The last time the Cannes Film Festival dropped a zombie comedy into its coveted opening-night slot, it was 2019, and the movie — Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” — was no big whoop, but it served its purpose. It got this most highfalutin’ of festivals rolling on an agreeable note of macabre cheekiness. Since that was only three years ago, you may wonder why the Cannes programmers decided to open this year’s festival — the hallowed 75th edition — with another rib-nudging absurdist zombie comedy. This one, too, is no big whoop. In fact, “Final Cut (Coupez!)” is barely even a little whoop, or any whoop at all. It’s kind of a slog. But it was directed by Michel Hazanavicius, who made “The Artist,” and it’s a remake of a Japanese zombie comedy, “One Cut of the Dead” (2017), that became a cult sensation. So on paper it looks like the perfect anti-prestigious but self-consciously designed crowd-pleaser.
“Final Cut” is Hazanavicius’s eighth feature, and since he’s considered far from a god in cinephile circles (“The Artist” is routinely dismissed as a blight on the Oscars), let me say for the record that I’ve enjoyed most of them. I love the “OSS 117” retro-spy comedies (featuring Jean Dujardin in a performance sly enough in its myopia to compare to Peter Sellers), I found “The Artist” to be an enchanting bauble (though no, it shouldn’t have won the Oscar), and his Jean-Luc Godard biopic, “Godard Mon Amour,” was, to me, a fascinating deconstruction of Godard’s late-’60s misanthropic bourgeois Marxist narcissism. But “Final Cut” is the first Hazanavicius movie where the filmmaker seems barely in control of what he’s doing. It’s a messy and annoying one-joke movie that repeats the joke over and over again — and guess what, it was barely funny the first time.
At first, we think we’re watching a slovenly French zombie movie, titled “Z,” shot in one weirdly rambling hand-held take on what looks like smeary video, the set an abandoned factory splashed with colors (teal, orange) so high-intensity gaudy that the movie seems almost stylish in its lack of style. In the film we’re watching, zombies attack a film crew that’s shooting a low-budget zombie movie (quel meta absurdité). That puts this squarely in the genre of “Shaun of the Dead,” “Planet Terror” and “The Dead Don’t Die,” except that nothing we see is remotely scary or remotely funny.
There is, however, a great deal of in-your-face random hysteria, as when the film’s director explodes in an abusive manner at his lead actress (Matilda Lutz). One zombie loses an arm, and several characters play catch with the bloody disembodied limb. Heads are split open with an axe, and the makeup woman (Bérénice Bejo), for no good reason, turns out to be a master of the military martial art Krav Maga. Oh, and why does everyone have a Japanese name?
There seem to be no rules to this movie. Time and again, though, it stops to delineate the rules in a laborious fashion, like the fact that they’re shooting on a site where the Japanese army did experiments to bring back the dead, or the murky mythology of the Star of Blood Brotherhood. Most of what we see is simply garish and unpleasant, like a lumbering zombie who spews yellow vomit in someone’s face. The lead actor, painted so blue that he looks like an extra from “Avatar,” keeps gassing on about zombies and capitalism, which of course is George A. Romero’s now nearly 45-year-old joke.
Suddenly the end credits roll, and the fact that we aren’t going to have to watch this movie anymore comes as a vast relief. But then, cutting to a month earlier, we learn how this masterpiece got made. It is, we discover, a 30-minute-long livestreamed web movie, financed by the elderly Mrs. Matsuda (Yoshiko Takehara), who simply wanted her script to get produced. (Hence the Japanese names.)
The director, played by Romain Duris, with his gregarious Mick Jagger-meets-Martin Amis sexiness, is not the angry megalomaniac we thought; he’s a family man trying to reignite his faltering career, which is why he’s willing to take this scuzzy job (and act in the movie). He hires Raphaël (Finnegan Oldfield), who plays Bang the blue zombie, because his daughter tells him that Raphaël is the next Adam Driver. He also hooks up with a producer, Mounir (Lyes Salem), who is such a corner-cutting grade-Z dirtbag, with an amusing resemblance to Tom Jones, that he’s actually the most entertaining person in the movie.
And then — are you ready for this? — we have to sit and watch “Z” all over again. The whole damn thing. Except that now, we know the inside story of the awful movie it is, and we see that everything that happened before was the cast and crew making up the movie as they went along. Which would be a juicy joke if the film, when we’d first seen it, looked like something other than that. But no: What it looked like was…a movie the cast and crew were making up as they went along. So there’s no frisson to the joke. Just a confirmation of our worst instincts. “Final Cut,” in its celebration of the creative innocence of terrible filmmaking, is a movie that, on some level, tries to summon the spirit of “Ed Wood.” The trouble is, it’s like “Ed Wood” made by Ed Wood.