Your last dispatch pinpointed works of social realist cinema here in Cannes, alongside a quintessential art-house picture. I have no bias for or against any of these idioms, each and all can be used to make a great film, but often at festivals I long for the smarts for entertainment that genre cinema can promise. Genre movies exemplify in the most vivid sense a truism of the art of the cinema, that it relies on the building blocks of cliches, the language and toolkit of conventions and archetypes. Because of this, to expect most movies to do something new or fresh in some ways feels antithetical to the art, founded as it is on iteration and variation on shared popular ideas. To surprise an audience within the confines of expectations—that is a subtle and impressive accomplishment, and is why here at Cannes the swerving Brazilian film Bacurau was such a pleasure. This is likewise true of Bertrand Bonello’s new film, Zombi Child, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight. (His last, the millennial terrorism thriller Nocturama, was rumored to be too touchy a subject to be programmed anywhere along the Croisette.) A bit of a zombi film, a bit of an all-girls boarding school reverie, the film jolts our expectations for both through audacious cross-cutting and maintaining a silkily mysterious atmosphere of uncertain direction.
Opening in 1962 Haiti, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou) is cursed and partially killed through voodoo, buried not-quite-dead, and resurrected to toil as a mindless zombi in a sugar plantation. (“Zombi” without an “e” indicates the voodoo belief of those who exist between life and death, unlike the horror fiction conceit of the living dead.) Regaining some sense of his life, Clairvius's shrouded vision catching flashes of color and images of his wife, and he escapes the plantation through the countryside. The story behind this saga is revealed much later, and in the meantime Bonello basks in sepulchral day-for-night shadows and the sorrow of human exploitation that extends beyond the grave. Cut into this is a story set in today’s France, with a white teen beauty, Fanny (Louise Labèque), as its heroine who attends classes at the elite Légion d'honneur boarding school populated by the children of the country’s most lauded citizens. Taught about the failed legacy of the French Revolution in class, she yearns privately for the school break which will put her back in the arms of her boyfriend. The thread between this very privileged and isolated present and the Haitian past is connected by Fanny’s friend at school, Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), a solitary Haitian orphan whose parents died in the 2010 earthquake. Fanny invites Melissa to join her dorky, previously all-white secret literary sorority, and as we learn more about this regal, melancholy black girl the more the uncanniness of the Haitian story start to seep into the present. “We all look like corpses anyway,” one girl dryly notes. Fanny seeks to soothe her boy troubles by a visit to Melissa’s aunt (Katiana Milfort), a mambo or female voodoo priestess, and by the time Melissa starts making strange growling noises in the dormitory toilet at night the film has effectively cross-pollinated France’s colonial past with its not-so-distant present.
Like Mrs. Hyde, Serge Bozon’s recent riff on Robert Louis Stevenson, Bertrand Bonello is cleverly appropriating the visuals, atmosphere, and ideas of pulpy genre cinema but applying them towards more conceptual ends. That is to say, Zombi Child is not a horror film—unless one perhaps rightfully sees the faint consciousness of colonial legacies in new generations horrific, at least intellectually. The film takes a bold and mostly earned gambit in so juxtaposing past and present, Haiti and boarding school, black and white, man and woman, and the struggle to return to life with the struggle of first love. Obviously the risk is to cheapen the legacy, to use the Haitian story—which is based on a real person—and the film’s awe of voodoo belief and practice as window dressing for an exercise in style. But this a line Bonello has always flirted with, not the least in his last films about terrorism, Yves Saint Laurent, and a turn-of-the-century brothel. The director chooses vivid, iconographic subjects to anchor not just his formidable aesthetic prowess—Zombi Child is a sleekly beautiful film with a great score by the director, and its lambent mystery and unpredictability is impressively sustained—but to allow his stories to go beyond drama and stretch his ideas and sensations to the level of grandeur. The film daringly asks what could this young white French woman of today, with her passionate adolescent love, have to do with Haiti, with the island’s traditions, and with its history of exploitation and misery, and with its ultimate independence. In a bravura finale, shifting cuts between all parts and thereby inextricably syncing them across times, countries, desires, and histories, the film convincingly suggests that people can change and things can get better.
Zombies, or at least people eerily becoming those who are not themselves, are in fact popping up everywhere on the Croisette, including in Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s first competition film, as well as first in English, Little Joe. An eco-remix of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the Monsanto age, it tells of Alice (Emily Beecham), a plant geneticist who is crafting a flower whose scent instills happiness. The trouble is, among the murky ethics of its laboratory creation are hints that its pollen may also render humans unusually devoted to the plant’s survival, subtly transforming their personalities to ensure the flowers thrive. Or so suggests a mentally unstable biologist at the lab in an increasingly desperate manner. Others think the woman is crazy. From this premise, which is by turns uncanny and dryly comic, Hausner seesaws between Alice and us believing this flowery monstrosity is a threat to humanity and writing off the changes in people being a result of exaggeration, paranoia, and coincidence.
Alice is a divorced mother of an adolescent boy she mostly sees only over take-out dinners, and when she suspects he’s been exposed to the pollen, both her boy and others explain this is simply the age children change. Her boss and her co-workers, including an obsequiously romantically inclined one (a perfectly cast Ben Whishaw, utilizing his weaselly, insinuating qualities), also swing from exhibiting symptoms to appearing quite rational. The increasing suspicions and isolation of the paranoid is inextricably tied to Alice’s situation as a workaholic woman struggled to juggle her personal and professional life—as is the increasing guilt over her culpability in the morals of her creation. After all, she and her cohorts are engineering unnatural creations that manipulate emotions for the purpose of consumer profit. Whether or not a pollen-based virus is slowly taking over this corner of the United Kingdom is one worry, the other is whether engineered happiness can or should replace genuine sadness. The first fear is fit for a horror film, the second for a withering assessment of the direction of our technocratic culture.
As in Hausner’s film Lourdes, about a handicapped woman seeking the famous miracle of the French town, Little Joe effectively maintains a central ambiguity, oscillating between proof of the unthinkable, followed by refutation of that proof. Indeed, by the film’s end, characters can be found literally voicing the suspicions of both the audience and of Alice, placing the film in the tradition of Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing, which views a woman’s sense that the world is being organized against her with sympathy but refuses, at least for a while, to confirm or deny this anxiety. Hausner and her cinematographer have always preferred a spare mise-en-scène and here thrive in the antiseptic setting of the lab, beautifully color-designing spearmint lab coats to match office chairs, giving Alice sharply coordinated outfits, and generally making any scene look like an Instagram lifestyle snap. Hausner was doing this well before the affluent side of the internet embraced a cool white and pastel-oriented harmony, and here it is used to wry effect, accentuating the satirization of a person, a company, and a cultural environment that would desire such a monstrous plant—and undoubtedly market it in similar hues. Emily Beecham embodies this central ambivalence very well indeed, portraying a modern Frankenstein and the appeal of the evolutionary creation and the life sacrificed to engineer it. The film remarkably is both sympathetic to her increasing dread as it is deeply skeptical of what she may have wrought. Significantly, this is-it or isn't-it approach that comes from Hausner’s deliberate modulation of tone and story results in a film without an obvious arc or even a climax. There is nothing here like outburst of mad appeal desperately found at the end of Don Siegel’s 1956 film. The softness with which Little Joe ends is hardly satisfying, but in a way is all the more devastating for showing the insidiously calm way horror can be integrated into our daily lives.
Both Bonello and Hausner use popular genre cinema as a funnel for their ideas. Takashi Miike, here at the Directors’ Fortnight with First Love, has no such ambitions. There are a few ideas here, but the main one is to delight with surprise, energy, and violence. A baroquely plotted but otherwise straight-forward thriller, it intertwines yakuza and Chinese gang turf wars with the story of a orphaned boxer (Masataka Kubota) with no ties to anyone and little hope in life beyond fighting. It takes a while to set all the film's strands in motion, folding in first a drug-addicted young woman (Sakurako Konishi) selling her body to work off her father's debt to the gangsters, and then a scam that a corrupt cop and one of the yakuza (Shôta Sometani) pull to steal a drug shipment, but once everything is in place First Love flings itself effectively from antic to antic, violence to violence.
And brutal and bloody the film is, but told as much as an action film as it is a dark comedy in the vein of the Coen brothers’ more morbid humor, since just about everything that could go wrong with the drug heist does, and the bad luck laid upon the boxer—who gets his first knockout and is told he’s dying of a tumor—and the forced prostitute—who both Japanese and Chinese gangs think took the shipment, and is suffering withdrawal hallucinations of her abusive father—shoves them together to dodge fists, bullets, and swords. As often in the cinema of Takashi Miike, this hero and heroine are miscreants and outcasts, and they have to bond to survive the self-destructive brutality of gang violence and the wicked—as it’s self-described by multiple yakuza—lot among which they’ve fallen. Miike escalates the violence adroitly until everyone ends up in a hardware store with a multitude of weapons easily on hand, and the film descends into a remarkably vicious, yet frequently comic, and practically endless battle to the death. And it’s not just the men dealing out the pain: particularly notable inclusions are a drunk female member of the Chinese gang who venerates the aged yakuza code of honor from old movies, and the film’s most iconic figure, a drug dealer’s girl, widowed in the slaughter, who goes on a carnal quest for vengeance. Whatever the English-language title may suggest, this is in no way a love story, but believe it or not, Miike caps all this with an abrupt but very moving final image of normalcy for the outcast couple. It is an unexpected gesture that underlines just what is at stake amid all the desperation and savagery, comic and otherwise, in this terrific picture.
I hope, Leo, that you have seen films as entertaining as these, which certainly give me hope for the rest of the festival.