Cannes 2019

Cannes 2019, Day 3: Histories of violence and looks that kill

Cannes stuck to its apocalyptic vein with "Bacurau", an eerie Brazilian sci-fi western, and "Les Misérables", an angry French flick on police brutality, while Jean Dujardin got infatuated with his suede jacket in the loopy “Deerskin”.

Victor Jucá | Sonia Braga gets all bloody in Brazilian horror-western "Bacurau".

Four movies into the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, I’m yet to see one without some hero, weirdo or sicko swinging a blade amid a general ultra-violent meltdown. How could it be any other way, when John Carpenter is in town?

The cult horror master was presented with this year’s Golden Coach award on Wednesday at the opening ceremony of the Director’s Fortnight, which runs parallel with the main festival. There followed a screening of his 1982 classic “The Thing”, about an extra-terrestrial parasite that sets off a killing spree among scientists in Antarctica. Clearly the bug has made its way to the French Riviera, such has been the on-screen bloodshed so far. Asked by French daily Le Monde what film he would make for Trump's world, Carpenter said a remake of his Reagan-era “Escape from LA” was in order, except this time on amphetamines, since the state of affairs is “so much worse, it’s apocalyptic”.

Carpenter’s movies have never been selected for Cannes’ main competition, but it is hard to think of a more influential director for this year’s genre-heavy crop of films vying for the Palme d’Or. Jim Jarmusch has cited Carpenter as a leading inspiration for his zombie satire “The Dead Don’t Die”, featuring a man-made, climate-change-induced apocalypse. The world hasn’t quite ended in the following two competition entries, “Les Misérables” and “Bacurau”, but the final conflagration surely isn’t far away.

An impressive feature debut for French director Ladj Ly, “Les Misérables” casts a spotlight on the festering issue of police violence in some of France’s most deprived suburbs, blighted by poverty, unemployment and injustice. It is inspired by the riots that swept through the poorer immigrant-rich suburbs of Paris in 2005, following the death of two teenagers who were electrocuted in a power station while running away from police in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. Ly has taken another incident in nearby Montfermeil, his hometown and the setting for Victor Hugo’s 19th-century classic “Les Misérables”, as the basis for his movie.

In a glorious opening sequence, the impending misery is juxtaposed with shots of a sea of tricolours as the nation revels in France’s victory at the 2018 World Cup. But this is no movie for patriotic self-congratulation. The day of jubilation is soon followed by 24 hours of pure hell for by-the-book rookie cop Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), who is taken on a tour of Montfermeil’s troubled Bosquets estate by Chris (Alexis Manenti), and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), his new trigger-happy partners in the local anti-crime squad. A newcomer from a provincial town, Stéphane is taken aback by the area’s complex power structure and the sheer volatility of almost every encounter. He’s even more shocked by the abusive and corrupt methods his colleagues employ to keep some form of peace and enforce a measure of fear where respect is entirely missing.

A still from Ladj Ly's "Les Misérables".
A still from Ladj Ly's "Les Misérables". SRAB Films - Rectangle Productions - Lyly films

“Never say sorry, we’re always right,” says the ever-bantering and bullying Chris after one of several policing blunders. Faced with everyday lawlessness, racism and injustice, the locals have but two weapons. One is to film the police violence, as Ladj Ly did a decade ago when he caught officers beating a black man on his camera, an incident that informed his film. The other is to fight back, with all the fire power they can muster.

A kick in the gut, “Les Misérables” provides the social-realist shock Cannes always likes to include in its line-up. In that respect, it is a shame that Ly appears to lose sight of the banlieue characters and the social fabric he portrays so vividly in the film's first half, gradually focusing on the escalating violence instead. Creditably, the director makes it clear the cops are just as misérables as those they’re policing, caught up in a vicious circle of invective and hatred that successive French governments have been unwilling to address. Most of the action is seen through their eyes, with the disturbing effect that the locals are all too often lumped together as an indistinguishable mob of seething cop-haters. Isn’t that what the state, and much of the media, are also guilty of?

There’s another community that has been abandoned – pimped off, in fact – by the state, this one in the remote Brazilian outback. It’s the setting for “Bacurau”, by Brazilian duo Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles, a brilliant mishmash of genres that is brimming with mystery and fury.

Mendonca Filho was last at Cannes three years ago with his sumptuous “Aquarius” (with Dornelles working as production designer), about a woman’s fight against the crooked and thuggish property developers trying to evict her. As it turned out, the film hit the Croisette shortly after another 60-something, mixed-race woman had been evicted from Brazil’s presidency by an equally unsavoury cast of white males, prompting the “Aquarius” team to stage a red-carpet protest against the “coup” underway back home.

This time, “Bacurau” – mostly shot ahead of the country’s latest presidential election – is set in a dystopian near-future. And yet once again, the directors have been overtaken by the reality of Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. A slow-burner punctured by bursts of grisly violence, “Bacurau” is another shrewd portrait of Brazil’s rapidly changing society, touching on themes of race, corruption and gun violence, though the directors have traded their familiar humanistic touch for a full-on immersion into genre cinema.

You know something sinister is afoot when Udo Kier shows up in a film.
You know something sinister is afoot when Udo Kier shows up in a film. SBS Distribution

The action takes place in the titular village of Bacurau, somewhere in Brazil’s Nordeste region, home to the kind of defiant, mixed-race, inland communities that stand in the way of attempts to sell off the country to big business. The locals have enough problems as it is, starting with a dam that has cut off their water supply. But things get a lot more sinister with the realisation that their land has become – with the government’s complicity – a playground for gun-toting Gringos who would otherwise release their pent-up frustration on their wives, a school or a mall. The presence in the cast of ultimate screen villain Udo Kier all but guarantees something horrific is about to happen.

Other characters include a drunken and batty doctor (played by “Aquarius” star Sonia Braga), an old sorcerer whose pills give strength and courage, a local Che Guevara with outrageous hair extensions, and a corrupt politician who rolls into town with flashing lights, thumping music and a loudspeaker like he’s in a Brazilian adaptation of an Emir Kusturica film. However, while “Aquarius” offered a rich and complex character study, this film allows none of its characters to fully develop, leaving the viewer at a loss as to who will come and go, and adding to the mayhem and mystery.

In many ways, “Bacurau” was far more “Carpenteresque” than Jarmusch’s opener, and that brings us back to the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, which followed up Carpenter’s “The Thing” with Quentin Dupieux’s exquisitely bizarre “Deerskin”.

The latest fetishistic prank by the eclectic French director, who famously made a movie about a killer tire (2010’s “Rubber”), “Deerskin” stars Jean Dujardin (of “The Artist” fame) as a deadbeat loner and would-be filmmaker who becomes obsessed with the fringed suede jacket he paid a fortune to get hold of. Dujardin’s George looks somewhat ridiculous with this garment that is straight out of a 1960s western (it doesn’t fit him, for starters), but he reckons it gives him a look that kills – literally. There’s also an amusing part for Adèle Haenel as a waitress and amateur film editor who encourages George to go all the way to fulfil his dream: being the last man on the planet to wear a coat.

Beautifully shot and acted, “Deerskin” is a hilariously offbeat and creepy comedy with not an awful lot churning beneath the surface, aside from its satirical takes on filmmaking and warped masculinity. I doubt I’ll see a better act than Dujardin’s at Cannes this year, though this is not a film for those who object to using violence for gags.

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