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This year’s Cannes films depict a world on the brink of revolt

Outside the theater, glamour; inside, revolution.

Mame Bineta Same in “Atlantics.”
Mame Bineta Same in Atlantique.
Les Films du Bal / Cinekap / FraKas / Arte France Cinéma / Canal Plus international
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In 2018, Cannes’ lineup of movies felt like a plea against complacency, a call to pay attention in a world in turmoil. It was a startling message at the world’s most glamorous film festival — onscreen, war and poverty and struggle; offscreen, red carpets and yachts anchored in the Mediterranean.

But this year, that message has been ratcheted up a notch. Even before the festival’s midway point, it was clear that this year’s Cannes, with films from all over the globe, was positioning itself as a festival for a world teetering on the brink. No matter where they hail from, filmmakers are telling stories about people on the verge of revolution — or an apocalypse.

In fact, the festival opened on Tuesday with a zombie apocalypse: The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch’s gently scathing tragicomedy set in small-town America. It’s quietly castigating, for the audience: The apocalypse happens because fracking tips the earth off its axis, and we are all too preoccupied with our own concerns to care. For the most part, the characters in The Dead Don’t Die aren’t particularly powerful or vulnerable or bad or angry, and they live comfortably enough. They’re just tired, and ready for the end to come.

But if the opening night of the festival was a rueful chuckle and a grim shake of the head, Wednesday had a different take. Two of the films that premiered that day openly and explosively told stories about the powerful preying on the vulnerable — and the vulnerable finally fighting back.

Taking back what’s theirs

Les Misérables, the first film from French director Ladj Ly, isn’t based on the Victor Hugo novel. But that’s where it takes its cues, concluding with a quotation from the book: “Remember this, my friends, there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. Only bad cultivators.”

Ly, who is of Malian descent, sets his story in Bosquets, a suburb of Paris. It’s an ambitious movie about the challenge (for both residents and the law) of keeping a neighborhood peaceful when tensions run high, and at times recalls both HBO’s The Wire and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in how it illustrates the interlocking factors and factions at play. But it ends on a note that makes something very clear: When the police, through brutality, have lost the trust of the neighborhood, it doesn’t matter who’s really in charge; things will erupt into violence. The curtain between uneasy peace and outright war is gauzy indeed.

A scene from Bacurau.
Victor Jucá

A similar idea shows up in the frenetic, confounding Brazilian film Bacurau, from directors Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho. It’s unusually challenging to describe the movie, which veers from action to horror to dystopian sci-fi to gallows comedy. Centering on a tiny Brazilian village named Bacurau, the film plays out like a particularly bonkers episode of Black Mirror, with a mysterious threat endangering the lives of the residents — who then decide they have had just about enough of being exploited.

Both films end on a similarly grim, darkly optimistic note: Fighting back against the oppressor is possible, even if the results are bloody and chaotic. But three other films struck a distinctly more pessimistic tune.

A world with limited agency

Mati Diop, the first black woman to have a film in the main Cannes competition, tells her tale in Atlantique with a tinge of muted hope. It’s the story of Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a Senegalese girl living in a poor village that’s been exploited by a wealthy developer. He hasn’t paid any of the men working on the looming, glossy skyscraper in three months. One of his workers is Soulemaine (Traore), and he and Ada are in love. But she’s promised to the aloof, wealthy Omar. Then Soulemaine and a number of other young men disappear in the night, and mysterious fires begin to be lit around town.

In Atlantiques — an extraordinary feature debut for Diop — the poor struggle to assert their right to what’s theirs, against the wealthy who take advantage of them. And for some of them, it spells ruin. Ada ends the film by telling us the future belongs to her, but we can’t help but know there’s a long struggle ahead.

A scene from Beanpole.
A scene from Beanpole.
Wild Bunch

In Beanpole, from Russian director Kantemir Balagov, the struggle never ceases. The Russian films that show up at Cannes tend to be very bleak (consider last year’s Leto, or Loveless in 2016), but Beanpole may take the (gravel-filled) cake for sheer misery. It’s a period piece about two young women living in Leningrad just after the war. They met in combat, and now work in a hospital, and both bear the physical and mental scars of their young, troubled lives, physically and mentally. Beanpole tells the story of their stormy relationship as it’s crunched and crushed by life, much like the patients in the hospital. It’s achingly beautiful, with unnerving performances, but it’s not easy to watch.

Which makes it an unlikely but strong companion piece to Sorry We Missed You, an angrily searing piece of social realism set in modern-day Britain’s gig economy. Director Ken Loach has won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm), for 2006’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley and 2016’s I, Daniel Blake. He specializes in realistic dramas with a roiling class anger beneath them, movies about the ways ordinary people’s lives are disrupted and upended by systems that render them powerless to change even as they try everything in their power to change.

Sorry We Missed You is the story of a working-class English family trying to scratch out a living any way possible. They rent a small flat and live a modest life, enabled by the income earned by Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) as a home health aide and Ricky (Kris Hitchen) as a subcontractor for a package delivery company. They have a bright young daughter (Katie Proctor) and a teenaged son (Rhys Stone), who’s lately been getting into increasingly serious mischief around town.

Ricky’s delivery job is pitched to him as “having his own business,” but it soon becomes clear that the setup of the business — in which the movements of the drivers are controlled by devices that track both the packages and the people delivering them — is simply a new form of employment with more stress and more liability for the employees. Same for Abbie, who must visit clients from morning till late night but is stuck taking the bus and doesn’t get overtime when she’s asked to work late.

Debbie Honeywood, Kris Hitchen, Katie Proctor, and Rhys Stone in Sorry We Missed You.
Debbie Honeywood, Kris Hitchen, Katie Proctor, and Rhys Stone in Ken Loach’s film Sorry We Missed You.
Joss Barratt

Sound familiar? In a press screening at Cannes, where a fair number of attendees are likely paying their own way to the festival as freelancers (and in some cases, even staffers), or who have staff jobs but live in fear that they’ll be eliminated any day, a film like Sorry We Missed You, in which characters spiral into stress and depression and don’t see any way out, hits especially hard. It’s a distinctly pessimistic take on the dystopian economics of today. (It’s probably no coincidence that the title echoes Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry to Bother You, which explores some of the same notions of exploitative workplaces.)

Each of these films (and undoubtedly more to come before the festival concludes in about a week) posits a world that’s poised to come crashing down. But their visions of whether revolution is possible — and what the effects would be — differ greatly. That they’ve all started from a similar premise, though, shows one thing quite clearly: At Cannes this year, only the willfully blind could miss what’s going on.