Questions of Identity

Three New Films from Cannes
Workers roll out the Cannes Film Festival's red carpet (Norbert Scanella / Alamy Stock Photo)

Several of the many films featured at this year’s Cannes festival seem likely to capture mainstream attention. Rocketman, the splashy Elton John biopic by Dexter Fletcher, will seek to replicate the inexplicable success of Fletcher’s previous outing, Bohemian Rhapsody. Quentin Tarantino’s highly anticipated ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, will no doubt attract the excitement that his work typically commands. And critics’ darling Terrence Malick returned to Cannes with A Hidden Life, an uncharacteristically grounded story about the Austrian conscientious objector and Catholic martyr Franz Jägerstätter.

But it was arguably Jim Jarmusch’s star-studded zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die that held the most potential to combine widespread popularity with critical buzz.

For one thing there’s the cast. Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, Danny Glover, Tom Waits—the list goes on! Jarmusch is one of those auteur directors—like Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Tarantino, along with Bergman, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa before them—who tends to work with a stable cast of go-to actors. This helps imbue these directors’ films with a kind of mythic weight; the stories and costumes change, but the faces stay the same. For roughly the same reason, this practice also serves to take the audience out of the viewing experience, reminding them that they are watching the product of a very particular imagination (as is often painfully the case with Anderson’s films, for instance). But here form serves function: it is precisely this postmodern gap between author and audience that The Dead Don’t Die wants to direct our attention to.

Which raises the question of genre. Neuroanatomy suggests that laughter and crying originate from the same part of the brain, and filmmakers have long played off the boundary between the two. The ‘zom-com’ arrived in earnest in 2004 with Edgar Wright’s brilliant Shaun of the Dead, but the camp roots of the horror genre run deep, from the Nightmare on Elm Street films to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead all the way back to Jean Yarbrough’s 1941 King of the Zombies. The Dead Don’t Die partly works in this same tradition, but ultimately it never really decides where to land. The first half of the film builds some genuine suspense, and there are even a few legitimately gory deaths to whet the appetite of horror purists. But by the final third of the movie we’ve caught enough winks and nods to know what Jarmusch is playing at, and the tension slacks considerably. By the final sequence, all we’re really left with is a pile of (un)dead bodies and a hollow monologue about the futility of life delivered by Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), a forest-dwelling vagrant who we’re left to assume speaks for Jarmusch.

This metatextual playfulness never goes anywhere. At one point Cliff (Murray) and Ronnie (Driver), sheriffs investigating the fledgling zombie threat, cruise around town chatting uneasily. The wizened Cliff recognizes a song on the radio, and his deputy, Ronnie, promptly fills him in: “It’s the theme song”—meaning the theme song to the film they’re in (an original ditty by Sturgill Simpson, as it happens). These diegetic moments recur throughout, as if the film is talking to itself. At another point, when Cliff asks Ronnie why he keeps saying “This is going to end badly,” Ronnie responds, “Because I read the script. Jim sent it to me.” (A flustered Cliff then huffs, “I only got the scenes I was in.”) These moments are genuinely funny often enough, and they hint at some rich themes: the way in which Hollywood seems stuck on telling the same story over and over, for example, to the point that even the characters know what’s coming. But we’re also forced to contend with equally big, unformed ideas about Trumpism, consumerism, the media, the American tolerance of violence—even aliens! The end result is something of a muddle (if an interesting and entertaining one), and we find ourselves agreeing too quickly with Ronnie about that bad ending.

 

Identity is always a contested claim, and violence, though cathartic, ultimately cannot right what has been put wrong by prior violence.

If The Dead Don’t Die loses steam for its lack of focus, the Brazilian film Bacurau by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles keeps up its energy with what the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw rightly calls “ruthless clarity and force.” While critics’ initial excitement over Jarmusch’s zom-com quickly cooled, Bacurau was one of the breakout hits of the festival. After the premiere screening, the crowd gave it a ten-minute standing ovation, and it tied for the prestigious Jury Prize. At the time of this writing, the film has yet to be picked up for American distribution, but it is unquestionably a more impressive filmmaking achievement (and more entertaining) than much of what audiences will be offered this summer. Still, it is a hard film to categorize. It plays with genre, mixing spaghetti Western, monster horror, psychedelic fantasy, a touch of sci-fi and, at times, quiet melodrama. But even more, it is a righteous war cry against imperialism and the erasure of indigenous memory: it is no exaggeration  to call it one of the great anti-colonial films ever made, joining the ranks of The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Apocalypse Now (1979).

The film revolves around the eccentric denizens of Bacurau, a remote village in Brazil’s northeastern hinterland (known as the sertão). In Brazil today, the sertão is a harsh, underdeveloped, and resource-scarce area threatened by deforestation, draught, and encroachment by tourists; in the Brazil of Bacurau—which we’re told is set “a few years from now”—these threats have only grown more acute. As the film opens, the villagers are mourning their late matriarch, contending with the machinations of a corrupt mayor, and generally struggling to eke out a simple existence. They’re a peculiar lot: there’s the hot-tempered drunk doctor, Domingas (a captivating Sônia Braga); Lunga (Silvero Pereira), a gay outlaw beloved by the town’s mothers; a mischievous old man who communicates only in song; and Teresa (Barbara Colen), the inscrutable granddaughter of the dead matriarch who returns home for her funeral. Nearly every villager is absolutely specific and effortlessly realized—the flamboyant Lunga, for instance, is based on real-life cangaceiros, roaming “social bandits” exterminated by brutal government death squads in the first half of the twentieth century. Bacurau is Brazil in microcosm, and Mendonça Filho and Dornelles drop us right into its strange, slow rhythms of life.

When the town inexplicably disappears from GPS maps and the villagers lose cell phone service, we know all is not well. Then an ominous pair of motorcyclists from São Paulo roll through town, the film’s tone darkens dramatically, and the pacing picks up. Soon innocent blood is spilled and a bigger, more sinister plot is revealed in which a group of American tourists led by Michael (Udo Kier) attempts to hunt down the villagers one by one for sport. Other critics have noted the film’s debts to John Carpenter (the village schoolhouse bears the name “João Carpenteiro” in honor of the great horror director) and there are times during this middle section of the film when Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982) echo loudly. In particular, Kier is the perfect monster for this postmodern morality tale, his brilliant blue eyes and trademark suave growl belying a terrifying animal intensity.

But the tone shifts suddenly again when the villagers turn the tables on Michael and his goons: the hunters become the hunted. In a scene at once shocking and darkly comical, two of the village elders, completely naked and tending to their garden of psychoactive flowers, ambush and blow the head off of one of the American hunter-tourists. The final third of the film becomes an increasingly bloody fever dream as the villagers fight back and Michael, revealing the self-destructive logic of violence, turns his sights even on his fellow hunters. At one point, the villagers lie in wait below the floorboards of Bacurau’s local history museum, where antique guns have been taken off the wall to be put to more practical uses. Here is collective memory rallying to defend itself against the callous intrusions of violent outside forces. It’s hard not to cheer, as the Cannes audience did, when righteous anger turns to victory.

Or does it? The film ends with the villagers burying Michael alive, but before they roll the stone into place he warns them: “This is only the beginning.” After him there will only be more “tourists,” abetted by the corrupt mayor (who remains in power) and, if anything, encouraged to come by the tales of the savage residents of Bacurau. The cycle of violence goes on, and though they may have succeeded in holding out for now, the villagers know their era has passed. We end, improbably, on a melancholy note.

On reflection, the film’s dichotomies are too rough: naked villagers kill armored invaders; homegrown hallucinogens give the advantage over cutting-edge technology; the villains bicker while the villagers generally act in unison. Seams like these are visible, certainly, but to let them spoil one’s experience of Bacurau would be churlish. The bitter taste left by the film is rather a result of the truth it speaks: identity is always a contested claim, and violence, though cathartic, ultimately cannot right what has been put wrong by prior violence.

 

Who are we when the idea of who we thought we were is threatened?

The tensions and contestations inherent to identity are perhaps more winsomely navigated in Monia Chokri’s directorial debut La Femme de Mon Frère (A Brother’s Love). Crucially, Chokri focuses on love, not violence, as the vital force holding us together (or driving us apart). Despite this, her film never slips into sentimentality. Rather Chokri establishes herself among the ranks of those top-tier Quebecois directors like Denys Arcand whose work probes ideas of family, death, and forgiveness with a dark wit and understated grace (there are times when A Brother’s Love resonates strongly with Arcand’s 2003 Oscar-winning Les Invasions Barbares).

The film is anchored by an outstanding performance by Anne-Élisabeth Bossé as Sophia, a newly minted PhD in political philosophy who finds her professional prospects stymied by the uniquely petty rivalries and arbitrary fortunes of academia. (Incidentally, the film’s opening scene is one of the best and most terrifying depictions of the powerlessness a graduate student can be made to feel when tenured professors hold her future in their hands.) Intelligent, bitter, and—despite herself—sensitive, Sophia is a deeply sympathetic, if imperfect, heroine, and the narrative largely proceeds according to her perspective. For support, and a place to crash while she figures out her life, she turns to her devoted brother Karim (Patrick Hivon), a handsome, successful psychologist who wears his education with a far more effortless élan than his sister. Despite their differences the pair is incredibly close, and it is a testament to the talents of Hivon and Bossé that their love feels utterly real and endlessly textured. Chokri has a genius for shooting intimate, domestic scenes, occasionally letting the camera linger just a little longer than usual. The siblings’ divorced-but-still-cohabitating parents, played with warmth and manic energy by screen veterans Sasson Gabai and Micheline Bernard, fill out the picture of this complicated but completely plausible family.

The colors blue and pink reappear throughout the film—in Sophia’s dissertation pages, in her wardrobe, in the hallways of her doctor’s office—foregrounding the relationship between brother and sister at the heart of the film. Karim and Sophia seem at times to share a soul, and they simultaneously draw on and feed each other’s sense of self as only close siblings can. When Karim falls in love with Sophia’s gorgeous gynecologist Eloïse (Évelyne Brochu, in a positively sparkling performance), their delicate stasis is upset. It is not just the prospect of losing her brother that scares Sophia, but, in some deeper sense, of losing herself. What’s more, in Eloïse, Sophia sees a more polished version of herself—here is someone who is smart without being sour, who uses her Italian to chat in restaurants rather than dissertate on Gramsci, whose absentmindedness is unironic. Over one particularly painful dinner, Sophia gets annoyed when Eloïse quotes some critical theory without a sufficient sense of angst (“I love Foucault, he's just excruciating to read!” snaps Sophia). It’s vital for Sophia’s self image that she see her intelligence as a kind of burden, but Eloïse’s breezy charm shows another way. That Karim clearly prefers this version of well-adjusted feminine genius only exacerbates Sophia’s identity crisis.

We all cultivate a certain picture of ourselves that we present to the world—Chokri is interested in asking what happens when that picture falls apart. Crucially, however, the film is also adamant that we can refashion new versions of ourselves by letting love lead the way. Necessarily, this involves making space in ourselves for the personalities of others. Sophia had previously defined herself only in relation to her brother. But when an explosive fight temporarily introduces a new distance between them, she is forced to examine herself, to ask where she ends and the rest of the world begins. In answering this question, Sophia draws on the personalities of those around her. A fellow academic burnout shows her the dangers of unbound cynicism; a goofy blind date shows her it’s okay to take childlike pleasure in things; her father shows her that contentment is a strength not a weakness. Sophia’s resolution comes about finally not by outdoing Eloïse (indeed a strength of the film is its refusal to make Eloïse into a villain), but by finding her own way forward. It’s Chokri’s hopeful but not naïve view that love is, in the end, the only thing that does move us forward.

These and other films at Cannes were concerned with the question of identity: Who are we when the idea of who we thought we were is threatened? No doubt this particular question arises from our current political moment. But it is also a fundamental human question—one that film can ask with a particular urgency. As summer audiences make their choices about what to watch, will they let themselves be troubled by this same question?

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Travis LaCouter is a DPhil candidate in theology at the University of Oxford.

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