At this year’s top film festival, people are served
IF you go to enough fancy film festivals, trends start to emerge. Some years, at some places, it is simply the same actress in every other film, or the same character actor. Other times, you see three set-ups that basically mirror each other, or four movies that are shot within the same couple of hip Brooklyn neighborhoods. In the worst case, a bunch of films, all premiering within days of each other at one of these impossibly hierarchical events, push the same social outrage, all before the makers and their friends get feted with champagne in a posh club, poorly tipping the mostly colored wait staff. On this beat, you can find yourself watching movie after movie with the same blind spot when it comes to what life is actually like. Can we really fit any more whiny white people into this apartment that’s too elegant for the characters to realistically afford?
At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the world’s most prestigious motion picture competition which came to a close last month, cannibalism was the trend du jour. Paul Schrader — who wrote Taxi Driver and used to direct good movies — was in town with an energetic but largely unwatchable Guy Ritchie ripoff called Dog Eat Dog. Even though there a moments of startling violence in this slice of warmed over Tarantino-lite, no human flesh is eaten. But one knows from the moment it starts that the title of Dog Eat Dog is aiming for human metaphor, underlining the trend that, while obvious, no one seemed to be talking about in Cannes. In 2016, a year that seems to get grimmer by the day, cannibalism reigned at Cannes.
Although the festival and its various sidebars have played host to its fair number of cannibalism themed motion pictures in the past (Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day and Jorge Grau’s We Are What We Are immediately spring to mind), 2016 seems to be a high-water mark. In films in and out of competition, in the official selection and the sidebars, made on scales both large and small, by directors who are among the world’s most famous and still mired amidst the largely unknown, somewhere, on some screen in the south of France, it was likely that people were eating each other or being eaten themselves. The Zeitgeist had spoken and eyeballs would be served.
They certainly are in Nicolas Winding Refn’s L.A.-will-eat-you fever dream Neon Demon, the most divisive and controversial movie in the competition and perhaps the entire festival. It’s about a blonde Georgia teen (Elle Fanning), fresh off the bus, looking for a modeling contract. She shacks up at a fleabag motel run by a sadistic, scruffily bearded Keanu Reeves in full cracker asshole mode. She gets some photos taken by an ambitious and honest bumpkin photographer who takes her around in his convertible. But once she gets a whiff of the big time this 16 year old with no past isn’t interested in his charms.
After drawing the attention of a craven modeling agent and several photographers who make Terry Richardson seem quaint, the ire of several older rivals grows. A snake bitten blonde Aussie who is already, before 25, too old for the big time, and her cynical, younger, equally blonde American compadre are a picture of SoCal image factory wickedness. These soulless girls will end up bathing in our young southern fraulein’s blood before Refn is through with his exorbitant, risible mindfucking. Mulholland Drive doesn’t have this story of female rivalry beat when it comes to bloodletting, but the emotional complexity and ambiguity of the earlier film is far more resonant than this tale of a newly hot-shit model who loses her innocence and gets eaten alive for it.
The movie is full of common cruelties, overwhelming your senses with a derivative sense of southern California spiritual decay. By the time her rivals’ disgust reaches murderous heights, being eaten alive (or freshly dead — one really can’t tell) seems somehow less onerous than watching the rest of this self-satisfied and peculiarly pointless work. NWR, as the credits inform us we should refer to Refn these days, hadn’t the stomach for clarity of intent beyond hip candy-colored sadism, but by the eyeballs start getting vomited out (“I have to get her outside of me!”) whatever his film aims to say about the female body-image industrial complex, being a skinny white blonde girl in southern California or life in general, seems to have been squeezed out as well.
Raw, the blazingly assured and remarkably terrifying first feature from Frenchwoman Julia Decournau which took home the FIPRESCI international critics prize as part of the Cannes Critics Week sidebar, focuses on a vegetarian veterinary student (say that three times fast) who discovers, in the film’s opening scene, a piece of sausage jammed into her mashed potatoes. She’s outraged, but not as much as her parents, alumni of the same veterinary school that both of their daughters now attend. Unfortunately for the youngest of the brood, that piece of sausage is perhaps the least offensive piece of meat served in Decournau’s cult classic in the making, where the lines between her burgeoning sexual and gastrointestinal desire for all types of uncooked flesh, both animal and human, blur to the point where our young veterinarian can no longer tell the difference between eating and fucking.
Perhaps Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, which played out of competition in advance of its July stateside release, and The Chaser director Na Hong-jin’s unsettling Korean blockbuster The Wailing, also not in competition, shouldn’t count. After all, in the Spielberg film, Mark Rylance’s Big Friendly Giant isn’t human and doesn’t have a taste for them ("You think because I'm a giant that I'm a man-gobbling cannibal?" he says upon meeting the young protagonist Sophie), the world of the film is filled with Giants who are very happy to devour people as they see fit. Still, while humanoid, they aren’t humans themselves; their form of “cannibalism” is no different than foodies consuming truffle chocolate covered insects. When selling people-eating to kids, it’s better to assume the perspective of a higher intelligence.
In The Wailing, a stunningly effective horror film that grounds us in dread and the humorous rhythms of rural Korean family life before plunging the depths of the police procedural, the demonic possession thriller, and the zombie horror genres, a cheek gets bitten off here, and hand or shoulder there. The zombies, looking to make lunch out of a young priest’s face for example, have been made so by a mysterious Japanese man who lives alone in the woods, feasting on the carcasses of animals while wearing a diaper. Referred to as “The Jap” for most of the films running time, he turns out to be The Devil himself.
Just to keep score, at Cannes 2016 so far we have cannibalism as a metaphor of society’s general cruelty and competitiveness, as a means of destroying (and becoming) a beauty you can never be, as a means of sexual and palatal coming of age, and now as a means of reinforcing xenophobia. “Not at all,” replied the director Hong-jin when I asked him about my sense that the film had xenophobic themes, dodging the question as he did most of the others, through a translator. He was wearing sunglasses and a tan jacket over a green t-shirt as I interviewed him on the roof of one of those impossibly glamorous Cannes hotels. “I thought at one point that the Korean audience was demanding this, they want to feel a lot of diverse feelings, a lot of diverse genres that are mixed.”
As voters the world over are finding nationalistic xenophobia appealing in their politicians again, it is also finding purchase on screen. But Cannes 2016’s obsessions with cannibalism was almost surely going to find its pièce de résistance in class conflict. This is France after all, a place where they have been, historically speaking, perfectly content with the idea of beheading the elite.
Frequent Cannes provocateur Bruno Dumont’s Ma Loute, a goofy and grotesque police procedural and hothouse satire set in an early 20th century coastal town in northern France, provides a cartoonish and baroque release of such sentiments. Dumont focuses his energies on a doomed love affair between the only semi-normal young woman to emerge from a family of in-bred upper-class savages and a stoic, seaman’s-cap-wearing boy. Almost completely wordless, the young man conspires with the rest of his lowbred fish-trawling family to kidnap and feast on the hoity-toity they ferry about for side change, making a rich and bloody stew out of their wealthy marks. Dumont, who started his career as a typical European sadomodernist — all long, heavy takes and serious existential intent — has in his recent features become an arch comedian. Surely, in this era of massive upward wealth redistribution, the poor eating the rich is his biggest joke yet.