Cannes 2015 Review: SEA OF TREES, Glimpses Of Beauty Within A Poisoned Forest
It's never a good thing when a film gets booed, but it happens more frequently at Cannes than anywhere in my experience. Often this booing takes on a kind of group think, with headlines all over the world declaring the work a failure following its preliminary screening to a press audience.
It's entirely possible by now that you've heard of Sea Of Trees as the film that people booed at, heard tales of its manipulative story line, it's strange dichotomy between the mystical and the morose. Well, let me attempt to rectify one thing - this isn't a film worth booing. Unfortunately, it might also not be a film worth stretching yourself to see.
Gus Van Sant's latest seems to borrow a little bit from another of his films that tested audiences (Gerry), but instead of a staid character piece we get something purposefully more melodramatic and visceral.
We meet a man who's driving with a blank look on his face. Yes, it's Matthew McConaughey, and yes we immediately think of True Detective and those damn Lincoln commercials. At any rate, the man drives to the airport, leaves his key in the ignition, and boards a plane on a one-way flight without baggage.
OK, sure, by this point your mind might start wandering, thinking, "hey, after 9/11, wouldn't such a thing be red flagged?" But you go with it, because what the hell, let's jump on in for the ride.
The man schlepps to Japan, and after the plane, train and automobile journey he ambles into a forest with strange warning sings that ask you to hold onto your individual happiness. He stumbles over a corpse as he goes deeper in, and then another, and we realize that this is a forest of the dead, clearly a place where people go to choose to die.
While making his final choice, a stranger suddenly appears, looking a lot like Ken Watanabe. From here, after some adventure, we flashback to the man's relationship with his wife (Naomi Watts) and the film spells out the events that have led to his fateful decision.
At its best, Sea Of Trees is a collision between these two poles, between the magical allure of the forest and the social-realist arguments of an unhappy marriage. Taken as individual elements the back-and-forth leads to some interesting moments, where the deep anger and despair of the couple's dynamic is actualized in the physical danger that trying to escape from the forest exemplifies.
We thus have the trappings of an interesting take on love and loss, with a seasoned director and accomplished cast taking us on a journey. So, where does the trip go wrong?
Well, there's lots of clunky bits scattered with the moments where you hope the film finds its footing, only for things to fall down as repeatedly as the protagonist. The music, for one, is pretty appalling, as is the use of some pretty hoary misdirects that are telegraphed well in advance, shocking only to the most naive of audiences.
Everything feels like it's trying too hard to appease both thematic poles, and things aren't helped when the final reveals (and there are several) make themselves known.
So, no, this isn't a great film, but it's got some lovely visuals, moments of strong acting, and occasions where you're rooting for the film to succeed.
This may be a preposterous statement, but here goes: Cast the film entirely with Japanese actors and it's applauded, not booed by this same group of attendees. I've seen plenty of films from Asia with similar tendencies (overwrought score, saccharine emotions, preposterous plot twists) that through a notion of being "foreign" are allowed to pass. The film in many ways adopts a pretty common Japanese film trope, and speaking with many journalists from that country their response to the film, if negative, was that it felt exactly like many others released in their homeland.
If you don't buy that, if one ramped it up even further and animated it and said it was by Studio Ghibli there would be tears and ovations.
I'll cheekily, then, applaud the film's ambition, even as I agree that the execution leaves plenty to be desired. Yet I can't help but feel there's something not completely terrible about the work, something that at least strives for deeper truths and emotions while toying with the metaphysical.
So, yes, Sea Of Trees isn't going to find its way onto most best-of-year lists, but within the forrest there are some patches that aren't poisoned. At its best it's attempting to be complex, moving and provocative, at its worst it's manipulative and trite. The balance between these poles shifts throughout, and like a measured life it's hard to see on which side the final metric tallies. I'll take a cue from an oft-quoted soundbite by the film's lead and say the film is neither a work of genius nor a dud, but simply, well, alright.