The 72nd Cannes International Film Festival opening night went to the zombies, at least our walking dead friends as filtered through the droll style of Jim Jarmusch in The Dead Don’t Die.
The director is a favorite of the fest, having been invited here for various films and competitions 13 times since his first appearance in 1984 when he won a prize for Stranger Than Paradise. Eight of his movies have competed in the official competition for the Palme d’Or, most recently the terrific Paterson three years ago. He never has won the top prize, but 1993’s Coffee and Cigarettes III took the Palme for the Shorts competition and the Bill Murray-starring film Broken Flowers won the Grand Prize (second place) in 2005 behind the Dardenne brothers’ L’Enfant. Early reviews are decidedly mixed for The Dead Don’t Die, but clearly the French love this guy and thus timing of this Focus Features (domestic) and Universal (Internationally) summer comedy was perfect for the opening-night slot.
A bevy of the film’s stars joined their director on the famous red-carpeted steps of the Grand Theatre Lumiere including Murray, Adam Driver — who was taking the night away from his current Tony-nominated performance on Broadway in Burn This — Tilda Swinton (playing a zombie-killing Scottish mortician), Selena Gomez, Chloe Sevigny and lots more. And if ever there were two actors more suited to delivering the deadpan dialogue of Jarmusch it is Murray and Driver as two cops on patrol in a town where it is becoming apparent the dead don’t die, that is unless you “kill the head.” The after party at La Terrasse By Albane on the J.W. Marriott rooftop was packed to the gills. Murray was among those staying until at least 2am, and among the judges spotted was Cold War Oscar nominee Pawel Pawlikowski who was still talking about the grueling awards season when we caught up with him.
Applause was polite but not manic as often is the case at Cannes premieres. Zombies aren’t exactly the kind of art house fare you usually see here, but it’s clear that Jarmusch could do just about anything he wanted and get the invite. Almost like an old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” movie, the writer-director is also not one bit afraid to break the fourth wall and let his actors start talking about how they know the ending “because Jim let me read the whole script.” Gotta love a film here that doesn’t take itself seriously but still manages to get some digs in on our current American president (Steve Buscemi wears a red cap that says “Make America White Again”) and the sorry state of a world where there is a “no vacancy” sign in hell and a hopelessness that we are all screwed. “It was a fun way to start the festival,” said one rival distributor as he exited the Palais.
The opening ceremony itself was beamed to 700 theaters across France followed by the film itself, which officially opened here today (the U.S. gets it June 14), so this was a case of using the world’s most famous film festival for a real promotional liftoff. I don’t expect Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his jury to make this their big winner come May 25, but if they do it will be a Cannes first for a zombie movie.
Host Edouard Baer got things off to a start with a lovely tribute to this year’s poster girl, the late Agnes Varda, in a segment that emphasized the French people’s love of cinema compared to “Americans’ love of money.” He even took a whack at Netflix, decrying those who strictly stay in their homes to watch movies on the streamer, before thanking the first-night Cannes crowd for “coming out of your home tonight.” Baer then introduced the jury, which it was noted includes Elle Fanning, the youngest jury member in Cannes history. She just turned 21 last month, so she can drink all the Chardonnay she wants.
When Inarritu was introduced, he made his remarks in Spanish — a reminder that he is the first Latin America native to head the main jury. He called it a privilege, an honor, and noted that having been here with films like Amores Perros and Biutiful (still one of the greatest experiences I have ever had seeing a movie in Cannes) that this is a very important festival in his life. He said he doesn’t view himself as a judge but admitted he and his fellow jurors will have important decisions to make. “We shall do our best to see what resonates with us, disturbs us and makes us feel ill at ease,” he said, making it sound like they are not expecting to have much fun in the cinema the next 12 days. “We will do our utmost to find the jewel that resonates for us, but the only true judge of a film is time,” the multiple Oscar winner added.
With that Baer tried singing some nonsensical song about Jarmusch’s hair and then introduced Charlotte Gainsbourg and Javier Bardem to officially open the festival. And so it is. As I hit the street in front of the Palais where a second black-tie crowd was lined up to see the encore screening of tonight’s opener, a light rain started to fall after a perfect day of sun. Let’s not look at that as any kind of bad omen. The dead don’t die, and neither does Cannes if you are a cineaste hopeful to find the next great thing. It doesn’t always happen here to be sure , but maybe it will again this year.