Sean Penn lost the audience for his newest directorial effort, The Last Face, less than a minute into its debut press screening this morning at Cannes. As the opening title cards, laid over an educational map of Africa, prepared us for action set during the second Liberian Civil War in 2003, a second set of title cards in a more lyrical italicized font flashed onscreen, comparing that crisis with a similar crisis in South Sudan a decade later, and that conflict to "the brutality of impossible love shared by a man" — fade to black, wait for it — "… and a woman." There was a millisecond pause for shock before much of the audience burst out laughing.
Advance interest in The Last Face has centered around the now-ended relationship between Penn and his leading lady, Charlize Theron, who reportedly
ghosted on broke up with him days after they'd walked the red carpet together at her Mad Max: Fury Road premiere last year at Cannes. Talk about returning to the scene of the crime. And, hoo boy, they did not seem like amicable exes at this afternoon's press conference (more on that later). But at least for today, speculation over their interpersonal relations has had to take a back seat to the movie's absolutely derisive reception.
The overwrought language of Erin Dignam's script moves right from the title cards to the opening scene, set in 2013, with Theron's humanitarian doctor, Wren, getting ready for a big speech as her lover, Miguel (Javier Bardem), whispers reassurance that her words are "just to remind them what human nature is capable of." There's a soft-focus close-up on him nuzzling her neck, and then on their hands intertwined — she's wearing a ring that doesn't look like a wedding ring, but what does it mean?! — and then back to her face, as it streams with tears. Wren, we learn in voice-over, lost her father, who ran a medical-aid organization. "Every day I dreamt of how I would make my mark on the world, how I would save the world," she says/thinks, then spells out who's saved her. "Before I met Miguel, I was an idea I had. I didn't really exist." Now, she knows who she is.
In the midst of struggling with how to root for this hard-charging lady doctor who says she was just a shadow until a man came into her life, we also get to see The Last Face join the long, proud tradition of movies about African or African-American struggle told through the eyes of white protagonists. We're thrown back in time to a war zone in Monrovia, Liberia, where Wren and Miguel meet-cute while treating patients in hospital beds. This is right after her father's death, and she's an out-of-practice doctor who's returned to the field to decide if it's safe for her father's organization to stay there. Penn showed in Into the Wild that he can be a visceral, kinetic director, and the bloody war scenes are often unflinching, horrifying, and filmed with the knowledge and respect of someone who's both witnessed such wreckage and sincerely cares, as Penn has demonstrated with his personal relief efforts for the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina. He shot in actual refugee camps with actual refugees as extras. Some of those images are seared into my brain, as are descriptors of child soldiers fed mixtures of amphetamines and hallucinogens and convinced that eating enemies' hearts will make them invincible. But the second he attempts to tell the love story of these white saviors to these mostly anonymous Africans, things turn from sappy to downright offensive.
How can we count the ways? Well, there's the time Wren, Miguel, and the gang give an emergency C-section to a woman with a machete wound they find in the jungle, and Wren's medical prowess is enough to make Miguel try to kiss her. Or the time when a white NGO worker is dancing around a fire with a beautiful African woman and remarks to Miguel, "they stripped her from her vagina to her anus, but she's here, with me, dancing." Good for you, buddy. Or that time the movie cuts straight from a modern-day love scene to another voice-over about rape. Or the entire movie, when we're watching these white people find their self-actualization through either saving or witnessing the horrific deaths of Africans who never have a speaking role bigger than sixth or seventh billing.
The long and the short is that Miguel's constitution made him stay in the field, while Wren came back to run her father's organization and give big speeches in front of orchestras to wealthy donors about how we all have dreams and we need to protect the dreams of refugees (that part did make me cry). Ten years have passed, and he can't get her out of his mind.
I counted at least two more times the audience broke into shocked snickers: first, when Wren jokes that she needs to "grab" someone to marry, and a fellow doctor, played by legend Jean Reno and named, really, Dr. Love, shouts back, "It is not grabbing! It is loving!" Second, when Miguel apologizes to Wren for an affair by saying, "I did tell her I loved her, but I never meant I loved her the way I love you." There should also be a drinking game for every time Wren yells at Miguel some variant of "Love me? You don't even know me!" (Literally: "Being inside of me doesn't mean you know me!" Take another shot!)
Don't just take my word for it. There were scattered boos at lights up, though not as spirited as those for Personal Shopper and The Neon Demon. And the reviews so far have been scathing. Eric Kohn of Indiewire writes: "Even without its mopey, painfully on-the-nose dialogue and ponderous story, The Last Face sets itself up for failure with its premise, and Penn's apparent inability to recognize it as such. It's his worst movie." David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter called it a "stunningly self-important but numbingly empty cocktail of romance and insulting refugee porn."
From there, we were on to analyzing the body language of Penn and Theron in their press conference that afternoon. The two never interacted or even looked at each other as far as I could tell, and Bardem and Blue Is the Warmest Color star Adèle Exarchopoulos, who plays another doctor, seemed to have been placed strategically on the dais between them. Asked about the "mixed" reaction, Penn replied, "I’ve finished the film so it’s not a discussion that I can be of any value to. I stand behind the film as it is, and certainly everybody is going to be entitled to their response." He also said that once the film screened for the public later that night, he'd consider his job done.
Later, he artfully dodged the question of why he'd picked Theron for the role, saying that he'd been aware of the script for years, but when he read it again, "imagining her in it, it took a very big turn with what I thought was the overall tone of the film, so I saw it as something I wanted to do. It had not been something I had considered doing previously." Plus, he'd been particularly excited to see Theron and Bardem together. "I’m just a big fan of great performances and that’s what they are."
But it was his response to a question about managing egos that seemed ripest for interpretation. "Your first challenge is dealing with your own ego on anything that you’re doing," Penn began, then said, "There are people at this table that are so extraordinarily humble and we all benefited from that. Each in their own personality’s way, everybody cared tremendously." Was he specifically referring to Theron as humble, or specifically calling out other members who were more humble than her by comparison? Was she rolling her eyes on the inside when he talked about his own ego? It's too speculative to say, but Theron did not linger for even a second at the end of the press conference, and Penn was the last to leave the room. Maybe he doesn't even know her.