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Cannes Review: James Franco’s Ambitious Directorial Effort ‘As I Lay Dying’ is Dragged Down by Franco’s Own Performance

Cannes Review: James Franco's Ambitious Directorial Effort 'As I Lay Dying' is Dragged Down by Franco's Own Performance

It’s become a running gag stretched out over the annual festival calendar: Here’s another project (or two, or three…) with and/or by actor-writer-director-artist-celebrity James Franco. Does the man ever sleep? How many James Francos are there?

His latest directorial feature, the Faulkner adaptation “As I Lay Dying,” was presented today as part of the Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival. With this particular premiere, it seems that the multi-hyphenate has finally found the highest form of validation for his non-acting endeavors (though he does also star in the film). But does the Un Certain Regard title, which co-stars Tim Blake Nelson, Logan Marshall-Green and Ahna O’Reilly, deserve this honor, or is the Cannes selection, on the contrary, part of the problem, as it allows Franco to move quickly from project to project with celebrity-hungry festivals ready to give him a pass for work that’s just passable?

What is sure is that “Dying” is different in scale than Franco’s digitally shot doodles such as “Interior. Leather Bar.” and “Sal.” The film’s not only an (admittedly small-scale) period movie but, at the same time, an ambitious artistic project on the more experimental end of the arthouse spectrum, with a good portion of the widescreen film divided up in split-screen, offering possibilities such as side-by-side shot/reverse shots; simultaneous wide shots and close-ups and fascinatingly merged or altogether new soundscapes.

Given that the original novel has multiple narrators (15 in total over the course of 59 chapters) and is told in a stream-of-consciousness style, fragmenting the on-screen space seems like a justifiable choice, if clearly something that most audiences will have to learn to least adjust to. (Other films have gone down this road before, including a particular standout, “Solitary Fragments,” from Spanish director Jaime Rosales, that premiered in the same section in Cannes back in 2007).

Franco stars as Darl, one of the sons of the dying matriarch Addie Bundren (Beth Grant). The clan also includes Darl’s brothers Jewel (Marshall-Green), Cash (Jim Parrack) and little Vardaman (Brady Permenter), sister Dewey Dell (O’Reilly) and toothless father Anse (Nelson). After Addie expires, her family decides to respect her wish to be buried in Jefferson, Mississippi, which means that the entire family has to accompany the matriarch’s wooden coffin on cart for several days to Addie’s final destination.

The film shifts between various perspectives and, thanks to the use of split-screen, can often incorporate more than one at the same time. Occasionally, characters recite their thoughts directly to camera, a narrative sleight of hand that might help smuggle in a bit of Faulkner’s original prose but is also a mannered choice that breaks up the already fragile fluidity of the storytelling as it resolutely places the viewer outside of the action.

The many split-screen sequences work best when there’s some kind of action involved, such as a dangerous cross of a river gone wild with the cart, coffin and the family’s mules and horses. In more intimate moments, Franco and cinematographer Christina Voros seem to have planned less in terms of coverage or the desired specific feeling they’re attempting to establish by contrasting two images. Though much of it works in a loosely impressionist style and as a visual approximation of the effect of Faulkner’s literary devices, Franco, Voros and their editor rarely manage to locate precise feelings in single scenes. 

The actors are generally surprisingly solid, with one conspicuous exception: Franco himself, who might have been too busy on set to concentrate on his work as an actor and/or to direct himself properly. It doesn’t help, of course, that he’s the only really famous face among his on screen colleagues (the fact the others are less known helps achieve a sense of authenticity in their scenes and they are generally convincing as a ragtag family).

Generally, the film seems to have been made to suggest something of Faulkner’s style in a cinematic medium, and it’s certainly laudable that there have been very few concessions to the marketability of a project like this (most “Oz” viewers wouldn’t sit through a two-hour split-screen movie even if they got paid). As such, I would argue it has its place in Un Certain Regard. This doesn’t mean the film is a masterpiece or even a particularly successful one, but the intentions behind it are clearly artistic rather than commercial, and his ever-growing box of cinematic tricks is used to tell not only a particular story but also approximate a certain style. 

The day Franco will have found his own style — which, given the number of projects he directs, might take another few dozen films — perhaps he’ll be ready for a competition slot in Cannes.

Criticwire grade: B+

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