Cannes 2016: The Last Face

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Cannes has produced its first unqualified disaster. Sean Penn’s The Last Face plays out like a satire of terrible Sean Penn films: a risible love story, crude and incurious politics, unintentionally laugh-out-loud dialogue, and a highly questionable white guilt agenda viewed through the prism of gung-ho humanitarian intervention. It resembles an advert for UN peacekeeping. It is remarkably bad. The disparity between Penn’s earnestness and his filmmaking ability is galling, and for a film that is so po-faced it achieves the distinction of being frequently boring but also intermittently hilarious.

Events are told in flashback, as the director of an international aid agency Wren Petersen (played by Charlize Theron, who looks for the nearest exit at every opportunity) prepares to speak at a lavish awards ceremony. She recalls her past work for an emergency relief NGO during a barely identified civil conflict in Africa, meanwhile contemplating her relationship with the roguish Miguel Leon (Javier Bardem), a brilliant field doctor. This love affair becomes the fulcrum of the film, subordinating the themes of geopolitics and war to a romanticised backdrop, acting as a mere inconvenience for their fated bond. For a story supposedly about them, the black characters barely get a chance to speak. One climactic scene occurs so clumsily that the emotional resonance is nonexistent. There is further intended to be some sort of ideological tension between Wren and Leon, though any possible conflict of ideas is demonstrated through the pair’s regularly inaudible, semi-articulate growls and ludicrous histrionics. The politics are juvenile, the love story laughable.

There is a lot more wrong. Two supporting characters, Ellen and Dr Mehmet Love, played respectively by Adèle Exarchopoulos (a former Cannes winner, no less) and Jean Reno, are reduced to ill-conceived bubbles of oxygen. Both draw the biggest gasps of incredulity. Ellen’s shock revelation is inserted halfway through from a different planet, and Dr Love delivers excruciating pearls of wisdom, including one on romance: “It is not grabbing. It is loving.” Often after lines of this ilk Penn produces a close-up of the other actors. A look of dumbfounded numbness is the stock expression. No one knows what anyone is talking about, least Penn himself, who insistently uses an out-of-focus lens perhaps to demonstrate the characters’ myopic emotional state. It looks terrible and is a magnet of irritation. Elsewhere, teeth brushing passes as a motif, which optimistically sounds avant garde but categorically is not. Some of the blame must be attached to the screenwriter Erin Dignam, whose screenplay manages to display not one ounce of wit, imagination or self-awareness, producing some astonishingly transparent, convoluted and tortured narration. In this film, nothing is sacred. An embarrassment.