CANNES – Adding the title of “film critic” to his well-strung bow of professional achievements, actor-writer-director-artist-musician-academic-activist-probable-ceramicist James Franco recently spoke up for this year’s Cannes opener, Baz Luhrmann’s flash-and-sizzle adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” against the predictable armada of critics dismissing it. “These people make their living doing readings and critiques of texts in order to generate theories of varying levels of competency,” he wrote for VICE magazine. “Luhrmann”s film is his reading and adaptation of a text – his critique, if you will.”
It was a fair and thoughtful defense of a fellow artist that he was under no obligation to defend — though I do wonder if it was also something of a pre-emptive strike, having appeared online not even a week before his own skeptically-anticipated adaptation of a Great American Novel, William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” was set to premiere at the same festival.
If so, it’s an optimistic one. Alternating between the textually straight-ahead and the stylistically mannered, Franco’s “As I Lay Dying” is hardly a critique of Faulkner’s furious study of mud-class mourning, while as interpretation, it’s timid at best, taking the emotional accents of its irony-strewn, often bitterly funny source very much at face value. If he seems cowed by the material, that is as pretty much any filmmaker — let alone one of Franco’s modest abilities — would and should feel. Yet the film’s staid CliffsNotes approach is still a surprise coming from this restless Yale literature graduate, whose previous directorial efforts have been less competent and often more compellingly self-styled.
If you haven’t read it — and I admit it’s been a good 15 years since I have, so I’m grazing a paperback as I write — Faulkner’s novel turns a simple family tragedy into something considerably more prismatic and resonant by dint of sheer literary exhaustiveness. The story of the cursed Bundren family and their addled quest to bury their mother in her fictional home town of Jefferson, Mississippi sprouts a near-comical number of subsidiary misfortunes along the way: mental breakdowns, drowned livestock, an unwanted pregnancy discovered and troublingly treated, a leg broken and gruesomely amputated. (Small wonder the erstwhile onscreen Aron Ralston responded to it.) All the while, perspective is passed like a relay baton between multiple participants in the unhappy proceedings.
“Unfilmable” is one of my least favorite adjectives in criticism — as a shorthand term for conveying degree of difficulty, it’s only scarcely less imaginative or accurate than “unwriteable.” But Faulkner’s whirling modernist landmark comes closer than most to meriting it, both for the pragmatic challenge of maintaining 15 narrative voices (as spread across 59 chapters) on screen, and the artistic one of finding suitable visual and rhythmic reflectors of the novel’s bracing, racing interior monologues that don’t simply translate it into reams of turgid voiceover.
In transcribing Faulkner’s busy catalogue of misery to the scripted page, Franco and co-writer (and former college bud) Matt Rager have remained — within reason — loyal to the text, necessarily reducing or even eschewing a number of secondary characters (some of them rather dry) without throwing the novel’s rambling, episodic structure out with the bathwater. On an incident-by-incident basis, comprehensibility may be an issue for readers unacquainted with the novel (or indeed with Faulkner), though the overall accumulation of abuse and despair is more the point, and registers with grimace-inducing clarity. (The book’s stony humor, however, mostly falls by the wayside, until a final scene that is rather too breezily played.)
His chief formal stroke is less confident and considerably more bothersome. Having wisely kept voiceover a scant imposition in a treatment that’s stodgy enough without it, Franco has settled on a theoretically emphatic non-verbal method to convey the presence of multiple perspectives in the narrative: a split screen, in which cinematographer Christina Voros keeps the action in both halves judderingly handheld.
This Russian-doll stacking of visual affectations can be maddening, making veritable pinballs of your pupils as they puzzle over where to look, but you can at least grant the technique a kind of Filmmaking 101 tidiness on the occasions where the two duelling images reflect two scene partners’ opposing points of view, or even a chronological split. More often than not, however, Franco forgets such thematic purpose in favor of redundant frilliness: the same image held in close-up and long shot, for example, with the occasional unmotivated cut to the sky — just to keep us on our toes, and our nerves on edge. (The filmmaking elsewhere, meanwhile, is pretty rudimentary, with the rich environmental textures of Faulkner’s faux-Mississippi rendered merely wheaty by stifling HD.)
Hemmed into this naively academic framework, the cast seem a secondary concern, though they mostly get by: as callous patriarch Anse, Tim Blake Nelson somewhat overdoes the Cletus Spuckler-isms, though conjures pathetic menace in his best scenes. As two of the younger, more fragile Bundrens, Ahna O’Reilly and Logan Marshall-Green (looking more than ever like Tom Hardy beneath a spiky thatch of facial hair) give some individual flicker to their characters beyond the page (either Franco’s or Faulkner’s).
The weakest link in the ensemble, disappointingly, is Franco himself, who retains a smirky remove even during Darl Bundren’s most emotionally bare scenes — though he does at least give himself the best close-ups. You might say that remove characterizes Franco’s direction, too: sporadically clever as his treatment is, he never seems all that invested in the novel except as a particularly challenging exercise for his ongoing artistic self-invention. Challenge passed, then. “As I Lay Dying” is not unfilmable; it has been filmed, and with competence at that. But the task of creating a film even obliquely equal to the rageful literary brazenness of Faulkner remains a hopeless task that Franco, with nothing to lose, should have attacked with the hell-for-leather eccentricity of his more flamboyant performances and art pieces. “As I Lay Dying” is the rare film that might have been better for being a bigger failure.