“This isn’t going to end well,” Adam Driver remarks a few times in The Dead Don’t Die. Three days after opening Cannes, Jim Jarmusch’s underwhelming zom-com has itself stubbornly refused to die, its general philosophy—a consuming pessimism about our here and now—spreading across the festival like a virus. Driver’s refrain, a punch line without a joke, has become the unofficial motto of the fest. Is every movie here a rumination on how fucked up the world is right now? Is every film an end-of-the-world story in its own particular way?
That ominous catchphrase echoed through my mind again during the opening minutes of Sorry We Missed You (Grade: C+), Ken Loach’s latest lament for the downtrodden masses. A working man, Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen, terrific), is hitching his hopes and dreams to a new occupation: a job in the package delivery business. “You’ll be your own boss,” promises the supervisor (Ross Brewster), selling Ricky on the prospect of running his own franchise—and driving his own truck—under the larger company umbrella. You don’t need to be a used and abused cog of the gig economy to suspect that Ricky’s delusions of autonomy and upward mobility will be shattered. He is, after all, the main character in a Ken Loach movie: honest and industrious, destined to suffer for the sins of a pitiless society. In other words, this isn’t going to end well.
It actually starts well enough to give one hope that, for the first time in ages, England’s most tireless, stylistically utilitarian champion of the oppressed working class may offer more drama than diatribe. Sorry We Missed You skillfully establishes the dynamic and routines of Ricky’s family. His wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), endures her own version of a hamster wheel, working endless days in the care of the elderly and those with disablities. Meanwhile, his wiseass teenage son, Seb (Rhys Stone), cuts class and gets into trouble, reluctant to race headfirst into a future of nonstop labor that could await him, should he follow the same path as his parents. Episodic and carefully observed, this early stretch successfully bonds us to the plight of the Turners; like any good polemicist, Loach understands empathy as something he has to earn. (It helps, too, that Ricky’s line of gradually soul-crushing work does allow for little bursts of comedy, facilitated by his front-door encounters with customers.)
As usual, though, Loach doesn’t know when to say when. He continues to labor under the misconception that he has to drop the whole weight of the world onto his characters—to turn them into everyday martyrs, crushed into fine dust by the grinding wheels of misfortune—to get his impassioned message across. And like the director’s recent I, Daniel Blake, which won him a second top prize (or Palme D’Or) at Cannes, Sorry We Missed You piles on so relentlessly that its genuine poignancy begins to crumble into self-parody; by the last half hour, everything that could go wrong for Ricky and his family does. Which is a shame, because the film didn’t need to force them through the worse-case wringer to sell its shrewd insights about the mutating injustice of capitalism, and how wage slavery now masquerades as entrepreneurial opportunity.
Sorry We Missed You preserves the apocalypse anxiety of Cannes 2019; if no literal end days arrive, there’s plenty of pointed unease in Seb’s conclusion that “everything’s out of whack,” to say nothing of the film’s final slow fade to black, implying a personal work-until-you-collapse Armageddon. Where the film doesn’t quite gel with this festival’s larger vibe, at least at this early date, is in its total absence of guns, flying saucers, or monsters. In fact, it’s the only competition title to screen so far that can’t be described as a genre movie. That’s more of the world’s sickness creeping into the festival on the water: Only in an age of true horror, perhaps, could the spirit of George Romero and John Carpenter rule Cannes.
Add Jacques Tourneur to that list, though his presence is more vaguely felt. Like the Jarmusch (when will that film stagger out of my line of sight already?), Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child (Grade: B) is a kind of zombie movie. But the undead here are of the voodoo variety, closer in spirit to those of Tourneur’s Caribbean classic I Walked With A Zombie. Bonello’s ambitious, chronologically complicated plot divides its attention between two settings: the Haiti of the 1960s, where a man (Mackenson Bijou) dies and is resurrected into moaning-and-shuffling slavery on a sugar plantation; and the Paris of the present day, where a Haitian teenager, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), begins attending an all-girls private school, and is ushered into a close-knit sorority. There are elements of coming-of-age drama, tortured romance, and supernatural horror, though part of the film’s strange power is that it never seems to commit to any of those genres, hovering in some liminal state instead, teasing the audience with the various possibilities of where it might go.
Unlike Sorry We Missed You, Zombi Child is not playing as part of the competition lineup—it premiered today in Directors’ Fortnight. This isn’t the first time Bonello has failed to make the Cannes cut: The festival is heavily rumored to have outright rejected his last movie, the stylish and staggeringly good Nocturama, for reasons having more to do with provocative subject matter (it unfolded, remember, from the perspective of teenage terrorists in Paris) than artistic merit. In the case of Zombi Child, it’s tougher to say. Certainly, this is a movie that may prompt charges of cultural appropriation. But it’s also a film about cultural appropriation, one that pivots to the blinkered perspective—and one-sided voice-over correspondences—of Mélissa’s white, lovesick classmate (Louise Labeque), only to cleverly, productively subvert that choice later.
Maybe the Cannes programmers just didn’t love the film. On first viewing, I’ll confess to not being entirely sure what to make of it. Bonello teases a lot of dramatic and cultural conflicts—“first world problems,” unconscious biases and white privilege, the specter of historical trauma—and basically lets them simmer and simmer, until a climax that’s more exposition than satisfying resolution. Does this strange brew entirely coalesce? Maybe not, but what it has going for it is Bonello’s typically seductive craftsmanship—his way with a suggestive cut or a perfect needle drop. I knew from the prologue, a stretch of hypnotically wordless visual storytelling, that I was back in the hands of a filmmaker who’d make the journey worth taking, even if the destination didn’t quite live up to it.
Folklore and star-crossed courtship also play a part in Atlantics (Grade: B-), the feature debut of French actor-turned-director Mati Diop, who’s now the first black woman to ever secure a spot in the Cannes competition lineup. Ten years ago, Diop made a short documentary about Senegalese migrants embarking on a dangerous voyage across the sea in search of work. Here, that’s mostly a plot catalyst, as the young, brash Souleiman (Traore) leaves behind his girlfriend Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), who’s engaged to a man she doesn’t love, the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla). The story spun from this setup can be lumpy, burdened with maybe one too many subplots and a few cliché-flirting elements, like a thorn-in-the-side detective, that exist mainly for expositional purposes. And while the sometimes atmospheric nocturnal imagery recalls that of Claire Denis, who cast Diop in her great 35 Shots Of Rum roughly a decade ago, the director hasn’t internalized her old collaborator’s elegant sense of rhythm or talent for constructing great performances out of gestures and mannerisms. The Dakar-set Atlantics is most successful as a look at a particular milieu, which makes one wonder if Diop might have been better off just making a longer nonfiction film on the subject. That, however, would have denied her the opportunity to play around with the more…outlandish developments that occur in the backstretch, tilting Atlantics out of naturalism and into something more idiosyncratic. It also would have denied Cannes one of its numerous genre selections. What is this, Fantastic Fest?
Tomorrow: I share some thoughts on Beanpole, from the shockingly young Kantemir Balagov, which lives up to its reputation as a striking, psychologically rich downer. Also: new films from Pedro Almodóvar and maybe Takashi Miike, with yet another genre film in between, this one a sci-fi whatsit by Jessica Hausner (Amour Fou, Lourdes).