It’s fair to say that the red carpet of the Cannes opening film has never been so drenched in blood as at the 75th edition of the world’s most important film festival. This is a limitedly original comment given that Coupez! is a zombie movie.
But wait, it’s not that simple, even if it seems so easy for the first half hour. At the beginning we see a bloodied, frightened young woman holding an ax and backing away from a zombie attacking her. Backed into a corner, she finally lowers the ax and the zombie bites her neck like Count Dracula once did his victims. She surrenders to him willingly.
This was level one, now level two begins seamlessly. A director shows up – so we attended a shoot – and vehemently accuses her of acting too much, her fear didn’t come across as “real”. He also gets into a fight with her zombie lover. Strange noises from outside (we are in an abandoned office complex) worry the crew. Now the director makes her a confession (level three): He chose this location because a strange story is connected with it: Here the Japanese military conducted experiments during World War II and created a new race of warriors, fallen soldiers who than zombies should keep fighting for the Tenno. And soon the first zombie actually breaks through the door, staggering and drooling.
In recent years, the Cannes Festival has increasingly opened up to genre films, just as the auteur filmmakers – the lifeblood of the festival – have opened up to genre films; Last year, Titane, a kind of fantasy splatter film about a serial killer, won the Palme d’Or. The local audience, including the public of dignitaries who are gladly invited to such openings, is already quite used to it. Also a bloodbath like the one that follows with red fountains and ripped off arms. (Did we mention the axe?) At the end there is one survivor, as is often the case in this genre, the timid, helpless young woman. She stands there, exhausted, ax in hand. The credits begin to roll.
But now only half an hour has passed since “Coupez!”. This can’t be the end yet. And really, now the prehistory of this film begins. We learn that it is a remake of a Japanese zombie comedy – again a doubling of film and reality, because “Coupez!” is based on the five-year-old Japanese film “Camera o Tomeru na!” (roughly: ” Let the camera roll!”). We see the director’s private life, the rehearsals, the conflicts with the main actor, and gradually the flashback moves back to the beginning of the shooting.
Now an hour of “Coupez!” has passed, and one wonders what is to come now. You’ve seen a moderately gory, moderately funny film and occasionally wondered about a thing or two: Why do the French actors have Japanese role names? Why is there a veritable halt to the plot at a few points, most notably when three characters ask each other “Ca va?” (Are you alright?) after a zombie attack, not just once, but three times all around.
You have to have so much trust in the director of “Coupez!” – after all, it’s Michel Hazanavicius who won an Oscar with “The Artist” – that you don’t see it as a staging lapse, but as an intention. And indeed, in the last part (let’s call it level four) we are rewarded with the resolution, and it’s so much fun that you can forgive certain lengths in the first hour. It’s then a fun homage to all sorts of things, to film history, to the film-within-a-film genre, and even to early television in the 1950s, when it was live in front of the camera like the theater, when you couldn’t just Played recorded music, as is the case today.
Coupez! was originally scheduled to premiere at Sundance in February, but was pulled by producers as Sundance transitioned from an in-person to an online festival due to the pandemic. The process (involuntarily) precisely illustrates one of the main differences between watching a film at home and watching it in the cinema: the producers knew perfectly well that their film needed an hour to really get going; by then most online viewers would have switched off long ago.
Then, as soon as “Coupez!” was announced as the opening film of Cannes, he found himself again in difficult waters. Its original title was “Z (Comme Z)”, but by that time the letter “Z” had just fallen into disrepute as a symbol of victory for the Russian side in the Ukraine war. The Ukrainian Cultural Institute wrote a letter of complaint to the Cannes selection committee, which was initially reluctant to change the title, but quickly gave in to the pressure of indignation.
Anyone who has seen the film understands the hesitation, because the “Z” is written into the film’s DNA in such a way that it cannot be erased. Thus, the film being shot in the film is still called “Z (Comme Z)” and its production company is still called “Plateforme Z”. In fact, Hazanavicius didn’t do much more than roll in the credits “Coupez!”, a cosmetic operation rather than a deep surgical procedure, and it’s fair to question whether even that nose job wasn’t rather redundant; one cannot erase all Z from all works of art.
The Russian attack is anyway a shadow over the festival. It made a clear statement very early on: it would not accredit any official Russian representatives; just before the start it followed up and announced that it would not accredit any Russian media – except media that had spoken out clearly against the war. This reduced the crowd of Russian reporters to a small heap. But the festival also made it clear from the start that Russian films would not be excluded just because they are Russian films.
This is how “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” runs in the competition, filmed in Moscow by Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, who was made falsely accusatory by the Putin regime and held under house arrest for two years. He is a clear dissident and has been living in Berlin since spring, but he has not lived in a vacuum in Russia either: his film has money from the private film funding of the oligarch Roman Abramovich, who maintains close contacts with the Kremlin.
A case on the Ukrainian side is similarly complex. The film “Natural History of Destruction,” about the aerial warfare of World War II against the populace, will be screened in Cannes early next week. It’s the latest essay film by Ukraine’s best-known director Sergei Loznitsa – who was expelled from his own film academy two months ago; he is accused of “unpatriotic behavior” because he refused to break off contacts with Russian colleagues.
The young Ukrainian director Maksym Nakonechnyi also has an invitation to Cannes for his debut “Butterfly Vision” about the atrocities committed by Russian troops in the Donbass. Nakonechnyi was arrested in Kyiv last week for taking part in a demonstration in solidarity with the trapped soldiers at the Azov steelworks. Demonstrations are banned under martial law in Ukraine.
So the shadows are hanging over Cannes, although the weather forecast predicts two weeks of sunshine for the anniversary festival. As with all major events, it doesn’t take much to derail the most careful planning. On Monday, the heart of the festival, the online ticketing system, was practically inaccessible. In the evening it became known that the system had been paralyzed by a DDoS attack: 1500 simultaneous requests by bots for tickets for a certain film had overwhelmed it so much that it stopped all operations. The festival activated a new address for ticket orders. So far it works flawlessly.