Following on from Baz Luhrmann’s tipsy take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic The Great Gatsby, actor/director James Franco offers Cannes the second major literary adaptation from a canonical American author. Adapted faithfully by Franco himself from William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying (2013) tells the tale of the Bundren family. Following the death of their mother, Addie Bundren (Beth Grant) and her kin embark on an epic journey to take the corpse to be buried in her hometown cemetery at Jackson, despite the distance, the rains and the rising river. However, each family member carries with them their own demons.
Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green) is born of an illicit union, Darl (Franco) is half-crazy and the father, Anse (Tim Blake Nelson), has a mouth of rotten stumps that he wants to get repaired. What’s more, the relatively normal Cash (Jim Parrack) has his leg horrifically broken when the wagon they’re using overturns in the swelling river. Yet, whilst the high profile cast (comic actor and Franco peer Danny McBride is also present in a small role) and the period feel are managed adequately, Franco’s most daring decision is to use a split-screen perspective for large chunks of the film, thereby mimicking literally the novel’s fractured narrative.
This initially off-putting technique – as well as the ample use of slow motion, straight-to-camera monologues and mumbling voiceover – has an intentional alienating effect, transforming Franco’s As I Lay Dying from a passably-straight retelling to something that feels like its emerged out of a video installation. On the one hand, it’s admirable that Franco is at least attempting something new, but the effects are so obviously effects and the justification is so simplistically literal that it shows up this particular director’s sixth form mentality.
We’re further distanced by Anse who, true to the novel, is an incomprehensible gawping absurdity. Nelson brings to mind the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and his performance always appears to be more than a little forced. There’s none of Faulkner’s sense of looming doom nor sense of true ‘thunder’ to Franco’s piece. Instead, we’re left with a not-so-awful vanity project, but one which wears its thinking too obviously on its sleeve and doesn’t, in the end, fulfil any of its lofty ambitions.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.