Fulfilling professional obligations can be stressful and awkward. Just ask Charlize Theron and Sean Penn, whose new film The Last Face premiered in competition at Cannes yesterday and received withering reviews from critics around the globe after the initial press screening. Not only did the duo have to endure gleeful Twitter denunciations of their movie, but the onetime engaged exes had little choice—for promotional purposes, at least—to sit several inches away from each other at the post-screening press conference.
In early 2015, the press reported that a Theron-Penn engagement was in the works. By June, the couple had split up, an event that precipitated a certain brouhaha in the gossip world. Before long, since Theron apparently cut off communication with Penn and decided not to respond to his phone calls and emails, The New York Times published a sober think piece on the subject of “ghosting”: a “verb that refers to ending a romantic relationship by cutting off all contact and ignoring the former partner’s attempts to reach out.”
At the dirge-like Cannes press conference, softball questions from the international media notwithstanding, Penn and Theron looked warily at each other across the conference table. He dutifully praised her performance and she spoke with apparently sincere enthusiasm about the self-sacrifice of the NGO workers depicted in the film.
But it couldn’t have been easy.
It’s true that there’s something more than a little sadistic about subjecting a director and his star to the glaring spotlight of Cannes after critics have gone in for the kill. You can’t just go off and skulk in a corner, but are obliged to hold your head high despite the critics and social media’s endemic snarkiness. Yet The Last Face is so inept and dull that I, and perhaps my colleagues as well, kept mulling over the prospect of more provocative questions that, given the festival’s injunction to forbid queries concerning personal matters unrelated to the film at hand (a journalist was scolded at the press conference for Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta when he asked the Spanish director about his connection to the Panama Papers) would certainly not have been tolerated.
Instead of parsing the fine points of Penn’s misbegotten epic on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Africa, it would certainly have been more amusing to discover if Theron still denies accusations that she “ghosted” her intrepid director. Or, in a similar vein, the drowsy journalists trying to rouse themselves from the effort of muddling through the incoherent plot points of The Last Face would certainly have perked up if someone had asked Sean Penn to comment on Mexican soap opera star Kate del Castillo’s accusation that he lied about certain details regarding their journey to interview the drug lord El Chapo in his now-notorious Rolling Stone piece.
Assessed purely on its own merits as a “message movie,” The Last Face confirms the cliché that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. From the opening credits, the press corps started cackling at the movie’s wacky altruism—particularly an introductory title that compares the horrors of war-ravaged South Sudan to the “brutality of impossible love shared between a man… and a woman.”
Erin Dignam’s clunky script is preoccupied with the rocky romance between Dr. Miguel Leon (Javier Bardem), a doctor in an aid organization which resembles Doctors Without Borders, and his colleague, Dr. Wren Petersen (Theron). As they deal with the maimed victims of war in African refugee camps, their passion ebbs and flows—and Theron’s fatuous voice-over cajoles the audience what to think of their l’amour fou during every juncture of the proceedings.
A considerable amount of inadvertent comedy is generated by the fact that the peaks and valleys of Miguel and Wren’s affair eclipses the plight of the refugees, whose suffering they’re supposedly helping to alleviate. Wren, whose South African father was known as a heroic physician, is acutely aware of her “white privilege.” (It’s nice to see Theron have an opportunity to use her own South African accent in a film, even if, weirdly enough, she reverted to her usual bland Californian-sounding cadences during the press conference.)
But the movie itself wallows in white privilege.
The Last Face, and many aspects of Penn’s high profile activism, personify the pitfalls of what the novelist Teju Cole terms the White Savior Industrial Complex. During relief efforts after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Penn seemed to regard himself as a White Knight riding in on a horse to save hapless Third World victims. Similarly, The Last Face enshrines European benevolence while African armed rebels are depicted as anonymous savages—as unpleasant as it is to use such a word in conjunction with the noble sentiments of a so-called liberal humanitarian, actor, and director.
Still, it was difficult not to feel sorry for Penn as he squirmed at Cannes in the wake of seemingly unanimous pans of his film, as well as the guarded stares of his ex-fiancée.