‘The Last Face’ Cannes Review: Sean Penn’s Humanitarian Romance Misfires on Every Front

Some lines are so wincingly written and embarrassingly delivered that the Cannes press audience burst into sarcastic applause

last face sean penn

The groans started early at Friday morning’s Cannes screening of Sean Penn‘s “The Last Face.” Before a single image hit the screen, people were already jeering the opening crawl, written in purple prose and going on about “the loss of innocence… between a man… and a woman.”

Credit where credit’s due — it perfectly set the tone for what would follow, which is a spectacularly misjudged mix of humanitarian intentions and gonzo-terrible execution.

Director Penn shows his intentions with surprising transparency. “The Last Face” is meant to be a call to action, a way to force the conversation back to subjects people would rather avoid — in particular, the effects of the Liberian Civil War, but more broadly, the plight of refugees worldwide.

As a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, Penn couches his message in a decade-spanning love story between Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem as two warzone doctors who fall into a passionate affair. It sounds like a good idea, right? Too bad it misfires on every front.

For one thing, the love story never takes off. There is next to no connection between Theron and Bardem, who are supposed to share an uncontrollable connection, but spend most of the time talking past each other and to The World.

Penn uses familiar shorthand when he has to sell the love story. He seems to have drunk deeply from the well of Malick, and shoots half the scenes of courtship in a style similar to that of his “Tree of Life” director. That means jarring angles both low and high, with characters holding hands while looking away from other, whispering on about something or another in distant voiceover.

That lyrical style has yielded diminishing returns for even Malick himself recently, and certainly does Penn no favors, not least of which is because none of Malick’s films are romances set in warzones. Penn is just as interested in the gruesome realities of war, unsparingly showing entrails and rotting bodies in between reverie and sunsets, creating a tension between the gritty and dreamy styles that can never be bridged.

But stylistic discordance is the least of the film’s problems. Number one, if the opening crawl didn’t clue you in, is the dialogue. There were several lines so wincingly written and embarrassingly delivered that they caused the audience at the press screening to burst into sarcastic applause.

Poor, poor Jean Reno (playing a character named, get this, Dr. Love) is saddled with most of them, at one point offering this golden nugget about marriage: “It is not grabbing; it is loving.”

It is a lot of things, none of them good. In his zeal to make an epic statement that is also a romantic dream, Penn throws just about everything at the wall. Nothing sticks, and perhaps he realizes that. It would certainly explain the outrageous ending, which blows past earnest and into the realm of camp. If you weren’t sure what the movie was about, let Theron give a speech, starring right into the camera, telling us “we are ALL refugees.”

Cue the music — a child choir, singing “Peace Train.”