing more inclusive; by illustrating how cinema’s greatest role in the 21st century will be as a source of cultural memory.

This year’s Cannes didn’t argue in favor of “the good old days,” or insist upon taking us back to a time when the Croisette was just a place to deify male art and dehumanize their beautiful stars. On the contrary, the festival made a compelling argument for its own future by showing that true progress isn’t possible without maintaining a link to the past; that we can’t define where we’re going without keeping an eye on where we came from.

Cannes still has a long way to go to make this year’s success feel like more a mission than a fluke, but it bodes well that even this edition’s biggest, Cannes-iest film directly confronted the accusations of obsolescence that are constantly being leveled at both the festival and cinema as a whole. More than just a way for Quentin Tarantino to put his stamp on the period of movie history that made him the man he is today, the brilliant and maddening “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” dipped back to the sunset of the movies’ golden age in order to tell a timeless story about growing up, getting old, and staring at the face of a future that may not have a role for you to play in it.

Rick “Fucking” Dalton isn’t just a stand-in for his middle-aged director, he’s also a drunken symbol of a dying industry that has a short memory and a long fuse — a dying industry that now finds itself at its greatest inflection point since 1969, yet still hasn’t croaked. Sometimes, Dalton’s inebriated fairy tale suggests, the past is all that’s protecting us from the future. Sometimes, death is only the beginning.

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