Reeling: From Zombies, with Love

Festival films from around the world tackle economics and the zombie problem.

By Diana Estigarribia
March 28, 2005

My March Madness was about taking in as many “different” films as I could squeeze into my moviegoing schedule. Instead of spring break, I took an “escape from Hollywood,” which included films dealing with natural forces, world economies, father-son relationships, and of course, the ever-present zombie problem.

I did the grand tour of Italy right after college, which is why I was interested in checking out The Venetian Dilemma, a short documentary about that beautiful, magical place that unfortunately is likely to sink into the very canals that make it famous. The film poses the query “city or theme park?”, a question I asked myself when I visited. At the same time that I enjoyed seeing architectural masterworks and taking in the atmosphere of a centuries-old capital, I wondered where the “real” Venetians were.

The people of Venice have a fierce pride and love for their home, but for some, a fatalistic view that the city can’t be saved. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have city officials, hacks or otherwise, trying to drag the city into the 21st Century before it sinks forever into history. Ambitious plans for a metro linking the city with the mainland and projects to erect convention and other business centers are proposed, but you wonder if the famous Italian character can make these decisions, much less begin construction. Down the pub, “regular Joes” or old-timers sing songs with lyrics like “the whole world changes/not Venice/not Venice.” At the end of this doc, we’re no closer to solving the dilemma, but you feel from the filmmakers, who live in Venice part of the year, a sense of desperate impatience tempered by love for a still great city.

To France then, my next celluloid destination, for director Clair Denis’s The Intruder (L’Intrus) . Denis career includes stints as an A.D. on films by Jarmusch and Wenders. Perhaps her best-known film is 1999’s Beau Travail, “Billy Budd” transferred to one corner of the French foreign legion in Africa. Some find that film a little too psychological and abstract, but I thought the scenes of daily army life to be riveting and the cinematography spectacular.

For those of you who’ve seen Beau Travail or her other films, I can’t say that L’Intrus is any less abstract…that is, if you like having your story and plot completely spelled out. Denis’s story follows a man’s man who, in order to capture his fading youth, “orders” a new heart, gets a transplant, then leaves France to find his long lost son in the south Pacific. When he gets to his island paradise, he finds he’s gone around the world for a son who wants nothing to do with him, health that continues to fail him, and ultimately, losing the son he’s already got.

Although the script and the images are elusive and enigmatic, there’s still plenty to go on visually. The film begins at an armed border crossing, and you soon piece together that the comely border guard is the main character’s daughter-in-law. Also, in sequences set at night in the forested area around the man’s house, you get glimpses of illegals trying to cross into France without getting chewed by attack dogs or shot by police. Better yet, one night the man’s own wily pets detect someone near his cabin, and he takes a hunting knife to the guy’s throat, then buries him out in the valley. Then, of course, there’s the heart transplant — the organ itself is an “intruder” in the man’s body, because there’s no guarantee that the body will accept the new heart. A movie called “the intruder” can’t possibly announce its intentions any clearer than in these examples.

Which is not to say it always makes sense. But it’s not for those who like Act 1-Act 2-Act 3, cut-and-dried storytelling. Denis’s films are usually violent and tense, even lurid affairs, and L’Intrus doesn’t disappoint. So even if you’re sitting there not knowing what’s going on, you’re guaranteed guns, blood, exotic locales, nudity, sex — if only we lived in a world where she could direct a Bond film!

For a more traditional movie then we turn to Live-In Maid (Cama Adentro), a film from first time director Jorge Gaggero of Argentina, the kind of “classic” old Hollywood film that isn’t made anymore — at least not in Hollywood. The film is the story of Beba, a vain, formerly-well off divorced woman who finds it difficult to live at the level she’s accustomed to in the face of the Argentine financial crisis. She hasn’t paid her live-in maid, Dora, in six months, though out of loyalty (and waiting for a better opportunity) Dora continues to stick it out. After weighing her options, Dora decides to take a chance on living with her boyfriend, and she makes good on her threat to quit. But after nearly 30 years of service, the relationship between employer and employee has morphed into one resembling daughter/mother/sister/friend, and they both find it very hard to let go of the other.

What I liked about the movie is Gaggero’s obvious skill with actors. He keeps performances natural and limits scenery-chewing, except when the scene calls for some comedy. He never glosses over Beba’s behavior — she can be selfish and maddeningly stubborn — yet he also builds sympathy for her situation, like when she’s so down-on-her-luck that one by one, Beba loses her still-rich friends, the lights get turned off, pawns her possessions, and ultimately, gets kicked out of her apartment. It makes Argentina’s financial troubles very personal and immediate. The movie is also funny as hell — and the two actors, Oscar-nominated Norma Aleandro and Norma Argentina, shine in their roles. If he’s thusly motivated, Gaggero could make light comedies or even big-time dramas stateside, if Hollywood recruits him.

Finally, there is They Came Back (Les Revenants). This French film asks, What would happen if one day, 70 million dead people worldwide reappeared, as if they had never died? That is in fact the film’s opening scene, as hundreds of men, women, even children, return to their homes. They literally stop traffic — their slow, zombie gait down Le Main Street is funny and intriguing (why is it that the living dead can never walk fast?) The still-alive herd the dead into refugee shelters, where they can be identified and reunited with their loved ones.

Meanwhile, the community wonders how it will re-integrate the formerly dead back into society. We follow the town mayor, whose elderly wife has returned; a couple whose six-year-old son is among the reanimated; and Rachel, a young woman who lost her boyfriend two years ago in a car accident. Rachel’s case is interesting in that she is in no hurry to find out if her boyfriend, Matthieu, is back; a lot of people are confused about what they should feel, do, or say. Complicating matters is the zombie’s strange behavior.

Tests reveal that the dead have come back stronger and healthier. They are completely intact with no horror-movie type stuff — no white/greenish pallor, missing limbs, or exposed entrails to be seen anywhere. The dead don’t need to sleep and they have endless energy. The community floats infrared cameras above the town, mounted on weather balloons, to monitor their movements. Pretty soon we realize the dead are walking in discernible patterns, and a whole bunch of them have regular meetings. What could they possibly be up to?

Not much, it turns out. A doctor crosses paths with Rachel and Matthieu, who he initially met at the center. But without any malevolent evidence he can’t convince Rachel to keep a closer eye on Matthieu, even though he’s one of the regulars at the clandestine Dead People meetings. And when the dead set off a series of bombs throughout the city, it’s not the bloody confrontation we expect (or even hope for). The dead’s only motivation is to escape through underground tunnels— though for what purpose it’s never explained.

They Came Back is a good idea; it spins the whole zombie movie concept into an art-house exercise, but ultimately, it’s undeveloped. Plus, the pacing is hardly faster than the leaden zombie walk. The living seemed more dead than the dead themselves. There isn’t enough dramatic conflict in the film; for example, how about making the concerned doctor Rachel’s new boyfriend? Then he’d have a personal reason for suspecting Matthieu. It’d also makes more sense in the face of Rachel’s initial reluctance to find Matthieu. Also, the couple with the son might have had another child, in the intervening years, possibly setting up some nice drama between living sibling and dead sibling. By the end of the movie, when the zombies are gassed with a drug that puts them into irreversible coma (a sloppy deus ex machina that’s not earned), you wish somebody had eaten some flesh or busted through a window, or something.

The films Live-In Maid and Les Revenants are currently screening as part of The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art’s annual “New Directors/New Films” festival in New York.