Former Palme d’Or winner Gus Van Sant’s Cannes competition entry, Sea Of Trees starring Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts, had the first of two press screenings tonight in advance of its red carpet premiere Saturday night – and it got audibly booed during the end credits by one portion of the audience.
In its 68 years, the Cannes Film Festival has a long history of audiences booing after a film some may not have thought is up to their “standards”. Of course it’s rude, but in my experience in 15 years of covering this festival, it has never occurred during an actual black tie premiere with the filmmakers and cast present. Never. Even for the worst films imaginable they usually stand and applaud politely. Press screenings, however, like the first one tonight for Sea Of Trees, can be a different animal altogether, but in the several I have been to this year so far, there’s been little audible reaction of any kind – pro or con to the films in the competition. Until now.
Sea Of Trees, which as Deadline exclusively reported was picked up for domestic distribution by Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, seemed to be politely received during its entire running time. The boos (not sure from who or where – certainly not my section) came afterwards, giving critics here, many of whom follow the pack, license to kill and it’s already begun with some unmerciful pans from trades and tweets. With the Internet, it can just be deadly. I totally disagree and was moved by the film, so I am thankful there was no rude outburst during it to ruin it for me. People sat intently throughout the nearly two-hour running time and there were no walkouts that I noticed. Walkouts are a sure sign a film is in trouble with this crowd, so I have to admit I was surprised by the boos at the end. There is a jury box at these press screenings so it is entirely possible that members of the jury were present. The booers might be trying to influence that small group too. I hope not.
Actually last year I covered the press conference in Cannes where the film was announced by Van Sant and McConaughey (fresh off his Oscar win). A major plot twist was accidentally revealed, but even being there I totally forgot about it and let the film take me on its journey, so no spoilers for a future audience I hope this movie will get and deserves. With pared sentimentality and spirituality and a beautiful lush score (by Mason Bates), it’s not up the alley of a lot of critics here who tend to applaud more austere stuff on display here. That doesn’t mean it won’t work for audiences. Time will tell. But the damage is clearly done and the movie is likely to be tainted by misleading consumer headlines saying ‘McConaughey’s movie booed at Cannes’. Those headlines will conveniently leave out the fact that it was critics booing at a press screening. The fact is this film doesn’t launch here until Saturday. I can’t show you any photos yet because there aren’t any photos of its stars and director walking the carpet, at a press photo call or conference. It hasn’t happened yet. But the critics want their kill now. It is so disrespectful. Do these people who supposedly make a living writing about movies actually like them? Or is it just sport to take one down like this? Look, I didn’t love today’s rabidly well-reviewed competition film, The Lobster, an abstract, absurd and only intermittently amusing little trifle from Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos that was greek to me I guess (cold blooded slayings of donkeys and border collies aren’t my thing). But I wasn’t about to let the audience know that by booing.
Filmmakers take a risk when they bring a movie here, particularly one not scheduled for release until months later. This kind of negative publicity has to give fest honcho Thierry Fremaux migraine headaches convincing A-list directors and studios that it is worth a trip to Cannes, the world’s most famous film festival, even with all the unpredictable worldwide press here ready to tear you to pieces. It can be a two-edged sword. I recall that even the Coen Brothers, this year’s Jury Presidents, had a bad time in Cannes with O Brother Where Art Thou in 2000, the first year I covered the festival. They, like Van Sant were already Fest regulars and had a Palme d’Or to show for it (Barton Fink). But O Brother was a different kind of film for them and it didn’t play as well here. But in the end it triumphed. Disney had to struggle overcoming middling, at best, reaction after its Cannes screenings to turn the film into a big hit when it was finally released in December of that year. A lot of studios with Fall awards films avoid Cannes and its May date because it can be so risky. And press screenings can really be lethal. Perhaps the most famous, at least in this century, was when Vincent Gallo’s 2003 Brown Bunny was screened for the first time and none other than Roger Ebert was so bored he started singing “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” during the movie. He later re-screened the film outside of the Cannes hoopla and completely reassessed his original pan. People can get caught up in a toxic atmosphere during a fest and pile on. It’s unfair. Harvey Weinstein had such a bad experience taking two uncompleted films, August: Osage County and Mandela, to Toronto a couple of years ago he vowed never to take another movie that wasn’t 100% ready to ‘meet the press’ as it were.
The title, Sea Of Trees refers to a lush forest in Japan where many go to commit suicide. In the film a grieving McConaughey travels there to do just that but instead encounters a desperate Japanese man (Ken Watanabe) who he tries to save from a similar fate. Hopefully these filmmakers aren’t contemplating a visit to the Sea Of Trees right about now after this initial reaction. Their film deserves a better fate and maybe the real Cannes Film Festival crowd will give it a shot.