The Cannes Film Festival opened tonight with a zombie movie, and I can’t be the only American in attendance who felt very seen. Not just because the film itself was American—that’s frequently the case on opening night of the world’s most prestigious film festival, which tends to commence with a burst of pure star power, the kind Hollywood can still most reliably deliver. No, if fest pooh-bah Thierry Fermaux and his programmers were throwing us Yankees a sop, it was with the whole zombie part. Because what American covering this fest on the ground doesn’t feel a little undead themselves when they first shamble, unkempt and bleary-eyed, into the blinding sunlight of the French Riviera? What a victory of representation, to see some fellow corpses up there on screen!
Of course, Cannes has a way of jolting even its most exhausted invitees back to life. Jet lag is no match for the excitement of what may be global cinema’s most vital two weeks. Taking place every May on a scenic stretch of Mediterranean paradise (“This is how spring is supposed to feel,” I thought through my delirium, grateful to escape the unfortunately seasonal drizzle of the Midwest), the festival exists at a fascinating intersection of high culture and haute couture. There are those who come just for the celebrity, experienced firsthand on the red carpet or through vicarious proximity to the red carpet. But all that glitz and glamour surrounds a whole fortnight of ambitious, important films. It’s nothing short of an alternate universe—maybe the only place where three-hour Romanian art dramas are major media events, advertised on the side of buildings, their casts and crews smiling for the flashbulbs.
It’s the movies, naturally, that keep me coming back. Even in the years when it fails to program anything like a masterpiece, Cannes usually lives up to its reputation as a haven for master directors and emerging talent (albeit one that—speaking of actual representation—still highlights too few works by female filmmakers). This year’s stacked lineup includes Pedro Almodóvar, Terrence Malick, Quentin Tarantino, Bong Joon-ho, the Dardennes brothers, Jessica Hausner, Xavier Dolan, and Arnaud Desplechin. And that’s just the main competition—there’s much more in the official Cannes sidebars, as well as concurrent, parallel festivals Directors’ Fortnight, International Critics’ Week, and ACID.
I’d promise to see and write about everything significant showing on the Croisette over the next 10 days, but history has proven that’s a quixotic goal, doomed to failure. At the very least, I’ll hopefully manage not to miss the eventual Palme D’Or winner, as I somehow did last year. Even at this very early stage, I feel confident in stating that it will almost certainly not be the aforementioned zombie movie, Jim Jarmusch’s arch and unimaginative The Dead Don’t Die (Grade: C), the world premiere of which kicked off the festival a few hours ago. It was perhaps inevitable that this master of deadpan would eventually tackle the walking dead, but he hasn’t philosophically colonized that tired genre the way he did the Western, the samurai film, or the vampire movie. What he’s mostly done instead is assemble a big ensemble of name actors—many returning collaborators—and instructed them to deliver droll shtick while the plot of your average zombie potboiler unfolds around them.
Jarmusch lets us know early that none of this is to be taken very seriously or at face value. Just moments after rolling the film’s tongue-in-cheek Sturgill Simpson theme song over the opening credits, Jarmusch cues it up again in a squad car, prompting the sheriff (Bill Murray) to ask why it sounds so familiar. “It’s the theme song,” his deputy (Adam Driver) helpfully replies, in the first of several increasingly forceful kicks to the fourth wall. The plot, involving a small town slowly overrun by the deceased, is a play on Night Of The Living Dead, down to the way it ominously opens in a cemetery. The connection isn’t lost on the characters: One calls a very George Romero car “very George Romero,” while it doesn’t take long for everyone to surmise that the gruesome murders happening around town are the handiwork of zombies. It’s as if Jarmusch were doing a self-aware riff on self-aware riffing. It gets old fast.
This is a big comedown after the writer-director’s last movie, Paterson, which also premiered at Cannes. While that profound, profoundly funny slice of ordinary life packed insight into every stray encounter, The Dead Don’t Die mostly settles for broad, glib political commentary. It’s a post-Trump screed all the way—“The world is fucked up,” Tom Waits eventually croaks, in what probably doubles as Jarmusch’s own disgusted, resigned thesis. But there’s little, ahem, bite to his comic tactics, like sticking Steve Buscemi in a red “Keep America White Again” hat, or—in another nod to Romero—having the dead drawn not just to flesh but also to the shallow things they pursued while still alive, moaning “Wi-Fi!” and “Xanax!” It’d be tempting to write all of that off as a goof on baldly metaphoric political cinema were it not for the fact that Jarmusch also ended another of his films with a less-than-subtle shot at Dick Cheney. (For all his immense talent, the guy is not what I’d call a razor-sharp satirist.)
Despite some surprising gore, The Dead Don’t Die is too committed to its dryly absurdist sensibility to ever be scary. (It’s hard to care about the lives of the characters in the movie when it keeps pausing to remind us that they’re just characters in a movie.) Which really wouldn’t matter, honestly, if any of the gut-ripping was gut-busting. But for this writer anyway, nothing lands. Not Driver and Murray’s contest to see who can underreact to the bloodshed the most. Not verbal running gags like everyone asking if the killings are the work of “a wild animal, or maybe several wild animals.” Not Tilda Swinton, leaning hard into her memability as a Scottish samurai mortician with Beatrix Kiddo hair. Really, the funniest thing about The Dead Don’t Die is that it’s going to open in a bunch of theaters this summer and infuriate the hell out of anyone going in expecting a horror movie or even a normal horror-comedy. The Cannes crowd was its ideal audience. But not all of us sleep-deprived zombies took the bloody bait.