Cannes Review: James Franco's 'As I Lay Dying' is a hopeless task, if not a hopeless film
CANNES - Adding the title of "film critic" to his well-strung bow of professional achievements, actor-writer-director-artist-musician-academic-activist-probable-ceramicist James Franco recently spoke up for this year's Cannes opener, Baz Luhrmann's flash-and-sizzle adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," against the predictable armada of critics dismissing it. "These people make their living doing readings and critiques of texts in order to generate theories of varying levels of competency," he wrote for VICE magazine. "Luhrmann’s film is his reading and adaptation of a text – his critique, if you will."
It was a fair and thoughtful defense of a fellow artist that he was under no obligation to defend -- though I do wonder if it was also something of a pre-emptive strike, having appeared online not even a week before his own skeptically-anticipated adaptation of a Great American Novel, William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying," was set to premiere at the same festival.
If so, it's an optimistic one. Alternating between the textually straight-ahead and the stylistically mannered, Franco's "As I Lay Dying" is hardly a critique of Faulkner's furious study of mud-class mourning, while as interpretation, it's timid at best, taking the emotional accents of its irony-strewn, often bitterly funny source very much at face value. If he seems cowed by the material, that is as pretty much any filmmaker -- let alone one of Franco's modest abilities -- would and should feel. Yet the film's staid CliffsNotes approach is still a surprise coming from this restless Yale literature graduate, whose previous directorial efforts have been less competent and often more compellingly self-styled.
If you haven't read it -- and I admit it's been a good 15 years since I have, so I'm grazing a paperback as I write -- Faulkner's novel turns a simple family tragedy into something considerably more prismatic and resonant by dint of sheer literary exhaustiveness. The story of the cursed Bundren family and their addled quest to bury their mother in her fictional home town of Jefferson, Mississippi sprouts a near-comical number of subsidiary misfortunes along the way: mental breakdowns, drowned livestock, an unwanted pregnancy discovered and troublingly treated, a leg broken and gruesomely amputated. (Small wonder the erstwhile onscreen Aron Ralston responded to it.) All the while, perspective is passed like a relay baton between multiple participants in the unhappy proceedings.
"Unfilmable" is one of my least favorite adjectives in criticism -- as a shorthand term for conveying degree of difficulty, it's only scarcely less imaginative or accurate than "unwriteable." But Faulkner's whirling modernist landmark comes closer than most to meriting it, both for the pragmatic challenge of maintaining 15 narrative voices (as spread across 59 chapters) on screen, and the artistic one of finding suitable visual and rhythmic reflectors of the novel's bracing, racing interior monologues that don't simply translate it into reams of turgid voiceover.
In transcribing Faulkner's busy catalogue of misery to the scripted page, Franco and co-writer (and former college bud) Matt Rager have remained -- within reason -- loyal to the text, necessarily reducing or even eschewing a number of secondary characters (some of them rather dry) without throwing the novel's rambling, episodic structure out with the bathwater. On an incident-by-incident basis, comprehensibility may be an issue for readers unacquainted with the novel (or indeed with Faulkner), though the overall accumulation of abuse and despair is more the point, and registers with grimace-inducing clarity. (The book's stony humor, however, mostly falls by the wayside, until a final scene that is rather too breezily played.)