A loud buzz hovers above the Palais as I begin writing you, a near-tangible electricity that billows from the tables around me and swells the press room into a large and magnetic beehive. It’s my second day of my first year in Cannes, and I still need to pinch my arms in between screenings to remind myself this is all real. They say the newbie’s enthusiasm is a short-lived creature here on the Croisette, and if I could have a euro for every colleague who’s sought to curb my enthusiasm to remind me of my place in the festival’s badge hierarchy (and along with it, the few chances I stand to make it to every single screening I jotted down on my schedule) I reckon I could have already paid for my Cannes room twice.
But something tells me the giddy smile I’ve been wearing ever since I first stepped foot inside the Palais won’t fade away anytime soon. I belong to the vast working class of the blue badge holders, a step above the Yellows, sure, but still a far cry from the higher echelons of the Pinks and the mythical creatures sporting Whites. A low badge ranking, in the eyes of Cannes’ inflexible accreditation caste system, means my queues are likely to stretch out ad nauseam, and most of my letters to you will have to be typed on my phone, as chunks of this dispatch had been the other day, when, nervous and excited at the prospect of sitting for my first ever Cannes screening, I decided to queue a whopping two and a half hours ahead of this year’s Official Competition’s opening film, Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die.
Jarmusch’s zombie comedy reached the Croisette as one of the year’s most anticipated titles. Three years after his last Cannes entry, Paterson, The Dead Don’t Die promised to return the 66-year-old to the supernatural milieu that fathered one of his most incandescent recent offerings, the 2013 Only Lovers Left Alive. Adding to the hype, a star-studded cast that grouped together a whole gang of Jarmusch regulars (from Bill Murray to Tilda Swinton, from Tom Waits to Steve Buscemi) and new faces (Selena Gomez’s among them), hashed The Dead Don’t Die as the director’s largest commercial undertaking to date. But the end result, much to my aficionado’s chagrin, didn’t exactly live up to the hype.
Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy Adam Driver and Bill Murray’s chemistry as officers Ronnie and Cliff, local cops roaming the streets of the fictional U.S. town of Centerville, a bucolic and unlikely epicenter of a zombie epidemic very possibly offset by the reckless fracking of the Earth’s polar caps (by far the most original cause of a zombie apocalypse this critic can remember). Adam Driver in particular incarnates with pitch-perfect tempo Jarmusch’s deadpan humor, interjecting his escapades with a few Cassandra-style premonitions and dark omens. “I’m thinking zombies. Ghouls. The undead,” he tells Murray, moments after the first couple of Centerville denizens shows up as disemboweled corpses, courtesy of zombies Iggy Pop and Sara Driver, who slaughtered and devoured both before chugging jugs of coffee (a gimmick that would have been hilarious were it not essentially a rehash of George A. Romero’s zombies-go-back-to-what-they-recall joke in Dawn of the Dead).
And there’s no denying The Dead Don’t Die adds a few new entries to the list of Jarmusch’s memorable characters. If you think watching Driver brandishing a machete and chopping zombie’s heads is worth the ticket, try Tilda Swinton’s Scottish-accented undertaker swirling a katana and applying make-up to corpses as if they were extras from Pink Flamingos. Storylines bifurcate and develop along parallel tracks, in a typical Jarmusch fashion. A teenage trio from Cleveland, helmed by Selena Gomez, arrives at the city’s only motel aboard a Pontiac Lemans 1968 (set in a present day U.S. as it may be, The Dead Don’t Die has a clear penchant for items and aesthetics from a few decades prior, donning the film a vintage and somewhat hipstery aura). Three other kids locked in a nearby juvenile detention centre observe the apocalypse from behind bars; and Tilda Swinton’s character may or may not be an otherworldly creature with an agenda of her own.
But while chuckles abound all throughout the journey, the comedic liftoff seems to draw almost exclusively from the film’s bottomless cauldron of meta-textual and cinephile's references, with the result that Driver and Murray’s zombie purge gradually turns into a self-indulgent ride mired in cinematic detritus and jokes heard and seen countless times before.
Delivery man Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA drives a WU-PS truck, parceling out packages and prêt-à-porter life lessons (“the world is perfect,” he tells Caleb Landry Jones’ movie buff drugstore worker, “appreciate the details”), Tilda Swinton’s Zelda Winston is essentially the actress’s own caricature (down to the wordplay of her character’s name), and there’s even space for an overt cross-universe reference, with Adam Driver’s boasting a Star Wars spaceship-shaped keyring, agreeing with Swinton that the franchise truly is some great science fiction. Nods to the maestros of the genre pepper Jarmusch’s script, but even when these are made explicit—as when Selena Gomez praises Caleb Landry Jones’ movie taste after the latter mentions George A. Romero—the homages leave the cringeworthy aftertaste of a self-indulgent display of knowledge.
Nowhere does this feel more alienating than in the film’s final act, when The Dead Don’t Die's meta gimmicks become unnervingly self-aware and the fourth wall shatters, leaving Driver and Murray to vent against Jarmusch’s script and the tragic finale they’re heading towards. Past the cinematic detritus and meta-fictional elements, there are moments when The Dead Don’t Die parcels out some social commentary, but even the modern-day references to climate change and Steve Buscemi’s “Make America White Again” hat add very little to the old tropes of zombies as metaphors for consumeristic societies that have been hashed out several decades ago already, and far more perceptively, by the films Jarmusch’s tips its hat to.
To quote from this year’s jury president Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu’s (“Time, not this jury, will be the ultimate judge of these films’ worth"), aside from the many meme-friendly and chuckle-inducing moments, I wonder whether Time will judge Jarmusch’s latest just as favorably as it did with the previous (and far more memorable) entries in his canon.
I left the Palais later that night and headed back home, a 10-minute bus ride toward Cannes’ Far West, just in time to jot down some thoughts on Jarmusch’s zombies and lie down for a few hours before waking up and dashing to my first ever Directors' Fortnight screening, Quentin Dupieux’s Jean Dujardin-starring Deerskin, a surrealist and rollicking take on commodity fetishism and the masculinities that come attached to it—a bonkers ride as surreal as the nuttiest of Dupieux’s gonzo comedies (think Rubber or Reality), and yet possibly more lucid and savage a satire than any of his previous offerings.
By the time Dujardin’s bearded face graces the screen, his forty-something Georges is on his way to a mountain village in the proverbial middle of nowhere. The reason: to pay several thousand euros for a second-hand deerskin jacket. What exactly should the purchase come to mean in the man’s grand scheme of things isn’t exactly clear, though the self-congratulatory stare Georges darts at his reflection on the mirror, awestruck by the “killer look” the new attire dons him, elevates the garment to an identity-defining object on par with Nicolas Cage’s snakeskin jacket in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.
Yet the short-term future is one of bleak prospects. Broke, dumped by his partner and left with no home to return to, Georges finds refuge in a nearby hotel, frittering time away at the town’s pub while awkwardly boasting his new outfit to female patrons—including local waitress and film editor-hopeful Denise (Adèle Haenel)—and toying with a small camera the former deerskin jacket’s owner thought to add as a little extra to the transaction. Perceptively, the device too becomes an obscure object of desire, a protracted limb Georges clutches for dear life once his deerskin infatuation convinces the psychopath there should be no other jacket in the world, and Deerskin embarks on a black comedy chronicle of his blood-thirsty spree.
Much like The Dead Don’t Die, Dupieux’s latest pivots on a meta-fictional backbone. There are moments when Deerskin’s nutty aura feeds off Georges’ own absurdist footage, and vice versa—Dupieux’s and Dujardin’s snuff film two sides of the same coin. But unlike Jarmusch’s work, laughters here aren’t achieved by means of external references and oft-abused tropes, but through the unhinged surrealism of Dupieux’s script and a magnetic Jean Dujardin, mercilessly poking at a deranged wannabe macho whose virility pivots on a mask two sizes too short.
Walking out of the Directors' Fortnight's theatre, it dawned on me that Dupieux’s Reality was the first ever screening I attended at my first ever film festival, back when the French cineaste had found a slot in Venice’s 2014 Orizzonti sidebar. And it was great to realize Dupieux's latest intrigued me just as much as Reality had five years prior. To be sure, Deerskin may not be as narratively intricate and labyrinthine as previous offerings from the electronic musician-cum-DJ-cum-director. But it remains a zany comedy imbued with the same unbridled and hallucinatory spirit of the man who once wrote and directed a comedy about a killer sentient tire, and now helmed and penned another one with a deerskin jacket and its deranged owner as protagonists. As I hugged my own leather jacket, I headed out toward the Palais, joined my next queue, and finished writing you this.
Until the next dispatch,