Times critic Justin Chang is filing regular dispatches from the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival, which runs May 14-25 in France.
“Do you want to live or die?”
The question — and the answer — land with brutal force in “Bacurau,” the strange and harrowing Brazilian feature that shook up the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday. It may sound like a threat, but it isn’t presented as one; the man asking the question is doing so with the utmost sincerity. In a futuristic social order where the slaughter of human beings has become a transactional, recreational activity, death very well may be preferable to life.
“Bacurau” takes its name from a small village in northeastern Brazil that comes under enormous threat from forces both within and without. The time is a few years from now, and this (fictional) backwater is being strategically erased from history. The residents are embroiled in a battle over water access with a corrupt local politician. Bacurau no longer appears on GPS maps, and cellular communications are nonexistent. And that’s before a bunch of “Most Dangerous Game”-style thrill seekers show up, looking to get their kicks by racking a very high body count and pushing the movie toward a spectacular whirlwind of violence.
Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and his regular production designer, Juliano Dornelles, “Bacurau” is a modern-day western with some of the raw, hallucinatory power of a Sergio Leone epic, plus some hypnotic electronica lifted from John Carpenter. Also in the mix: horror and science fiction, psychotropic drugs and traditional folklore, UFO-shaped drone cameras and vintage firearms, Udo Kier and Sônia Braga (the brilliant star of Mendonça’s “Aquarius”). It’s quite a brew, rich and extremely filling, but also chunky and uneven; it leaves your stomach in knots and your head in a very strange place.
When Mendonça brought “Aquarius” to Cannes in 2016, he and his cast and crew took to the steps of the Palais des Festivals to protest the recent impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. In recent interviews, the director has described “Bacurau” as an unambiguous denunciation of his country’s newly elected far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, as well as an act of defiance on behalf of a local film industry that is suffering once more under Bolsonaro’s policies.
As a political screed, “Bacurau” is an effective blunt instrument. As a portrait of a remote community bearing horrified witness to humanity’s capacity for inhumanity, it’s just another movie at the Cannes Film Festival. The main competition got off to an intriguing if frustrating start Tuesday night with Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die,” a small-town zombie comedy that shares some key plot points with “Bacurau,” and which has its own grim answer to the live-or-die question. Embrace death, the movie says — there’s no point in avoiding it — but be sure you go down swinging.
The competition started looking up on Wednesday, in terms of quality if not necessarily moral outlook, with the world premieres of “Bacurau” and “Les Misérables,” a crackling police thriller partly inspired by the civil unrest that swept through Paris in 2005. A gripping feature debut for the French director Ladj Ly, the movie unfolds from the perspective of three cops (played by Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti and Djebril Zonga) trying to maintain order among warring factions in the Paris suburb of Montfermeil, only to find themselves mired in an explosive situation that threatens to escalate beyond repair.
The title’s reference to Victor Hugo’s masterwork (much of which is set in Montfermeil) is neither an accident nor an afterthought. A closing quotation from Hugo lays bare the essence of Ly’s ideas on how systems of injustice maintain a chokehold on the city’s underclass, particularly the black youths we see spraying water and hurling projectiles at the police, who more than respond in kind.
Ly dramatizes the scenes of street warfare with visceral force. Like “Bacurau,” “Les Misérables” makes crucial use of a drone camera, a clever narrative device that also serves as an ingenious formal function. The overhead shots convey a sweeping sense of the neighborhood’s geography, which pays off to devastating effect when the movie purposely narrows the field of action in its claustrophobic final stretch. Ly leaves us with a bracing vision of two sides that have trapped each other, with no hope of escape.
“Les Misérables” packs an entire series’ worth of characters and subplots into less than two hours, though it’s unfortunate that the three cops, whose differences place them at seething odds with one another, monopolize most of the narrative attention. The imbalance there is political as well as dramatic; Ly surveys all his characters without judgment, but a longer, richer version of this movie might have distributed its sympathies to even more powerful effect.
For narrative economy, though, it would be tough to beat the enjoyably demented comedy “Deerskin,” the first film to screen in Directors’ Fortnight, a program that runs parallel to the official selection. Directed by Quentin Dupieux, the French prankster best known for his killer-tire movie “Rubber,” it’s a 77-minute high-concept lark with a sharp little sting in its tail. It stars a wholly committed Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”) as Georges, a middle-aged divorcé who’s wandering the countryside when he buys and falls in love with a new jacket, a fringed deerskin number that he thinks gives him “killer style” (some wry foreshadowing there).
Georges is also a wannabe filmmaker, and when he starts using a handheld video camera to record himself — and also the jacket, with whom he carries on long and rewarding conversations — his twin obsessions merge and give birth to a singular brand of psychosis. “Deerskin” is an impudent deadpan riff on the midlife-crisis comedy that gradually morphs into an indictment of male sociopathy at its most dangerously entitled. It’s no coincidence that the movie’s best, most interesting character is Denise (a superb Adèle Haenel), a bartender and amateur film editor who gets lured into Georges’ web.