Something is definitely in the air at Cannes this year. As is already seen in the competition across three different kinds of films, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (droll zombie comedy), Ladj Ly’s Les misérables (social realist policier), and Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau (a rural siege film), the early days of the festival have been suffuse with an atmosphere of acrid anger and desperation. Jarmusch only partially disguises his grim state-of-the-union pessimism in the rumpled costume of mordant humor and deadpan reactions to the appearance of the living dead. The Dead Don't Die's purposefully stilted airlessness hovers between ironic pastiche and normalcy, like some of the unsettlingly blasé moments of Twin Peaks: The Return. The film feels like being in quicksand, the inevitable sinking into our own grave. Ly, in his feature debut, has made a by-the-books rookie ride-along cop film set in disgruntled French housing projects, featuring the expected neighborhood politicking and police enforcement by way of brutality. It might make for a topical pilot episode to a more engaged kind of weekly cop show, until a epilogue of violent, youthful upheaval and mass vengeance suggests a seething rage beyond our expectations for both the movies and for reality.
Bacurau, set in the eponymous fictional Brazilian village, is the strangest of the three competitors thus far. A collaboration between Mendonça Filho, following up his wonderful Aquarius (2016), and his long-time production designer, Juliano Dornelles, it also feels like an essential transmission trying to wrangle some sense out of a country’s chaos and despair. Unlike the other two films, Bacurau is a constant, mutating surprise. Despite an introductory scene of young female doctor returning to her village to deliver supplies that quickly sketches a region in Brazil “a few years from now” whose water supply has been cut off, whose roads are inoperable, where a local bandit seems to be at large, and where the government presence is limited to a shilling mayor hated by the population, the exact situation in Bacurau or indeed in Brazil is cryptic and suggestive. Clearly it is analogous to now, although in what specific way it is hard to say. But its state can be read in the town’s needs: food, medicine...and coffins.
When a water supply truck arrives with bullet holes in its sides and the family at a local ranch are found murdered, what feels like the future as a wild west turns more directly threatening and ominous. The tone, already prickly and a bit off-kilter, goes full crazy and even somewhat darkly comic with the revelation of a group of outsider mercenaries, a white gang of armed killers expressing their desire to attack the town. They use only vintage weapons, refer to achieving a score for killing, and their hopped-up motivation seems a cross between “The Most Dangerous Game” and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. In the film’s most obvious tip to insanity, the group are led by Udo Kier as a kind of deranged game warden. It soon becomes clear the town of Bacarau is under attack. Suddenly the wide cinemascope photography, retro wipe edits, and small gestures of psychotropic sensations (flashes of visions, dreamy dissolves) start to make sense: This is the brutal dystopian present of the 1970s and ‘80s genre films like those by John Carpenter, transmuted to a very real rural Brazilian countryside.
In fact, the local school is named after “Prof João Carpinteira,” and the maestro’s “Night” track from his Lost Themes album appears on the soundtrack as the ultimate gesture: not one of fandom, but as a sign that the shit’s going down—what we thought bad is going to get much worse. The town, gathering a reserve we don’t initially expect, pulls together to defend itself, as if the seven samurai had never showed up, and the Bacurau citizens acquit themselves with shocking force. If Lav Diaz’s recent slow-paced but emotionally raging films criticizing the Duterte government were funneled through popular genre, they might feel something like this. Until the Tarantino film premieres here next week, I doubt there will be a more abrasively violent film in Cannes. Bacurau’s violence is a combination of fear and absurdity. The situation it creates is patently ridiculous and makes this silliness obvious—yet its results, seen in the gruesome bloodshed, is no less affecting. It is satire and terror in one, an ungainly mix that may not fully work, but I’m not sure it has to. It just has to communicate that something is very, very wrong.
Elsewhere, the filmmaking was consummate but less urgent, more focused on developing a voice than using it to yell. Kantemir Balegov returns to the Un Certain Regard, where he premiered his electric debut Closeness two years ago, with his second film, Beanpole. Set in Leningrad after the end of the Second World War, it sees the young Russian director again playing in intriguing ways with the melodrama genre, this time in a frequently beguiling mixture of the enervated and the torrid. It is less a period drama than a portrait of a close wartime friendship—between the extraordinarily tall and pale Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), the beanpole of the title, and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), a small, impassioned brunette recently returned from the front—resumed after the fighting stops. As in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, with little of their earlier lives left intact, these survivors need to restart themselves and bandage their wounds any way they can.
Although Iya and Masha met in their anti-aircraft unit, Iya was sent home after suffering combat trauma. We first take her to be a single mother, working in a veteran’s hospital and playing with her boy, but just because war is over doesn't mean everything is back to normal. In a wrenching sequence, Iya suffers a PTSD attack and accidentally smothers her child; soon after Masha returns, bedecked with medals and delighted to see her friend, and we learn that the dead boy was in fact Masha’s young son, fathered by a soldier who died in combat. A passionate friendship resumed amidst the lacerating guilt and debt owed from one to the other is the tortured current of emotion underlining the melodrama, whose surface tension is more often than not unuttered and suppressed. The story only gets more twisted in furtive knots from here, and as in Closeness there’s an oppressive feeling of women with lives of inner turmoil and few options outside their own heads.
Despite the historical setting, Beanpole lacks the social denseness of Balagov’s first film, so rooted in its claustrophobic, fraught relationship between the city of Nalchik’s Kabardian population and its Jewish minority. This thinness renders the melodrama of the new film more abstract: Its power games of intimacy and fulfillment take place in a world rebooted, with lives rebuilt from memory, longing, and hope for the future. Such is its intense intimacy and Balagov's expressive use of colors, textures, and Stalin-era close-quarters housing that Beanpole, despite its wider canvas, often feels like a chamber drama or kammerspiel. Both women have damaged minds, damaged psyches, damaged bodies—the extent of which we grow to discover, but never to fully comprehend. What either of these women want from each other or from themselves refuses to be pinned down: identity, desires, and yearning remain a post-war confusion, but the heartache is never less than vivid.
A neat meeting ground between Bacarau’s brute topicality and Beanpole’s intimacy could be found in the festival’s fourth competition entry. The debut by the French-Senagalase Mati Diop, whose shorts films and mid-length Mille soleils (2013) has stoked anticipation for this talented actress and director’s leap to features, Atlantics is a dreamy elucidation of the dilemmas facing young Senegalese of whether to stay at home—and if so, how to live life at home—or whether to risk their lives taking to the sea to get to Spain. Its parentless young heroine, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), is one who decides to stay; or perhaps, as a young woman, doesn’t have so easy an option to leave. About to be married to a rich Muslim man she doesn’t love, she spends her dreams on a young man, Souleiman (Traore), working construction on a nearby skyscraper. When his and his co-workers’ wages go unpaid for months they leave abruptly by night in barques, only to be lost at sea. Yet during her wedding celebration, Ada’s opulent conjugal bed is mysteriously set on fire, and she is told that Souleiman has been seen nearby. He is back, in a way, as are the others who died at sea: their spirits return at night possessing the bodies of those who stayed home, Ada’s friends and a young cop investigating the arson and suspecting Souleiman. Those who have left haunt those who remain. The young women become the irate laborers, who haunt the corrupt skyscraper owner, and the cop transforms into Ada's lost lover, recovering some of his soul.
The story may sound complex, but in fact Diop is swimming easily among archetypes and conventions—traditional values vs. modern, the desire to stay home and the yearning the leave, religion and consumerism—and sometimes Atlantics feels like a short film well-elaborated. But in its modesty and its details it is sweet and exquisite. Told in a gentle poetic realism, the film makes swift and precise observations about Ada, her two sets of friends (devout and partiers), the two men on her life, and her limited options, evoking her emotional tenor with ease and sensitivity. Ada's relationship with Souleiman is not given to us in drama but in sensuality, sincere looks, and comfortable body language, all of which is easy but also reductive to connect to the cinema of Claire Denis, who directed Diop in 35 Shots of Rum. Conceptual electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri has given the film a score with a throbbing, immersive impressionism that helps dissipate the sense of easy plotting and helps the film pick up after stumbling through the police subplot. As night falls again and people turn into those who died, the film’s beautiful, stark power takes over. Ada’s anguish rends softly and the film feels caught in a dream that hazes between despair and yearning. This in-betweenness is Atlantics' great triumph, refusing to side with one part of Ada’s world or the other, or indeed with the sea’s forever promise of a different life beyond it. Whether leaving or staying, the sea will always be there.