Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch, and more use the art of decapitation to face off with fractured politics and the ills of capitalism
The Cannes Film Festival might as well be synonymous with opulence. Since its inception in 1946, the annual celebration of cinema has attracted the biggest names and stars in the movie business to the French Riviera every year without fail. Yacht parties hosted by Leonardo DiCaprio, glittering diamonds worth more than most peoples’ annual salaries, a strict heels-on-the-red-carpet rule for women; Cannes has cultivated a reputation as the ritziest film festival in the world. Such extravagance isn’t usually associated with the gory art of decapitation, but at this year’s festival, it proved to be a running theme.
At least six (but quite possibly more, given the size of the programme) films in the Cannes line-up featured peoples losing their heads in one capacity or another, but not all decapitation is created equal. In Quentin Dupieux’s wild French satire Deerskin, a stylish Jean Dujardin is driven to desperate measures in his quest to become the only man in the world to own a jacket (yes, really). Meanwhile Chinese filmmaker Diao Yinan’s slick gangster thriller The Wild Goose Lake is notable for its violent clashes between motorbike thieves and the law. In these films, heads roll to gasp-worthy effect, serving a shocking function and highlighting the heavily stylised elements of these unique thrillers.
By contrast, in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, decapitation takes the form of the guillotine, used to execute prisoners sentenced to death. There’s no gore in Malick’s sublime tale of political defiance, which sees Austrian conscientious object Franz Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl) arrested by the Third Reich for refusing to serve them in 1943. In a film alive with the colour and texture of a life resisting the iron grip of fascism, the guillotine is mentioned, heard, and then finally seen in the shadows; a grim reminder that political defiance, even in its most peaceful iterations, is often silenced in the most callous way possible.
“Decapitation is an act of defiance in the face of creeping capitalism”
For two other films at Cannes, decapitation had a similar political significance; in The Dead Don’t Die and Bacarau, it’s an act of defiance in the face of creeping capitalism. Jim Jarmusch’s zombie-comedy opened the festival to mixed reviews, but the sight of Adam Driver and Tilda Swinton cleaving the heads from countless zombies satisfies a very primal sort of hunger within.
Of course it makes total sense that we would see heads rolling in a zombie movie, but Jarmusch’s film is an unabashed rallying cry against the modern age of instant gratification and constant consumption. The shuffling, groaning zombies of Jarmusch’s smalltown wail ‘Wiiiiifiiiii’ and ‘Fasssshhhhioooon’, even in death consumed by consumerism. Tom Waits, playing a technophobic drifter named Hermit Bob, decries the way in which people have “sold their souls for a Nintendo Gameboy”. The only way to dispatch them is to cut off their heads, severing all ties to the living world.
Meanwhile, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Bacarau is a riotous tale of a small town resisting invasion from insidious outside forces. In the rural Brazilian community of Baracau, locals gather together to mourn the loss of a central figure in their village. At the same time, they fight the greed of a greasy local politician, and begin to notice strange things are happening that isolate them from the rest of the country. The people of Bacarau, however, will not go down without a fight, and quickly work together to resist the would-be warfare against their numbers. This means getting resourceful in order to outwit the hunting party of tourists who turn up on their doorstep - and for one particularly resourceful resident of Bacarau, that means going straight to the root of the evil and – you guessed it – lopping it right off. A grizzly display warns anyone else who would attempt to destroy the native community of Bacurau to think twice.
Even though these films are the ones that draw the clearest connection between decapitation and resisting capitalism, there were other films decrying the idea that greed is good. From Bong Joon-ho’s biting social satire Parasite to Mati Diop’s enchanting debut feature Atlantique, there was a strong undercurrent of political commentary at the festival. But this comes with its own sense of irony: these films with staunch anti-capitalist messages (including Ken Loach’s new weepie slice of British realism Sorry We Missed You) all launched at Cannes, reserve of the industry’s elite. Stories of hardship and rallying cries against excess wealth were witnessed by audiences in ball gowns and tuxedos worth as much as a small car, followed by glittering after parties with free-flowing drinks.
Jim Jarmusch’s film title, ‘The Dead Don’t Die’, feels more suggestive in retrospect. You can’t kill what’s already dead inside. It’s all very well to rage against the machine, but it remains to be seen how far this anger – so eloquently expressed on screen – serves as a catalyst for audiences.