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Cannes 2022: Final Cut

The highlight of this year's Cannes opening ceremony was a sudden appearance by the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who spoke to the audience by live feed toward the end of the event. He spoke in Ukrainian, and what little French I understand is not nearly enough to have followed the translation laid over his address in Debussy theater, where members of the press watched the ceremony on a simulcast. But it was clear that he sought to make the war's stakes concrete for a glammed-up audience that was in the process of kicking off a two-week celebration of movies. France 24, among other publications, quoted him as referencing Charlie Chaplin and "The Great Dictator," which Chaplin released in 1940. "We need a new Chaplin to prove today that cinema is not mute," France 24 quoted Zelensky as saying. "Will cinema keep quiet, or will it speak up? Can cinema stay outside of this?"

He wasn't the only one who indicated that the festival was being held at a troubling time. Forest Whitaker, who won the best-actor prize at Cannes for Clint Eastwood's "Bird" in 1988, received an honorary Palme tonight. Typically soft-spoken, he was difficult to hear under the French spoken over him, but he cited the pandemic and protests and said that "for years we'll be processing the trauma" of the present. In a second speech, when the festival president, Pierre Lescure, officially gave him his Palme, Whitaker expressed nostalgia, recalling how walking the red carpet this evening had made memories from 1988 come flooding back. "I can still here the chants—'Clint!' 'Clint!'" he said.

The ceremony, capped by Zelensky's speech and an appearance by Julianne Moore, who officially declared the festival "ouvert," was immediately followed by a screening of "Final Cut," the opening film, directed by Michel Hazanavicius ("The Artist"). In French, "Final Cut" was originally titled "Z (Comme Z)"—that is, Z (Like Z)—but the title was changed to "Coupez!" (cut!) because the letter Z has become a symbol used by Russians to support the war against Ukraine. But "Final Cut" is a meta-movie, and multiple titles appear onscreen at different points. It certainly didn't help, and was especially appalling following the speech by Zelensky, that the very first title we see is, in fact, "Z."

"Final Cut" is a remake of a Japanese movie that premiered in 2017 called "One Cut of the Dead," and if you know that film, there's absolutely no reason to see this one. Both versions are difficult to discuss without giving too much away, but both open with (what looks like) a 30-minute single take of a movie crew filming a zombie thriller; during that time, the crew and the actors get attacked by actual zombies. Or so it seems. That sequence is a strange and sustained bit of screen comedy, and part of what makes it so distinctive in the original is its gracelessness. It's supposed to look like the work of a talentless journeyman filmmaker attempting a high-wire act far beyond his skill set. Romain Duris plays the director character in "Final Cut." He typically works on projects like infomercials and re-enactments. His goal, he says, is to make things that are "fast, cheap and decent."

"One Cut of the Dead" had its dull stretches, but it got away with a lot more because of its low budget; it compensated for a lack of resources with cleverness. That means that doing a glossy, widescreen cover of it is a fatally flawed idea. You might as well remake "The Blair Witch Project" with a $100 million budget. And Hazanavicius, who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing, has barely modified the material, going beat by beat through the sorts of jokes that can really only be funny once.

It's something of a mystery that Shinichiro Ueda, the comparatively inexperienced director of "One Cut of the Dead," showed markedly better timing than the Oscar-winning Hazanavicius for every single gag. Hazanavicius's biggest change is to give the French-speaking characters Japanese names, for a reason that is eventually explained (but makes no sense). Only Bérénice Bejo, playing Duris's character's wife—an out-of-practice actress who had a habit of getting a little too intense with her roles—seems to muster any energy, although all the cast members are upstaged by a single shot of an exhausted-looking crew member covered in blood. She got the film's only laugh from me.

If Cannes 2022's first night began by evoking cinema's capacity to rise to the occasion, it concluded with a movie that has no reason to exist.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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