Cannes loves director Gus Van Sant, who’s a regular. It also loves Matthew McConaughey, who has recently become a regular attendee. But the love was nowhere to be found Friday night when their “Sea of Trees” had its world premiere at the festival.
Why, you might ask?
Well, it’s sappy, and in no way original.
Still, there’s much to admire. Kasper Tuxen’s cinematography, much of it filmed in Japan and Massachusetts, is gorgeous. And McConaughey is still a fine actor. And Van Sant is still a fine director. But the screenplay doesn’t work. It rehashes inspirational themes that we’ve heard before, and it plays like a movie on Lifetime. And yes, Lifetime has a loyal audience, and if you’re a part of it, then you’ll like this movie.
The story opens with McConaughey’s Arthur Brennan, a scientist who doesn’t believe in God, headed to Japan, where he plans to visit the Aokigahara forest that’s at the base of Mount Fuji. It’s well-known as a place where people go to commit suicide, and when Arthur finally gets there, he begins his journey, seeing corpse after corpse, some from apparent drug overdoes, some still hanging from trees.
It’s eerie. And it’s supposed to be very spiritual. And we know through flashbacks that Arthur’s relationship with his wife (Naomi Watts) has been rocky since an infidelity. So it’s safe to suspect that Arthur is planning suicide. And when he pops out a bottle of pills and starts taking them, that’s a pretty sure sign this guy is suicidal.
But before he takes too many of the pills, he sees a dazed and wounded man wandering the forest. It turns out be to be Takumi Nakamura, played by Ken Watanabe, and he is also in the forest to commit suicide, but his backstory is never completely filed in. He has a wife and child, and he’s had troubles, but we don’t know much more than that. Arthur, however, feels the need to try to help Takumi, so the two try to find their way out of the forest.
What follows is an emotional journey that leads to an awakening in Arthur. Yep, you guessed it. He wants to live after all.
It’s a tale of purgatory, and Takumi announces that this is what’s really going on. Just call him the mystical Japanese dude. So we know it’s a matter of Arthur either coming back into the world or descending into its bowels.
The music by Chris Douridas (anyone in Austin remember him?) offers clues to which route Arthur will take.
It should probably be pointed out that other Austin folks worked on the film. Jeanette Scott was the set designer, and her talents are on full display in the scenes featuring McConaughey and his wife at home. (She has worked on many Austin-based projects, including those from Terrence Malick.)
McConaughey and Van Sant are scheduled to appear Saturday at a press conference. So we’ll see what they have to say about the film, and what they were trying to do. Generally, the press conferences aren’t too mean. In fact, sometimes they can be fawning (mainly because strange people from far-flung countries ask a lot of the softball questions). But the reaction Friday night was not a good sign.