Cannes 2019: Zombie comedies and red carpet glitterati

Cannes 2019 kicks off with ‘The Dead Don’t Die’, a self-aware zombie-comedy

Cannes 2019 kicked off this year with an unusual opening shot of a graveyard in Jim Jarmusch’s inaugural film, a zombie comedy called The Dead Don’t Die. As in the last couple of years the jury has been pretty divided on whether it was a worthy enough film to have been given the honour. Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts in 2017 and Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows last year had found themselves in the thick of a similar debate.

In a “real nice place” called Centerville, with the population of some 700 odd, things have been turning weird. The sun refuses to set, radio and TV signals go on a blip, mobiles turn dead, pets get skittish and aggressive or go missing and ant colonies get jacked up like it was the end of the world. All because polar fracking is making Earth go off its axis. While scientists continue to be on the defensive, a total planetary destruction seems to be round the corner. All man-made. Climate change, anyone?

It is also leading to the reanimation the undead, the zombies are on the rise, The film plays out in various locales (eventual battlegrounds in a war against the zombies) of the U.S. small town — a cop station, a detention centre, a motel, a diner, a gas station.

Jarmusch’s is a very self aware film, a bit too much for comfort. Be it the invocation of popular culture and cinema — from Psycho to Star Wars via Great Gatsby and samurai films — the self-referential humour at his filmmaking itself or the deliberately eccentric tone, he overstresses things to the point of rendering even the possibly interesting into utterly banal. “Things are not going to end well” — what starts off as an ominous line evokes some laughs to begin with but gradually becomes an irritating gag due to constant repetition. Ditto with the referencing of the Sturgill Simpson song.

The film also tries to balance itself on two creative stools and, in the process, ends up falling somewhere in the middle. Neither does it entirely embrace the conventions of zombie cinema, nor does it subvert or re-imagine them inventively. In fact it makes the genre redolent with lethargy.

Similarly the attempt at giving a political touch to the zombie apocalypse gets too in your face and facile. There are the obvious takes on racism in the times of Trump — “Keep America White again”, “It’s [The coffee] is too damn black for me”. Or the expression of love for Mexico that plays out like a deliberate in-thing to do. The talk of the Moby Dick inspired “nameless miseries of the numberless mortals”, about materialism, the “hunger for more stuff” and the “selling of souls”, about humanity on the verge of collapse gets way too didactic as an end note. The metaphors are literal than layered.

There are some interesting characters here filled in by bright stars — the poker-faced cop played by the wonderful Adam Driver or the strange undertaker of The Ever After Funeral Home rendered by the inimitable Tilda Swinton. Her decapitation of two corpse whom she had made up to look all "boney" for their funeral, is one of the rare scenes that had me chuckling. “The world is perfect; appreciate the details” goes a dialogue in The Dead Don’t Die. Unfortunately it doesn’t hold true for the world, neither for the film itself.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 7:10:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/cannes-2019-kicks-off-with-the-dead-dont-die-a-self-aware-zombie-comedy/article27135137.ece

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