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Beheadings, castration, and death by flamethrower: was this the most violent Cannes yet?

Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Where other editions of Cannes have gone big on hardcore sex, hefty political messaging or any number of more esoteric themes, 2019’s festival, as it draws to a close, stands out mainly as a most violent year. While no single film has contained quite the remorseless shock value of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, which induced appalled walkouts last year, the cumulative atrocities shown — all of them by male directors, of course — have totted up to a fairly winding bombardment.

What have we gone through here, and why? Characters have had their heads blown apart point-blank by shotguns, cleanly severed, or beaten to an unrecognisable pulp. They’ve had their throats slit in posh hotel rooms. They’ve been castrated by a dog, or clubbed to death, or stabbed by kitchen knives or meat skewers, or had broken bottles shoved through the face. Arms and legs have been lopped off, then stuffed into suitcases and buried.

A screaming teenager has been incinerated by flamethrower, and an umbrella used to impale someone through the torso, then opened once it was all the way through. A nose has been impacted into a girl’s face by a hurled can of dog food. Roughly the same experience of having one’s head repeatedly and fatally mashed against a stone ledge has been enjoyed by a seagull and a human female, in different films. This wasn’t Selena Gomez. Something else, not much prettier, happened to her.

Some sources of this unbridled slaughter have been more surprising than others. Everyone knows Nicolas Winding Refn’s presence in Cannes, following the booed grotesqueries of The Neon Demon and Only God Forgives, is likely to spell some level of horrific provocation, and the two screened episodes of his TV web show Too Old to Die Young did not let the side down.

Similarly, everyone expects Quentin Tarantino to let rip at some point, and while he takes his time getting there in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the contained bloodbath he unleashes at the end is his career’s most jaw-droppingly grisly set piece, even topping the car-wreck shocker in Death Proof.

Bullet-stewn: Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor

Les Miserables, Ladj Ly’s furious police-corruption drama, takes a leaf out of Training Day, while The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio’s biopic of a Cosa Nostra informant, is topped and tailed by the kind of bullet-strewn Mafia gang wars films have loved to show since the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. If you want to watch an expensively cassocked priest mown down in a vestry by two tommy guns – and who doesn’t? – there’s no better place.

What has tipped gore and body counts over the top this year, though, is the determination of usually more circumspect filmmakers to join the party, serving up their own gruesome genre trappings before they go out of style. Jim Jarmusch’s splattery curtain-raiser The Dead Don’t Die set the tone on the first night, going full Romero with its zombie-pulverising shotgun sprees, and equipping Tilda Swinton’s Scottish undertaker with a much-flashed samurai sword, just for the hell of it. The film slices up most of its big-name cast without batting an eyelid.

Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho, his previous films tense but contained, engineers a John-Carpenter-esque genre invasion in the peaceful village setting of his siege thriller Bacurau, which makes the second half increasingly play out like the Jean-Claude Van Damme action movie Hard Target — a kind of human safari with high-tech assault rifles. Even Deerskin, a seemingly goofy French curio about Jean Dujardin’s obsession with a deerskin jacket, gradually turns him homicidal.

Violence in these films has been the buzz topic in almost every instance. Whoops greeted the Tarantino set pieces, including a couple of more knockabout earlier ones, and Mike Moh’s amusing scene on set as a vainglorious Bruce Lee. But at what point does the action cease being just for fun and start — successfully or otherwise —  to make any serious points? This has been a critical transition a lot of the films have struggled with. Reviews have been split on whether Bacurau clinches its satirical points by going over the top, or botches the blend of two tones.

Other films have announced from the start that we’re in a stylised, unreal genre environment, like Diao Yinan’s neon-soaked manhunt thriller The Wild Goose Lake, but wind up never transcending the formula they’ve picked. The gender split, with a couple of harsh exceptions, has tipped, in businesslike sort of way, towards male-on-male violence more than male-on-female or female-on-anyone. And it hasn’t been sexual violence, very much, except in the case of a gay gang rape in the Refn I’ve had described to me only with pained grimacing.

There’s never been one “right” tolerance level or moral threshold for what we’re put through as viewers, just a range of justifications we might put forward for whether it’s all necessary. I personally wouldn’t touch a frame of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a comprehensively madcap social satire which brings impeccable precision to the fray: every touch, even the most savage, seems impressively under control.

By contrast, Tarantino goes overboard. Late on though it is, the transition from warm, textured, richly enjoyable nostalgia to indulgence of his usual impulses is an ugly lurch: as with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained before it, he has hijacked history, less to engage with it fully than hand himself a gleeful get-out-of-jail-free card.

When Tarantino rocked up to Cannes in 1994 with Pulp Fiction, up against a competition slate dominated by largely-forgotten arthouse period dramas, his trashy bravura socked it to everyone, and he won the Palme d’Or.

Twenty five years on, all these other guys are up to the same tricks. And figuring out how to keep your film’s ideas intact, even amid the operatic carnage, is what’s actually sorting out the men from the boys.