Cannes Report: Day Nine Brings A Triumph, A Travesty, And A Turtle

The Croisette has begun to empty out as the Cannes Film Festival lurches into day nine, with power agents and industry types flocking back to their luxury office spaces in New York and Los Angeles, and the members of the press with weaker constitutions returning from whence they came as well. Dedicated journalist as I am, I’ve committed for the long haul (read: I didn’t know that the last Competition screening is tomorrow morning, and scheduled a flight for Monday afternoon) and have no intention of losing steam now. Running on fumes, bargain pad thai, and a nightly allotment of five-ish sleep-hours, I soldier forth.

Those parties that chucked up the deuce early seriously missed out, too; day nine delivered a lower-tier masterpiece, but even more stirringly, it also brought the hands-down worst film of the festival thus far. With his latest directorial effort The Last Face, Sean Penn neatly bundles all of the most irritating aspects of his persona as an artist, activist, and public figure into one screamingly miscalculated package. The neologism of “voluntourism,” a term referring to the phenomenon of first world people offering their services to countries in need as a means of self-discovery, self-actualization and other fundamentally self-ish concerns, was coined just in time to help articulate just why this movie should have remained a wish-fulfillment fantasy in Penn’s head, its clear point of origin.

While ostensibly centered on the lamentable conditions of politically unstable Liberia, this deliciously overacted romance relegates the black lives allegedly precious enough to risk everything for to props and set-dressing. If Sean Penn is your annoying college buddy who won’t stop posting pictures of himself smiling beatifically next to solemn-faced, dark-skinned children on Facebook, then The Last Face is the photo album that finally drives you to block him.

The unintended cruelty-laughs start early, with an opening title card that lays out the story to come as a tale of war-torn Africa that can only be understood through “the love between a man… [dramatic pause during which entire millennia could have passed] and a woman.” That man is Miguel León (Javier Bardem), an idealistic super-surgeon who holds fast to the belief that a group of committed individuals saving one life at a time can make a cumulative difference. The woman is Wren Petersen (Charlize Theron, Penn’s finacée during production, though they have since separated — could this film’s epic proportions of badness really have driven them apart?), the daughter to a medical-relief NGO founder, now taking over the family business. She sees futility even in their isolated successes, and the ideological differences between the two prove to be a major turn-on. In between heated arguments one harsh word away from erupting into domestic violence, they strike up a passionate love affair and gaze sadly at the dying black children, one of whom is permitted to speak. Spoiler alert, I guess, but he dies.

The film jam-packs too much ridiculousness into its two hours to fully enumerate here, what with two more films to cover in this day’s report, but suffice it to say that when a character announces she has HIV and the audience bursts into cackles, someone has made one or two or eighteen wrong turns. Penn has stated that securing distribution for this risible loaf of condescension, manipulation, and exploitation would be dependent upon positive reviews out of the festival, so it now looks like it may never see the light of day. If that be the case, then it shall be enshrined as Cannes legend, a star-studded a-bomb with the most hilarious tooth-brushing-as-foreplay scene to ever grace the Grand Palais.

After the colossal tone-deafness of Penn’s salute to his own rugged nobility, the back-to-basics simplicity of tender feature The Red Turtle restored a bit of dignity to the cinematic form. With Studio Ghibli godhead Hayao Miyazaki now out of the game, doubt had spread as to the future of Japan’s most successful, popularly beloved animation house. But just as Apple survived the loss of Steve Jobs, Ghibli has taken Miyazaki’s retirement as an opportunity to move in unexpected new directions, neither surpassing their previous achievements or slipping in terms of quality and heartrending poignancy.

They found a secret weapon in Dutch animator Michael Dudok De Wit, helming his first full-length feature with a clarity of vision that belies his inexperience. Summoning despair and hope with varying shades of grey and zero dialogue, he flays every adornment from the picture until all that’s left is a penetrating, sincere haiku about a family unit and their love for one another.

A man bobs like a cork in a violent sea, washing up on the shores of a deserted island. We know nothing about him, and learn nothing more over the course of the film. Even without a name, without backstory, without speech, he’s still a fully-formed character with clear objectives and a transformative personal arc. Specifically, he wants to return home, but the crude rafts he keeps fashioning get busted up whenever he leaves the confines of the island by the oddly-colored leatherback that lends the film its title. In the picture’s most identifiably Ghibliesque touch, the turtle transforms into a beautiful woman after it beaches itself, and together, the two of them turn what was once a prison of solitude into a kind and loving Eden.

There’s not much more to it than that, its minimalism a double-edged sword that both mars this as a slight production while also keeping the film bedtime-story simple. It won’t bowl anyone over with the swooning mysticism of Miyazaki’s greatest, or even the finely-wrought artistry of the Takahata productions (give The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya a look, why don’t you), but The Red Turtle makes a convincing case for the continued well-being of Maison Ghibli as it challenges itself to do and be more while using less and less.

Speaking of strong track records: Iran’s premier dramatist Asghar Farhadi has never made anything less than a great movie in his life, and if his new triumph The Salesman is any indicator, he’s not going to any time soon. Sharply intuitive of human nature and its attendant follies that make us such frustrating, lovable creatures, the master has once again sketched an agonizing double-portrait of modern Iran and the ordinary people trying to survive under it.

In the filmography of Farhadi, innocent mistakes drop like pebbles into a pond and ripple outward, spawning more disastrous consequences as an unfortunate situation conspires against the people responsible for it. The only crime of which stage actress Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti, trembling like a leaf clinging to a tree) is guilty is buzzing her husband into their apartment building and leaving the door ajar so he may enter their newly-signed pad. But this alone invites untold tragedy into her home and sets in motion a series of events that could destroy the peaceful domestic status quo she and her husband Emad (Shahab Hosseini) have worked so hard to establish.

With the even-keeled plotting of a crime procedural — this might as well be the all-time greatest episode of Law And Order: SVU: Iran — Farhadi unspools a scandal obscured both by his own deft creative hand and the restrictive social codes of his home nation, where a woman reporting a crime runs the risk of inviting public shame upon herself. Eggshells underfoot, Rana and Emad attempt to move forward with their staging of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, but the ugly truth won’t be ignored so easily.

The appearance of dramaturgy within the film, by the way, feels like the culmination of all that Farhadi has achieved to date; with a background in the theater and modestly-produced character-driven stories that could be easily translated to the proscenium, this play represents the purest expression of his artistic identity and also contributes some satisfying parallels with the narrative playing out beyond the boards. That, and it sets up a scene that adds “excruciating discomfort” to Farhadi’s already-diverse tonal repertoire. Probably the safest bet at the festival, Iran’s finest continues to remind audiences that no amount of stylistic flash can supplant the virtues of devoted acting, a meticulously constructed script, and steady-handed direction.

Tomorrow: Our adventure comes to a close with the final Competition screening, the erotic thriller Elle from director Paul Verhoeven (the guy behind Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers, should I keep going) and I make my semi-informed, semi-crackpot predictions for the outcomes of the festival’s awards categories, including my pick for the Palme d’Or. Not to give it all away now, but I clock the odds of The Last Face waltzing away with the top prize as between “slim” and “nil.”