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Cannes Review: As I Lay Dying

James Franco’s As I Lay Dying “doesn’t work, but it’s an admirable artistic effort.”

As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying is the I Melt With You of the Cannes Film Festival. I Melt With You was legendary because at the press screening at Sundance, I amused myself by counting the walkouts. There were 63. At the press screening. I counted 36 walkouts in As I Lay Dying but there was a whole balcony section above me. There may have been double that number, but there was certainly enough light by the exit door for me to take notes by. And As I Lay Dying is not the misguided, self-indulgent travesty that Melt was but I can see it putting people off the same way with its style and subject matter.

When their matriarch Addie Bundren (Beth Grant) dies, her Depression era family carries her casket across the country to bury her. Their journey is fraught with peril but it’s not really an adventure. It should be. Crossing a flooding river is exciting, and they have to deal with repairs and injuries after that. It’s brutal on the horses. A lot happens but the tone is decidedly contemplative and reflexive.

It’s pretty authentic to the period which makes it even more difficult. The accents are so thick it’s easier to understand the French subtitles for Cannes audiences. As Anse, the patriarch, Tim Blake Nelson is giving a bravura authentic performance, mouthing his toothless gums while he drawls indistinctly. It’s a tremendous amount of work that accomplishes frustration with the character and a bit of disgust. Perhaps he’s supposed to be sympathetic but I saw it more as daring you to look at Anse, let alone make out what he’s saying. Darl (James Franco), Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly) and Cash (Jim Parrack) seem the most modern, perhaps because they’re the younger generation. However, they encounter characters in town who are almost as thick as Anse.

Almost 90% of the movie is shot in split screen, which means we will watch a scene from two angles simultaneously. This is an effective use of the technique and it conveys more information with fewer cutaways. Plus, it takes away the gimmick if the whole movie is presented side by side. Where it stretches things is when characters start speechifying directly into camera as the other screen shows some plot-related action. The speechifying continues in voiceover. The content is religious and I don’t know if that comes directly from the William Faulkner book, but the quality of the words gets lost in the fact that characters are talking at us. I know that’s based on the idea of a literary narrator, but the conspiracy of factors makes it abrasive. When young Vardaman (Brady Permenter) says, “Our mother is a fish,” it’s like, okay, we know you’re dealing with mortality but give us something deeper than the abstract wonderings of an “innocent” child.

The story deals with some of the harsh realities of historical times, the stuff you don’t see at Colonial Williamsburg. Old timey medical practices are presented graphically, and Dewey Dell is dealing with some of the antiquated views on women that actually haven’t changed much, but at least women have more options now. I think Darl is just trying to complete the funeral and deal with the disasters along the way, and Cash is trying to stay positive so he’s not a burden on the group. He’s the one who’s injured. If the characters were supposed to be more distinct than that, then I didn’t get that.

I ultimately think As I Lay Dying doesn’t work, but it’s an admirable artistic effort, and a good use of split screen. I actually would have been disappointed if James Franco had directed a mainstream commercial movie. If James Franco is going to be a Renaissance man then at least he’s making some damn art. I’m pretty open to art and this one still lost me, but at least I watched the whole thing, unlike some of the pussies at Cannes. You can’t wait 70 more minutes to get to your celebrity networking party? Watch some damn art. You’re in Cannes, dammit! 

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Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.

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