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Cannes Film Festival: It’s Apocalypse Now, Thanks to Jim Jarmusch


Cannes Film Festival: It’s Apocalypse Now, Thanks to Jim Jarmusch

CANNES, France — The apocalypse arrived early at the Cannes Film Festival. In “The Dead Don’t Die,” the latest from Jim Jarmusch and this year’s opening selection, catastrophe takes the form of zombies, who rise from their graves to destroy the living. It’s the end of the world as we know it, which Jarmusch reminds us, is entirely our fault. “Polar fracking” has thrown Earth off its axis and now Iggy Pop is gnawing on innards that (this being a Jarmusch joint) he washes down with coffee.

The 72nd festival has a similarly admirable energy and staying power. Despite a decline in moviegoing in Europe and the global embrace of streaming, Cannes remains a proud monument to the theatrical experience. It’s holding firm even if this year’s edition seems slightly less jammed than in the past, which may have something to do with the intense security. Heavily armed police and soldiers patrol the area around the festival’s headquarters, a reminder of security measures instituted after a series of terrorist attacks.

But on Tuesday, opening night, as Michael Jackson blared on loudspeakers (Cannes can be very tin-eared in its choices), all eyes and innumerable cameras were on the red carpet, where Jarmusch’s stars — Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Adam Driver, Selena Gomez — paraded under a gray sky. Inside, they and the rest of the audience endured a ceremony that threatened to drag on as long as the Oscars. The host inanely prattled; a singer warbled; movie clips were screened; and the main jury, headed by the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, took a bow.

The next day, Jarmusch sat down to talk about “The Dead Don’t Die” and his Cannes experience. He first visited here in 1984 with “Stranger Than Paradise,” which helped jump-start the contemporary American indie movie scene. “Man, we didn’t even know why we were here, it was really strange,” he said with a laugh. “We were putting up fliers ourselves on the Croisette. We rented a house up there with seven of us sleeping on the floor, taking turns shaving in the kitchen. It was like, ‘Hey, we’re from the Lower East Side, man, this is cool — we’re in France.’”

Wearing his signature sunglasses, his once-silver hair now mostly white, Jarmusch, 66, was relaxed, open, earnest and effusive. The premiere of “The Dead Don’t Die” was the first time he had properly seen the movie and asked if he enjoyed it, he said why, yes, he had: “I thought it was funny and dark, ridiculous and a little bit beautiful.”

That’s a good take on the movie, which keeps laughing even as the dead overtake the living in the town of Centerville, named after the hicksville in Frank Zappa’s film “200 Motels.” As usual with Jarmusch, his new one is stuffed with pop-cultural allusions, including a generous nod at “Star Wars” that delighted the audience.

For all its quips and quotes, “The Dead Don’t Die” is also an outright horror movie, one suffused with a melancholy that a journalist at the news conference deemed fatalistic. That wasn’t his intention, Jarmusch said. He seemed somewhat perplexed and even irritated by those who have read the movie as a comment on the Trump presidency, presumably because a local bigot (Steve Buscemi) wears a red cap stamped with the words “Make America White Again.” For Jarmusch, this take misses the point. “Excuse my language,” he said, “but I don’t give a” — he dropped an expletive — “about Trump,” whom he called a “tangerine clown” and “reality TV frontman.”

For Jarmusch, Trump is also a distraction from the far greater concern: “the sixth mass extinction on the planet.” Yet while the rise of the zombies suggests a tipping point, the undead in his film aren’t necessarily emissaries of irreversible doom. Some characters make it out, including three teenagers and Hermit Bob, a woodsman-prophet played by Tom Waits in a long ragged beard and halo of unruly hair.

“Sometimes I think, well, God, I should be either an activist,” Jarmusch said, or “digging a trench in the middle of Pennsylvania to ward off the rising water that’s going to flood everything, you know. But what am I doing? I’m making a ridiculous zombie movie with my friends.”

Making art is clearly an optimistic act, however tinged with despair, but he also draws encouragement from environmental groups like the Sunrise Movement. “I see these young people who say, O.K., we have 11 years to reverse the possibility of a 1.5 degree increase, which is the beginning of real devastation,” Jarmusch said. “So, what are we going to do?”

A different call to action is sounded in the excellent freakout “Bacurau,” another apocalyptic vision in the main competition. Written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, the movie takes place in an isolated Brazilian village where one crisis leads to another and culminates in a gory fight for survival. (Mendonça Filho directed “Aquarius” and “Neighboring Sounds,” for which Dornelles served as the production designer.) Taking place sometime in the near future, it opens after the local matriarch has died and right before the town begins disappearing from maps, a dire harbinger of another type of erasure.

Wittily set at the intersection of the art house and the grindhouse — as personified by Sônia Braga and Udo Kier, its biggest names — “Bacurau” imagines a Brazil of tomorrow in which politicians sell out the people to the most murderous buyer, leaving locals to fend for themselves with some help, as in “Seven Samurai.” With sweeping camera moves and a sun-blasted palette, the movie easily seduces and then it shocks. In time, the palette is splattered by blood red, the elliptical narrative gets down and dirty, and “Bacurau” becomes a heart-thumping political allegory that tips its hat to masters like John Carpenter.

Bacurau” woke up the festival, which often gets off to a sleepy start. This year was no exception, even with spasms of violence. A riff on the Victor Hugo novel, “Les Misérables” takes place in a present-day Parisian suburb that — like the town in “Bacurau” — evokes the old American West or rather the old Hollywood western. This busy movie follows three undercover officers on a very bad day through a neighborhood controlled by rival factions, including drug dealers and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The director, Ladj Ly, has a strong sense of place and some terrific young actors, but he also leans on narrative clichés.

The American writer-director Annie Silverstein retains a firmer hold on her material in “Bull.” Set in a small Texas town, it follows two neighbors, the 14-year-old Kris (Amber Havard) and the middle-aged Abe (a vivid, charismatic Rob Morgan), after she breaks into his house. A former rodeo bull rider, Abe now works on the ground as a bull fighter, helping to protect thrown riders from the hard-charging animals. Rather too easily and optimistically, Abe becomes an inspiration and then somewhat of a reluctant surrogate parent for Kris, who’s living with her grandmother and sister while her mother serves time.

Like “Lean on Pete” and “The Rider” (at Cannes in 2017), “Bull” belongs to a group of recent movies that feel directly rather than metaphorically in dialogue with the Hollywood western and, by extension, the worldview it often advanced. Here, cowboys don’t roam the frontier herding cattle and protecting wagon trains. Instead, they risk their lives entertaining crowds, suffering injuries and popping Oxycodone to ease the pain. Silverstein stacks the deck awfully high — race relations, class tensions and the American opioid crisis all figure into the story — but her empathy and ability to settle into the silences between people buoy both the movie and you.

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