Cannes 2016 – The Last Face (Sean Penn)

Editor’s note: even though the Cannes festival is now a week behind us, for completion’s sake we include a review of the most derided film in competition, The Last Face by Sean Penn. The ICS has now reviewed every film in competition this year.

One week ago, on the brink of the announcement of the Cannes Film Festival winners, one thing was clear to virtually everybody: Sean Penn’s The Last Face was not going to win anything. Premiering the preceding Friday, the film was met by jeers and unintentional laughter during the early morning press screening, and by nightfall it had the dubious honor of achieving the lowest score ever on Screen‘s Jury Grid. Everybody hated it. And rightfully so.

The Last Face tells the story of Dr. Wren Petersen (Charlize Theron), head of the fictional international aid organization Medicins du Monde, and her love affair with Dr. Miguel Leon (Javier Bardem), a field doctor with another organization, the very real Doctors Without Borders (who can’t be happy with the outcome of this film). Their affair is tumultuous because they have different opinions on how to solve the conflict that surrounds them, but also in no small part because that conflict is the extremely violent civil war in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Forced to evacuate from Liberian capital Monrovia, Petersen and Leon take a band of co-workers and some token locals: two adorable kids, a pregnant woman, and a local doctor (Zubin Cooper, actually Liberian, no less. Perhaps there were others too, but the film can’t bother to paint any African person as anything more than background, save for Cooper’s Dr. Moussa, so who knows). In any case, the team is hijacked on the road and left without transport. After delivering a baby in the middle of the jungle by cesarean section (that somehow inspires Leon to make a move on Petersen), the crew continue on foot, and without much hassle reach a refugee camp in neighboring Sierra Leone. Petersen and Leon fall in love, while around them unspeakable atrocities are committed on black people. A heartwarming thought, romance can bloom everywhere.

But Petersen and Leon are diametrically opposed in their opinions about solutions and prospects for the war waged around them. He is a pragmatist, an excellent and extremely committed doctor. She is the daughter of an NGO founder, the NGO she now leads, who is weary of the bureaucracy of running her organization, and feels more purpose when she is in the thick of relief work as a doctor herself. However, her angst over their work being futile, without any hope for a long-term resolution, slowly gnaws away at their affair. When her cousin Ellen (Adèle Exarchopoulos, whose French accent is just one reason why she is hard to imagine as a cousin of South African Theron) shows up in the refugee camp and declares that she was playing doctor with Leon before Petersen (and incidentally also announces that she is HIV positive), Petersen flees to her lavish family estate, because relief work is fine and all, but love on the rocks trumps everything. Leon follows her, some more cruelty is shown in flashback, Petersen gets to make a rousing speech, and everybody lives happily ever after. Except the little son of Dr. Moussa, who is driven to shoot himself by a rebel militia led by a woman doing her utmost to look like Grace Jones (her underlings look kind of funky too). But the kid is black, and black people are expendable in The Last Face.

This last example illustrates how this tone deaf film misses the mark. Black people, those people to whom Petersen and Leon and the rest of their merry band are so committed, and for whom they would give everything, are reduced to window dressing in The Last Face, only brought up when we, the audience, need to be reminded that, yes, this torrid love affair between Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem is a sweeping roller coaster, but there are more people who suffer. Since in the film’s opening text it had already put the conflicts in West Africa and the impossible love between a man and a woman at roughly the same level of hardship, perhaps we shouldn’t have expected better, but the way the film trivializes said conflicts as the backdrop of a mushy romance would be humorous if it wasn’t so infuriating.

Luckily, to alleviate the shame of its frankly revolting treatment of suffering Africans, The Last Face does provide plenty of humor, albeit of the unintentional kind. If the juxtaposition of the romance and the atrocities wasn’t funny enough in a horrific way, the film offers plenty of other stuff that makes sitting through this pompous monstrosity only half as bad as being hacked to death by a machete. The dialogue in this film has to be heard to be believed. “Before I met Miguel, I was just an idea. I didn’t really exist,” murmurs existentialist philosopher Theron. “Just because you have been inside me, doesn’t mean you know me,” she later confides to her lover in a more prosaic rumination. And these are just two of the many clunkers the film serves up. Jean Reno is reduced to a bit part as Dr. Love (even the script itself recognizes the ridiculousness of his name, as somebody says, “No, really“), left to spout some semi-comedic lines like “It’s not grabbing, it’s loving,” when another character asks if they have to watch Theron and Bardem grabbing each other. Exarchopoulos is given a very short end of the stick when forced to reveal that Petersen is not the first family member ‘treated’ by Dr. Leon, and it is a testament to Exarchopoulos’ talent that she makes it sound halfway believable, though even she cannot overcome the HIV-positive bomb she has to drop. Elsewhere, character actor Jared Harris is left with nothing to do but deliver Bible quotes at appropriate times, and Zubin Cooper is allowed to play ‘wise Negro’ with a few bits of dialogue you could frame and hang on your wall. Characters have a tendency to speak in platitudes. The film’s funniest bit, however, is not a piece of dialogue, but some sort of love scene featuring Javier Bardem, Charlize Theron’s foot, and a pencil, which aims to be sexy but ends up hilarious. Writer Erin Dignam, whose prior claim to fame was the Kristen Stewart-starring The Yellow Handkerchief, has no clue how to write believable dialogue or a compelling story, let alone well-defined characters. Unfortunately, she has another film in the pipeline (Submergence, by Wim Wenders of all people, starring Oscar winner Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy), so beware.

Director Sean Penn shows that, after the insufferably self-important Into the Wild, his directorial career is going from bad to worse with The Last Face. A man who impressed with such personal, small stories as The Crossing Guard and The Indian Runner, Penn seems to have gotten it into his head that he is an auteur who has to make grand, poetic statements. He aims to create an epic, and this film is certainly something of epic proportions. But no matter how many shots of golden-hour African landscapes or Malick-esque shallow focus close-ups he throws at the screen, he cannot overcome the impression that he’s trying to deliver a message of importance, while the audience already knows this message (some people do read the news, Sean), and is mostly distracted by the combination of corny romance and gruesome violence. The Last Face is neither artistic nor does it have anything interesting to say. Beasts of No Nation, Cary Fukunaga’s film from last year that dealt with a similar subject, was not great, but at least it had the decency to not shoehorn in a romance straight out of a dime novel (or is the African misery shoehorned into the romance here?). Compared to The Last Face, Beasts is a masterpiece. There is not a single redeeming quality to this film, and that is in no small part because Penn lacks the directorial skills to hold it together and think less is more. Tonally, the film is all over the place, which is no surprise given that it tries to mix gritty realism with Vaseline-lensed romance. Giving birth in the jungle after just being brutally beaten should be hell, but Penn’s attempts to depict it as such are thwarted by having the baby delivered by a sweaty Theron in a lowcut tank top looking sexy as hell. Luckily, she brought a whole wardrobe on this trip (how she managed this is anyone’s guess), so the soaked garment can be changed for a fresh and fashionable light jacket. Plus a new bandana, because Dr. Petersen has plenty of those in her backpack.

Perhaps Penn was too involved with the subject matter. Known for his humanitarian efforts, Penn’s sincerity is not in doubt, although after seeing this film, perhaps neither is his self-righteousness. But since he actually has been in some of the world’s most dire places, it is incomprehensible that he made The Last Face. Even he must have seen that what he depicts here is far from reality, and the aforementioned scene with Grace Jones’ rebel militia is just one example of a heightened emotionality where realism would be more appropriate. The way these rebels are portrayed, the way the scene is filmed, especially its immediate aftermath, everything is trying to elicit emotions, but one’s senses are too dulled to be moved by it. The cruelty feels artificial, a hammer to hit the audience over the head with. When you step back and think about what this film does, The Last Face becomes infuriating. To use the misery of millions in Africa as the backdrop of a trite love story between two white saviours, one of whom is filthy rich to boot, is extremely insensitive to the situation, and it is baffling that Sean Penn of all people made this film. Sure, his direction of the film may be like his acting (i.e. hammy and unsubtle), but it’s his misjudgement and mishandling of the subject matter that severely disappoints. It’s crappy filmmaking, but even more so, it’s fake humanitarianism and a trivialization of a problem that should be front and center in the film, not background scenery. The Last Face is an affront to cinema, and an affront to good taste.