Cannes 2021: Flag Day, clumsy melody by Sean Penn

To see again this evening on Canal +.

After the crash The Last Face, Sean Penn was trying to reconnect with his vein “Americana” presenting Flag Day at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. The director did not convince the editorial staff, even if his film remains interesting on several points. It will be broadcast this evening on Canal +, the channel taking advantage of the 75th edition of the festival to offer works previously unveiled to the public as part of this unmissable festival.

Review originally posted July 21, 2021: What becomes of Sean Penn? As an actor, he had been quite rare in the last ten years – a handful of films (Gunman, Gangster Squad…) and a little commented series, The First, canceled after one season. The Sean Penn journalist, he had made a smoking splash by recounting his meeting with the drug lord El Chapo in the pages of RollingStone. As for the director Sean Penn, he had been demolished in large widths by the hilarious international critics during the Cannes presentation of The Last Facein 2016.

Flag Day, his new feature film, in which he stages himself for the first time, is therefore, in a way, a comeback film. Humble, modest. Inspired by Flim-Flam Mana book by journalist Jennifer Vogel, who recounts her tumultuous relationship with her father, a hustler and counterfeiter, the film reconnects thematically with the vein of The Indian Runner, Crossing Guard and Into the Wild : it is a reflection on the inevitable betrayal of fathers, and on the impasse to which rebellion leads.

Sean Penn has never been an actor who makes movies on occasion, to stretch his legs. He’s an author, a real one. An heir to the beatnik tradition, which he rereads with the yardstick of a nihilism characteristic of generation X. Like the character played by Emile Hirsch in Into the WildJohn Vogel, the hero of Flag Day, makes a maximalist, almost absurdist reading of the ideal of freedom promised by America. And this original incomprehension will condemn him to a deadly headlong rush.

Aesthetically, Penn brings back to life here his taste for a form of impressionist poetic collage – a plot with exploded temporality, a kaleidoscope of images and sensations captured on the fly, long musical tracks. More than ever, we feel him under the influence of two filmmakers who have been essential in his career as an actor, Inarritu and Malick. But the comparison is clearly not to his advantage. Beyond the fact that it is partly old-fashioned, this fragmented, mosaic-like form ends up giving the film a devitalized, disembodied aspect. Penn flutters about and, as a result, hardly takes the time to pose alongside his characters, to characterize them other than by easy shortcuts, to let emotion take hold. The tandem he forms with his own daughter, Dylan Penn, does not really produce sparks and, if we are happy to find his crumpled face of an old pirate, he never manages to find the iconic dimension called by the script ( which makes you think of the beautiful The Old Man & the Gun by David Lowery, with Robert Redford). Sean Penn is an author, unquestionably. But not always a very inspired director.

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