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MAGA country has made it to Cannes.
Jim Jarmusch’s political zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die was an unusual choice for Tuesday night’s festival opener, as Cannes typically begins with a night of French pageantry and a forgettable European drama.
Instead, the audience in the Grand Théâtre Lumière at the Palais des Festivals watched as Jarmusch skewered Donald Trump-era politics in a satire, in which the residents of small town Centerville, U.S.A. (“A Real Nice Place,” according to its road signs) come to terms with an environmental apocalypse caused by “polar fracking.”
The evening’s political messaging began on the red carpet, as Jarmusch and his cast, including Adam Driver and Bill Murray as Centerville’s police, Tilda Swinton as a mortician who happens to have surprisingly practical swordsmanship skills and Selena Gomez as a hipster passing through town, entered the Palais to speakers booming Bruce Springsteen’s heartland anthem “Born in the U.S.A.”
Like Springsteen’s oft-misunderstood song lamenting the treatment of Vietnam veterans, Jarmusch’s message didn’t always seem to land as intended with the multinational audience in the Lumière, and his actors’ deadpan delivery may have suffered in translation, as the laughs were few and applause muted. (The three-minute closing ovation was, for typically effusive Cannes-goers, akin to a shrug.) The Dead Don’t Die might have been more at home with popcorn-chomping midnight audiences at Toronto than with a black-tie clad crowd who had just sat through a French-language opening ceremony about the power of cinema.
Before The Dead Don’t Die screened, the festivities began with a spotlight on an empty director’s chair on the stage, in a tribute to Agnes Varda, who died in March. Accompanied by an accordion player, Cannes master of ceremonies Edouard Baer introduced the jury, showed clips of the competition films and poked fun at the American obsession with measuring cinema’s impact by box office.
Baer’s introduction was a prelude to Jarmusch’s cinematic indictment of U.S. values, in an allegory in which a strange, polar fracking-linked phenomenon is disrupting the rotation of the earth and awakening the town of Centerville’s corpses. To put an even finer point on it, Centerville’s resident curmudgeon is a farmer played by Steve Buscemi who has a dog named Rumsfeld, listens with apparent agreement to news commentators who praise polar fracking for supplying needed jobs and energy to the country and wears a variation on Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” cap, which says “Keep America White Again.”
“It’s a very anti-Trump film,” Thierry Frémaux said at his opening press conference. “It talks about American hegemony. America is an extraordinary country. With Jarmusch, we can expect that he is not very happy with what’s happening at present.”
Politics had surfaced earlier in the day at the festival, when Cannes jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu made a reference to Trump during the jury press conference, while talking about his Mexican border crossing virtual reality installation that premiered at Cannes in 2017, Carne y Arena.
Politicians “are basically ruling with rage and angriness…and are basically writing fiction and making people believe that those are facts,” Iñárritu said. “The problem is ignorance. People do not know [their history], so it is very easy [for politicians] to manipulate them.”
It’s easy to draw a straight line from Iñárritu’s manipulated populace to Jarmusch’s staggering, vacant-eyed zombies, who spend their afterlife drawn to numbing favorites from their living days, like coffee and Nintendo Game Boys. At Focus Features’ afterparty for the film, French models in full zombie makeup greeted partygoers, their bloodless, flesh-eaten faces a fair facsimile of what many jet-lagged, rosé-swilling festival attendees will look like in just a few days’ time.
Murray and Gomez, an unlikely but apparently chummy twosome, huddled on a sofa talking for most of the night — on the carpet, the comedian had whispered in the singer’s ear in a moment that seemed to re-create Murray’s much-debated final scene with Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.
Driver and Jarmusch chatted on another banquette, while partygoers drank “Polish mules” in frosted copper mugs (Grey Goose vodka, citron, Fever Tree ginger beer). Maximilian the magician wound through the crowd wowing partygoers with sleight of hand tricks, entertaining and distracting them, before sending the revelers into the night, wondering whether they were the living or the undead.