The Cannes Film Festival wound down Sunday pretty much where we left it Friday: Lindsay Lohan still digs girls, distributors mostly kept their checkbooks closed with one or two exceptions, and Sean Penn and his competition jury putatively fulfilled their social mandate by awarding the French schoolroom drama Entre les Murs (The Class) this year's Palme d'Or. The remaining winners reflect both a who's who of perennial Cannes rock stars (screenplay winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, directing winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan) and sure-fire up-and-comers (Best First Film winner Steve McQueen).
The most controversial American film of the fest, meanwhile — Steven Soderbergh's as-yet-unsold epic Che — won only a best actor prize for Benicio Del Toro after critics predicted (and/or prayed for) much more. Critics everywhere but Variety, that is, which has us wondering: What did Che ever do to these guys anyway?
It all started after last Wednesday's marathon press screening, when Todd McCarthy's screed credited "scattered partisans" with contrarian buzz before suggesting "the pic in its current form is a commercial impossibility, except on television or DVD." Fair enough, although a survey of reviews suggests McCarthy himself is the most vocal of the anti-Che minority. Which is fine, right? OK! So we thought we'd let it go, but then came Anne Thompson with her all-caps admonition, "DON'T TAKE AN UNFINISHED MOVIE TO CANNES!!!!" But NY Times critic A.O. Scott, while hardly over the moon, later echoed most of his peers when we spoke elegantly and persuasively on the open-ended film's behalf:
This is one of the frustrations of Cannes, for American critics at least. We see lots of fascinating movies — not all good, but very few completely worthless — and then wonder if we, or our readers, will ever see them again. I'm not in the movie business (a mutually beneficial arrangement, believe me), and not inclined to speculate with someone else's money. I do hope, however, that sometime in the near future I can take part in the long and contentious conversation that Che deserves, and also see how my own initial ambivalence about the film resolves itself.
Got it. Adults agree to disagree. But then came Mike Jones's dispatch on Variety's festival blog The Circuit, citing everything from long bathroom lines to the film's bad party to anti-Che commenters on his and other Variety blogs calling out the film's "mass murderer" subject. Now that's just hateful.
Coincidence? Perhaps; these are pretty independent thinkers, but it's a rare concentration of venom to seen directed at one film that doesn't even have American distribution yet. We wish they'd have saved some for that Eastwood backlash we know is coming.