Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Cannes Review of Sea of Trees

Gus Van Sant’s soapy pot-boiler is among the worst films to compete for the Palme d’Or in the last decade

Fri, May 15, 2015, 22:13




Directed by Gus Van Sant

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts, Katie Aselton, Jordan Gavaris

Cannes, In Competition, 110 min

Audiences do, in this place, have a lamentable habit of booing films they don’t care for. It’s a horrible business. But, just as there are theoretical circumstances where the use of chemical weapons might be appropriate, there are certain films that deserve to play to the sounds of the abattoir.

There exist, I suppose, people who wonder what Gus Van Sant directing Nicholas Sparks might look like. After all, there are people who eat soil. Your time has come, folks. We didn’t quite see it coming. The latest film from this puzzling director comes in an interesting package. We begin with Matthew McConaughey travelling to Aokigahara, a remote forest in Japan where people from across the planet go to kill themselves. Some time after entering this gloomy locale, he encounters a despairing Japanese man (the largely blameless Ken Watanabe), who, for reasons never addressed, delivers dubious fortune cookie aphorisms in inexplicably good English. (I know fortune cookies come from another part of the world, but, I assure you, if you want to get annoyed about patronising “Orientalism” this is the least of your concerns.) He seems to have reconsidered plans for suicide and wants Matthew to lead him back to the safe path (both literal and metaphorical). This framing device is forced, sentimental and, ultimately, becomes seeped in New Age baloney. “God is more our creation that we are his,” Matthew McConaughey says at one point. Think about this. An adult wrote that line and asked another adult to say it.

When, however, we flashback to hear Matt’s sad story, the piece really plummets to unexplored depths of wretchedness. It transpires that he is some sort of mathematician — there’s a white board decorated with Greek letters in his kitchen — who was formally saddled with an iffy marriage to real estate agent Naomi Watts. She drinks a lot and falls asleep on the couch. He expresses despair by lowering each eyebrow a nanometre and grinding the base of his palm into his brow.

Van Sant deserves some sort of award for taking a script comprising endless platitudinous clichés and, through dire misuse of his cinematic tools, making it play 10 times worse than it must surely read on the page. What would possess the man who directed Drugstore Cowboy to score a scene in which a character receives grim medical news to wimpy hipster folk by some awful band I can’t be bothered to look up? At least, the people who direct Nicholas Sparks novels show some bloody respect to their gravely ill characters. Every scene in Matt’s earlier story is covered in a veneer that distances the film further from reality. When Matt and Naomi press their faces together they look, for all the world, like the stock-shot models you find staring at you when buy a picture frame.

Poor, poor Matthew McConaughey. He must have felt that it was now safe to star in a film whose title referenced things made from wood. Sadly, that is not the case. His Texan solidity in the core story gives off worrying scents of the other McConaughey who spent a decade climbing up the balcony to rescue Jennifer Lopez from snobbier boyfriends with straying hands. Might the Mcconaissance find itself nestling in the middle of a double-dip Dark Ages?

Probably not. The person who has most fear from smart comments concerning the title is Gus Van Sant. It seems like a long time since his career made its own journey to Aokigahara. Let’s hope there’s some way back.

To be fair to the crowd in the Debussy Theatre, nobody made any rude noises until they were provoked. As this truly awful film — among the worst to compete for the Palme d’Or in the last decade — ground to a halt, a faint smattering of applause broke out. The Italian journalist beside me who had been crying with laughter for the closing 15 minutes wasn’t having that. Boo! Boo! I didn’t join in. But I can’t say I disapproved either. Boo! Boo!