CANNES, France — Sean Penn essentially had half an hour of one-on-one time with the global entertainment media on Friday, and if you don’t think he seized that opportunity to take a swipe at Donald Trump, you don’t know Penn.
Appearing at the official Cannes press conference for the romantic drama The Last Face, which he directed, the two-time Oscar winner was easily its most called-upon participant. And when he was asked about whether it is important for films with a message, such as The Last Face, to also entertain their audience, the presidential candidate factored heavily in his response:
"I think it’s important to entertain if entertainment is not synonymous with Donald Trump's behavior. Too much of film is today," Penn said. "Greek tragedy is almost forgotten. The hunger is now, I find, pulling us away from our humanity a lot of the time. To find beauty in things is the way to fix things. I just think what we are calling beauty today is [largely] a perversion of [beauty], and that's lamentable."
It’s worth noting that Trump has come up numerous times at Cannes this year. In particular, George Clooney flat-out stated during a press conference for Jodie Foster’s Money Monster that Trump will not be president (much to the relief of the global press corps).
Unlike that economic-themed thriller, however, the positive notices for Penn's The Last Face have been few and far between. When asked about the initial response to the film, the not-so jovial Penn attempted to give the most subdued answer possible.
"I finished the film. It's not a discussion I can be of any value to," Penn says. "I'm certain that everyone is going to be well entitled to their response."
The Last Face centers on two NGO doctors, played by Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, who initially fall in love while assisting refugees in Western Africa in 2004. Ten years later, Bardem’s character finds Theron’s character to try to rekindle their lost love.
The film then deploys a series of flashbacks to explain why they ended their original affair in the first place — although, when you finally find out, you really don’t care. Bardem and Theron have almost zero chemistry together, and it’s difficult to feel sympathy for the couple when their modern-day life on a beautiful South African estate is intercut with the horrors they experienced in the field.
According to Bardem, he first read a screenplay for The Last Face in 2000. But the film's early existence at the turn of the millennium only partially explains one of its most jaw-dropping scenes: When a fellow NGO doctor and Bardem’s character’s ex-lover (Adèle Exarchopoulos) arrives at camp to tell him she’s HIV positive, the news is treated as a potentially dramatic death sentence. Bardem and Theron’s characters nervously get tested, and Exarchopoulos’s character is whisked away to Europe for treatment.
Meanwhile, the camp where they are employed as doctors is undoubtedly home to hundreds of HIV-positive African men and women with no chance to secure Western anti-viral drugs — at least not in 2004 — and it's not even brought up in context. That lack of perspective makes The Last Face arguably the most embarrassing entry in competition at Cannes this year. However, even though Penn is a former Cannes head juror, he doesn’t seem care how his film played. He’s simply counting the hours until the festival is over.
"Being in competition is having this movie seen and responded to. I haven't seen a single other film that's here so I don't even know what the competition is," Penn said. "I just know that at 7 o'clock tonight the movie starts and when it's over my work is done."