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Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees”, a surprising glitch

 

Legendary film maker and emblematic figure on the American indie scene, Gus Van Sant has been honoured by the Cinémathèque française. His new film, The Sea of Trees, with Matthew McConaughey, is in movie theatres now.

Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe in The Sea of Trees, Gus Van Sant latest full length feature film.

 

Even the best can sometimes get it wrong.  The Sea of Trees will no doubt be seen as a surprising glitch in Gus Van Sant’s otherwise exquisite contribution to contemporary cinema, like a slightly bland and warped sidestep. In a story about depressed men, Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe, immerged in a forest at the foot of Mount Fuji, talk about their lives in hushed tones, about the regrets and the time gone by too fast, all beneath a constant drone of pompous violins and a sickly syrup that seems to drip over inch of the screen. The film, not particularly touching and never quite as spectral as it would like to be, disappointed both the willingly finicky spectators at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and his die-hard fans, us included.

 

A few years earlier with Gerry (2002), Gus Van Sant was already filming in his static, dead-end way with people searching for themselves, playing games of hide and seek with death. But that was done with infinitely more grace and risk. At a beachside press conference in Cannes he briefly and placidly noted the difference between the two films, “In The Sea of Trees the heroes are more contemplative than lost. They talk about their life, while in Gerry they disappear completely into the landscape…” The director of Will Hunting, now 63, is no longer of an age where he needs to justify his choices. 

Gus Van Sant is the subject of a retrospective at the Cinémathèque française. Above, River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, released in 1991.

 

Gus Van Sant’s career, haloed with the 2003 Palme d’Or for his incredible Elephant, inspired by the killings at the high school in Columbine, has never followed a straight path. For the last 30 years it’s oscillated between ultra-personal projects and others which weren’t initiated by him, chiefly in the writing of the scenario. The Sea of Trees is obviously one of the latter, but then that’s also produced excellent results recently with the majestic Promised Land where his fetish actor Matt Damon finally takes the temperature of a more delicate movie-making in-between two blockbusters. “Gerry, Last Days, Elephant, My Own Private Idaho, all those films were written by me, explains Gus Van Sant. “Those were the most experimental in my filmography and that’s great. Maybe that’s what I should always door not. I also like the idea of putting my voice into commissioned work.

 

John Robinson in Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece that won him the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2003.

 

His next project will bring the author of To Die For face to face with new constraints, because When We Rise, a mini-series about the LGBT rebellions at the end of the 1960s in San Francisco (written by the screenwriter of Harvey Milk, Dustin Lance Black), was commissioned by the terrestrial channel ABC, subject to harsh laws of advertising. While we wait for the next episode in his film career, we can touch base with the Gus Van Sant we know and love at the Cinémathèque française, with an exhibition on until this summer, showing an anthology of visual art works created in parallel to his films. Gus Van Sant/Icônes features some twenty paintings done for the Los Angeles Gagosian Gallery in 2011, but also several hundred Polaroids, dating back to the start of his career when he was influenced by William Burroughs in the 1980s. It’s a veritable American odyssey. A few artistic and photographic collaborations are also on show, works with the likes of William Eggleston, Bruce Weber and even David Bowie. Just in case you forgot what category of artist Gus Van Sant really belongs to.

 

 

The Sea of Trees. Released on April 27th.

 

Gus Van Sant/Icônes,

On at the Cinémathèque française until July 31st.

 

Par Olivier Joyard

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