Cannes commenced this year in a ghoulish and quirky fashion with Jim Jarmusch’s self-referential hipster zombie apocalypse movie The Dead Don’t Die. Set in Centerville, USA, an archetypal Middle American town equipped with a single motel, church, and diner, the film follows small-town police officers (Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, and Bill Murray) as spooky events begin to unfold. Animals begin to behave erratically as the sun refuses to set at night. In the squad car, the tinny, midcentury radio broadcasts deliver expository narration about the “polar fracking” which has knocked the Earth off of its natural axis.
The film plays in derivative fashion with every known zombie trope mixed in with PC digs and schlocky weirdness. Steve Buscemi plays a racist old farmer who wears a red cap embroidered with the slogan “Keep America White Again,” but exchanges ribald pleasantries with his African American pal (played by Danny Glover) at the diner. Tilda Swinton plays an eccentric Scottish mortician who carries a samurai sword. The zombies each utter a single word that represents the obsessions of their former lives; some repeat the word “chardonnay” while others chant “iPhone.” A zombified Iggy Pop lumbers into the diner and consumes a waitress’ entrails before demanding “Coffee! Coffee!”
The Dead Don’t Die is the platonic ideal of what one would expect a Jarmusch zombie flick to be: droll, ponderous, stylish, and emotionally evasive. It also set a bizarre, unheimlich tone for the archly politicized festival that would follow, which seemed to revolve in some pervasive yet unspoken way around the undead monster who stalked the festival for so many decades. If last year’s Cannes festival was openly consumed by the ritual purgation of American super producer Harvey Weinstein—denounced at the final ceremony by the Italian film actress and director Asia Argento—this year’s purgation would be that of Weinstein’s hyphenated American-Jewish commercial-artistic legacy.
Interestingly, this was both the least American-seeming and also the least Jewish Cannes during the decade over which this critic has been attending the festival. With several noteworthy exceptions, fewer particularly Jewish stories were being told/shown than ever, and no Israeli film appeared in any of the three main festival programs. There were no big American movies—by Harvey Weinstein or Woody Allen or anyone else—that festival-goers particularly cared about.
So is the purging of Weinstein and the un-American, weirdly Jew-free, and generally lifeless nature of this year’s Cannes offerings all somehow related?
Perhaps. It certainly seems fair to say that the fantasies that American Jewish writers, directors, producers, and executives had about America, and the manner in which foreign filmmakers, some of them Jewish, responded to those fantasies through emulation and critique, has been central to world cinema. It generated the norms and traditions and rituals and aesthetics of cinema and by extension that of modernity (after all cinema is the most modern of all high art forms). So even if Harvey Weinstein had not made an important movie in over a decade, his vision was still deeply important, especially at Cannes, which sets the tone for the rest of the world in film. He represented the very American principle, or the hope, or come-on, that independent art cinema could be raised to the heights of box office success and popular acclaim.
This year’s film festival was both the least American-seeming and also the least Jewish Cannes in a decade.
Conversely, the banishment of Weinstein as a monster also has a symbolic significance. The replacement of Weinstein’s nasty appetites and creative risk-taking with puritanical doctrine constitutes a tremendous liability for both aesthetics and film commerce.
None of which is to pronounce any sort of moral or legal judgment in any sort of way on Weinstein’s guilt or innocence of any of the particular charges that have been made against him in the press or in court. Or to adjudicate the reliability of his many accusers. Or to judge the competence of the detectives and prosecutors who are bringing the case against him. Or to praise his childish and sometimes frightening temper tantrums, or his fitness to run any sort of company, including a movie company.
Before the heavens open up and the vicious scorn of both the gods and denizens of social media is brought down upon me, a mere mortal, none of this is meant in any way whatsoever to exculpate or personally defend Harvey Weinstein. In my own single encounter with him at Cannes over the years, while incidentally standing next to him at a presentation event held in a villa, I observed him wantonly coming on to a comely young woman in a creepy and transparently predatory manner. This was doubtless what he did from morn to dusk while stalking the festival in search of ever bigger deals and conquests to satisfy his ferocious and boundless appetites. Asia Argento’s accusation at the conclusion of last year’s final ceremony that Cannes was his “hunting ground” is correct on numerous registers of meaning. If a putrefied and decomposing Weinstein had shambled slowly across the Croisette while mumbling “Oscar! Oscar!” no one would have been the least surprised.
But it is not only a matter of banishing Weinstein. Woody Allen is also no longer welcome at Cannes, with The New York Times publishing an article a week before the festival that pointed out the lack of interest among serious New York publishers in acquiring the manuscript of his memoirs.
Where the French once happily advertised their scorn for puritanical Americans, scandalous accusations of misogyny and allegations of the mistreatment of women have rapidly become as much of an annual ritual at Cannes as frenetic attempts to procure invitations for Leonardo DiCaprio’s villa party. This year’s celebration of the lifetime achievements of the legendary French actor Alain Delon took an unexpectedly controversial turn when the Belgian actress Sand Van Roy stepped out onto the red carpet with a temporary tattoo inked along her back demanding that Cannes “Stop Violence Against Women.” Van Roy’s rape lawsuit against the French director Luc Besson had been dismissed at the end of the year on grounds of lack of evidence.
Delon, 83, had recently admitted in interviews to having slapped women over the course of his life (he had received more slaps than he had given, he said). A petition denouncing the awarding of the actor had received a great deal of media attention and instantly garnered tens of thousands of signatures.
The distribution of accolades and prizes at Cannes has been criticized as terminally politicized for the duration of the festival’s history. Yet this year, politics was everything. Undistinguished films that might arguably not have been selected for the main competition in a less politically fraught environment were garlanded with awards because of their thematic or political content.
As the political backlash to the “dominance of white men” has continued, both programming committees and the professional juries resolved to show (and reward) more films dealing with sexual, class, gender, and minority issues. A charming enough but saccharine film by the Russian Jewish American filmmaker Kirill Mikhanovsky, Give Me Liberty, charts the path of a 25-year-old driver of a minibus for disabled people in Milwaukee, and brings African Americans and old Russians together in a madcap but politically correct manner.
This year Ken Loach was represented in the festival with his latest insufferable paean to the nobility of the toiling classes. The first trans woman actor to appear in a Cannes film took part in Danielle Lessovitz’s Port Authority, which focused on a love affair between a 20-year-old gutter punk newly arrived in New York City and a black transsexual dancer from New York’s Kiki Ballroom subculture. The film was of passable quality but will remain memorable solely for the social identities of its protagonists—though watching the African American trans kids from the film dancing on a Cannes side street was fantastic fun.
Aside from specific kinds of performance art, the only filmic genre that seems able to support and even celebrate a stark black-and-white divide between pure victims and evil monster is the horror film. So it is no accident that the best American film (and perhaps the most formally original film of the festival) shown here was Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, a claustrophobic and surrealist black-and-white horror film unspooling the tale of a pair of 1890s lighthouse keepers speaking in Melvillesque poetry while engaging in mythic and crazed battle against one another and against choppy waters and a storm. A prominent American actor and producer that I attended the film with exclaimed that we would all be dreaming of the film’s “Mermaid sex sequences later that evening.”
Atlantics, a less successful poetry-infused ghost story directed by the Senegalese French director Mati Diop, who earned the honor of being the first black woman to compete in Cannes’ main competition, won the Festival Grand Prix for a debut feature that observes the European refugee crisis of the last half decade from the vantage point of the women who stay behind as their men attempt the perilous journey out of Africa by boat. A Ukrainian film critic that saw it informed me immediately that it would be successful—“it checks every box on the checklist,” she told me sardonically.
Flipping through the catalogs of the three main festival programs this year one might have been struck by the extent of the curatorial pivot to Asia that has taken place over recent years. Even more than last year, by both the metrics of quality and quantity, there were seemingly more and better Asian films than ever. This year one could watch competition films centered on mafia-related story lines from Korea, China, and Japan as well as Marco Bellocchio’s satisfying Italian Mafia drama The Traitor (which was based on the real-life story of the Sicilian mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta and the Mafia Maxi Trials of the 1980s).
Brazilian cinema was also heralded this year with the Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz taking home the Un Certain Regard award for his period costume melodrama The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão. (Variety referred to having appealed “to audiences with its openly emotive traditional storytelling and strong feminist politics.”) The main festival jury prize was likewise jointly awarded to two deeply political films. Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is a police procedural set in a gritty Paris suburb that according to The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw “loses subtlety and heft as it erupts into violence and becomes a solemnly ponderous issue movie on those familiar subjects of police brutality and community divisions.” And Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau, is a textured, diverting and well-crafted film in which the very humane citizens of a provincial Brazilian village are hunted for blood sport by a band of nihilistic American hunters led by a comically evil German who makes comically evil speeches about his disgust at the cliché of being compared to a Nazi.
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood is an homage to the classic Hollywood—and Hollywood production—of the late 1960s, and grapples with the Manson murders. It was, along with The Lighthouse, perhaps the hardest festival film of the season to procure tickets for. I overheard an American producer in her late 50s remark acidly that if a bomb had gone off on the line for the Tarantino film, Europe would have no more film critics to molest her productions.
Yet 25 years after the victory of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction—that archetypical Weinstein production—at the 1994 Cannes film festival (Clint Eastwood announced the award), Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood left the festival without any awards. Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood and the particular vision of the filmmaking tradition that Tarantino represents connect the old-time Hollywood cinema to the most interesting experiments in contemporary independent and art film in recent decades. It was and remains a messy vision that played with film history and taboos and fantasias and expectations in the exact way that made so many right-thinking conformists uncomfortable. It is also a vision that the new puritanical dispensation threatens to sideline permanently.
The correlation between the critical appraisal that Tarantino’s film garnered, the glee to which it set its discerning viewership at Cannes, and the politicized lack of accolades is glaringly obvious. This process will certainly shape the sorts of films that will be financed, commissioned, and programmed in the long run.
There would be no best director prize for Quentin Tarantino at Cannes. That prize would go to the accomplished Belgian film makers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for The Young Ahmed. The film possesses the usual astringent gaze and sympathy that the brothers typically proffer the subjects of their films: marginal or very young individuals ensnared in social problematics and legal issues without understanding why. Yet this is not one of brothers’ better works of the last 20 years, lacking the nuance and context and pitiless verve of their classics The Child and The Son. The Young Ahmed is the epitome of the “social interest film,” and certainly manages to commit most every aesthetic sin that plagues such productions.
The young Ahmed of the film’s title is a budding fanatic, a pubescent 13-year-old Islamist in a small Belgian city who plots to kill his teacher, a moderate Muslim, after he finds out that she has begun to date a Jew. Ahmed is cherubic and studious-looking in his round spectacles, and watching him one keeps hoping that this is just a phase that he is going through, and that by the end of the film he will get over it.
Ahmed no longer shakes hands with women or plays video games and his facial expressions for the duration of the film are totally inscrutable. He begins acting out fanatically by making impudent comments to his mother about her occasional drinking and to his sister about her revealing clothes. The reasons proffered for Ahmed’s radicalization—the aforementioned nefarious imam and the example of a cousin who is killed fighting for ISIS in Syria—are perfunctory. Nor does the film offer any solutions for the problem.
After the imam’s encouragement leads him to take matters further than intended with the attempted murder, the film cuts to scenes of him being treated by social workers in juvenile detention. Ahmed attempts to guilefully convince the therapists and social workers that he is repentant. This is so that he might have a chance to meet his victim again in a rehabilitative environment and thus get a second opportunity to shiv her with a toothbrush that he has been secretly sharpening late at night.
The stirrings of the first bloom of sexual attraction to a little blond Belgian girl also do nothing to rid him of the germ of fanaticism. A final farcical attempt at martyrdom likewise fails and the film concludes with the viewer wondering if the ambiguity was also not self-defeating. The psychological motives for Ahmed’s radicalization are left unanswered, and neither does the film proffer Europeans a way to grapple with a massive problem.
Apparently, The Young Ahmed received its award both for acknowledging big questions and failing to answer them. Once the big, messy taboo-breaking visions of the Weinsteins and Allens are eliminated for the sake of punishing the real or imagined crimes of their authors, the only thing left to do is award prizes to films that no one in their right mind would want to watch.
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Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.