Three films here in Cannes have held a funhouse mirror up to our relationship with media, and it sure isn’t a pretty sight. Political ads, no matter how well intentioned, are still slickly produced distortions; reality TV encourages a pathological fealty; celebrity culture taken to its extreme will literally make people sick. The trio forms an unintended trilogy of how television can shape, and then warp, our perceptions. And if the medium is the message, then the message is loud and clear: Reality bites.
The best of the bunch is Pablo Larraín’s No, a fascinating study of how savvy TV advertising tools brought democracy to Chile by upending Admiral Augusto Pinochet’s presumed cakewalk referendum in 1988. How do you take a widely feared dictator’s empty commitment to free elections and turn it into a chance for regime change? Start with a catchy jingle. Given only 15 minutes of daily airtime for a month to state the anti-Pinochet platform (which the government only airs at 4am) marketing mastermind Gael Garcia Bernal turns lemon into revolutionary lemonade. His “No” campaign is the happiest, sunniest dissent ever produced, literally filled with rainbows and mimes, and uses marketing jujitsu to coax a terrified public into a brave, motivated force for change. The only problem is the Faustian bargain it releases: democracy may be born as a dictatorship dies, but the midwife is commerce. What’s a vote anyway but just another commodity?
Let’s democratize TV entertainment, too, and make human beings a literal spectacle. Reality, a charming but simplistic film by Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah), follows an Italian family man as he becomes obsessed with getting on the hit show Big Brother. The will-he-or-won’t-he tension is tired and familiar, but Garrone nonetheless makes some nicely crafted points about paranoia, faith, idolatry, charity and self-delusion, and populates his world with just enough gaudy spectacle to make the Jersey Shore guidos and guidettes proud. Plus, the ending eulogizes those looking-glass aspirations with eerie exuberance.
Most stomach-churning, though, is Antiviral, the entry from Brandon Cronenberg (son of body-horror maestro David Conenberg, whose latest provocation Cosmopolis unspools later this week). Brandon adroitly follows in his dad’s footsteps with a sci-fi snapshot of a world where luminaries are so revered that their ailments are bottled for sale to a public eager to become infected. This is adoration to an alarming degree, with butcher stores devoted to growing celebrity cells into long flanks of meat so that fans can devour their favorite stars. One man has even gotten special surgery (and dropped a lot of coin) to have neat rectangular patches of famous skin graphed onto his forearm. The production, though impeccably polished and featuring an abundance of blood, spit, mucous, and puss, misses the mark with underdeveloped characters and a schematic plot. But boy, do those gory ideas and notions linger in the mind. For real.