Soderbergh film gets mixed reaction at Cannes

Ay, carumba!

Cannes loves auteurs and risk-takers, but the big lesson from this year’s fest is clear: It’s not the place to do test screenings.

Steven Soderbergh‘s 4-hour, 18-minute opus was kept completely under wraps until its May 21 press screening and Palais debut. And with the premiere, the shroud of secrecy quickly turned into a simple shroud.

Variety chief critic Todd McCarthy lamented that the epic was “defiantly nondramatic” with “far too many aggravations for its paltry rewards”. Even the after-party got bad reviews for being too crowded and hot. But Farah Nayeri at Bloomberg.com said it delivered “moments of great cinema.”

Opinions were divided — some admired it, while one attendee estimated that one-fourth of the audience at the Palais left at intermission — but most were undecided, partly because they weren’t sure if they were seeing the finished film.

Even 24 hours before the Cannes lineup was announced in April, word was that Soderbergh would not have the two-part opus ready. But, lo and behold, there it was as an official selection in competition.

The pic arrived without a North American distributor. Asking price was said to be $8 million to $10 million. But the eventual buyer will have to decide in what form (or forms) to release it and even what its title is. (At Cannes, there were no onscreen credits, so most people started just calling it “Che.”

There seem to be at least three scenarios for how the film might proceed: Soderbergh and backers Wild Bunch and Telecino (who footed the entire $61 million bill) may release it as a four-hour event. Or as two separate parts (“The Argentine” and “Guerrilla”). Or it will be re-edited.

Auds at Cannes weren’t sure if they saw the film, or just a rough cut. Website Telegraph.co.uk said it was still being edited since the fest began May 14. Nearly every reviewer offered thoughts on “Che” ch-ch-changes.

Writing for the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw thought it was a flawed masterpiece, adding “it may be that Soderbergh intends its Cannes debut as the unveiling of a work-in-progress. It could well be re-edited. He might even make it longer.”

Is that a threat?

Roger Friedman of Fox News deemed it “a highly detailed mess of a film or two that might be saved if it’s rethought.”

At the press meet for the film in Cannes, Soderbergh said he wants his epic to be an event, maybe opening first as one film and then continuing its run in a given market as two separate films.

Even star Benicio Del Toro, who’s also a producer, admitted at the Cannes press conference that the project’s a tough sell, but he promises there’s a lot going on in the film for auds: “When they see the movie for the third time … they’ll start seeing dimensions and angles.”

That’s assuming auds are willing to see it three times.

Any potential U.S. distributor would be happy if auds saw it just once.

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