Some movies are so bad they become entertaining. Some movies are terrible in a way that makes you wonder how their makers could have failed to notice what a misguided path they were following. And some movies are not just awful, but galling. “The Last Face,” Sean Penn’s fifth film as director, falls into the last category.
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Penn is undeniably an excellent actor, but this has no bearing on the movies he directs, since he does not star in them. His four pictures so far – “The Indian Runner” (1991), “The Crossing Guard” (1995), “The Pledge” (2001) and “Into the Wild” (2007) – all showed him to be a talented director. They were serious, even wise films, though occasionally hampered by their own presumption.
Beyond acting and directing, Penn is also a political and social activist who comes swiftly to the aid of disaster-stricken regions (such as Haiti or post-Katrina New Orleans). Given his involvement in such work, I would not have expected him to make a movie as ludicrous and exasperating as “The Last Face,” in which his filmmaking talents seem to have collided with his social and political conscience, resulting in their mutual annihilation.
I watched “The Last Face” at a press screening at the Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or. I can’t remember another screening of this kind so quickly interrupted by catcalls and contemptuous laughter – aroused in this case by an opening caption that compared the suffering of the refugees in civil-war-ravaged West Africa to the romantic suffering of a man and a woman. The loud expressions of scorn continued throughout the movie, reaching a peak at its end. The film went on to be uniformly savaged by reviewers after it opened in theaters in France and elsewhere. American distributors – who before the Cannes debut believed that “The Last Face” would become a major Oscar contender – thus decided to send it straight to video.
Indeed, “The Last Face” is almost unbelievable in its lack of conceptual and emotional self-awareness. It is not possible to recount here the film’s many failures, including the dialogue (written by Erin Dignam) which, whether it touches on the anguish of the movie’s lovers or on the suffering of West African refugees, is so terrible that it is hard to understand how Penn allowed it to be spoken in his film, or how two actors at the level and status of Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem were willing to deliver it.
Then there’s the voice-over narration, filled with clichés and performed in a tone of fake rumination. There’s the love story, which resembles what you might find in a cheap popular romance and is not at all credible because it seems forced, with no chemistry between the two stars. And there is Penn’s pseudo-poetic style of direction, which does not fit the story or its setting. Critics at Cannes were quick to point out that Penn was too obviously influenced in this case by Terrence Malick, having appeared in Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning 2011 “The Tree of Life” – an influence Penn did not know how to use, which does not fit his own movie, and which underscores its main failing.
That failing involves the way “The Last Face” sets a trivial love affair between two glamorous white characters, played by glamorous white actors, against the backdrop of an enormous human tragedy. The horrors of this tragedy – often shown in exploitative detail – are nothing but window dressing for the main romance. Charlize Theron plays Wren Petersen, a woman with unresolved daddy issues: Apparently, her father wanted her to be a boy, and she runs the volunteer doctors organization he set up in West Africa. Javier Bardem is Miguel, a Spanish doctor orphaned as a child and raised by the state, which supposedly gives him deeper insight into the workings of the establishment than a person raised in an ordinary family. The plot brings Wren and Miguel together in Liberia in 2003 and sends them into the jungles on the way to Sierra Leone. They come to a refugee camp that exposes them to the horrific sight of wounded children, for whom they help to care. But even when the movie savors these horrors, it returns over and over to Wren and Miguel’s romantic struggles; at its absolute worst moments, it shows both at one and the same time.
While cinema has often served as a tool of imperialism and colonialism, who would have expected a determined activist like Sean Penn to continue this ugly tradition? His movie focuses on the two attractive, well-intentioned representatives of the well-fed West, at the expense of the inhabitants of the Third World, who are presented as a single, undifferentiated human mass. Moreover, comparing the existential suffering of the refugees fleeing this kind of tragedy to the pain of two lovers, presenting them equally as victims, is a choice that deserves to be called disgraceful.
Theron and Bardem had no way of emerging unscathed from this fiasco, given the story, the characters they are forced to play, the lines they are forced to speak, and the ruminations they have to deliver as voice-over narrators. They are not alone: to create further romantic complications, the movie enlists the help of another woman (Adèle Exarchopoulos, known to us from “Blue is the Warmest Color”), while Jean Reno has been tasked with playing a physician named Dr. Love.
Many good movies do not get to be distributed in Israel; oddly, “The Last Face” is showing at local theaters. Although I am in favor of giving Israeli audiences a chance to see everything, in this case the distributors’ generosity seems to me excessive and uncalled-for.