- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2015

CANNES, France (AP) - The full-throated passions of the Cannes Film Festival can elevate, just as they can humble. As the Palme d’Or winner in 2003 for his school-shooting drama “Elephant,” Gus Van Sant has basked in the festival’s sunny glow, just as he has, this year, experienced its cold shoulder.

Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees,” which stars Matthew McConaughey as a man lost in Japan’s Aokigahara “suicide” forest, received emphatic boos at its premiere to press members. Though its official red-carpet premiere on Saturday went down better, the Cannes fate of “The Sea of Trees” was already sealed as (at least thus far) the festival’s most rudely received film.

“I was, as I always am, cautious,” Van Sant said in an interview about showing “The Sea of Trees” at Cannes. “It’s a volatile place. So when I heard there were boos, I was like, ‘OK. It’s happened.’”

Speaking Sunday on a windy, seaside pier, Van Sant sounded sanguine about the stormy waters of Cannes.

“Who knows what people thought they were going to see, but they could easily get really mad because it is very sentimental,” said Van Sant. “What better movie to get angry at than something that’s too schmaltzy for you? I can see that.”

In “The Sea of Trees,” McConaughey plays a man racked with guilt over his marriage (Naomi Watts plays his wife) who travels to Japan to kill himself. In the forest, he meets another man (Ken Watanabe) and the movie plays out as part spiritual soul-searching, part survival drama.

Plenty of films at Cannes have been received negatively this year. But usually the loudest booing is reserved only for strongly polarizing movies (even Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” was booed in its Cannes debut) or maybe if the hype has so exceeded the movie’s merits. Such was the case last year when Ryan Gosling’s highly anticipated directorial debut “Lost River” was booed and slammed by critics.

“I think maybe because it’s McConaughey, there’s a lot of stock in him at the moment and his Lincoln ads are parodied,” said Van Sant. “And it’s me. It was sort of an illustrious screenplay. It had a really good reaction among the agents. … If it was anticipated, I could easily see myself disappointed. If I thought it was a certain type of movie, and it was just a different movie.”

Van Sant says that festival director Thierry Fremaux called to say he wanted the film for Cannes before seeing it. Later, it was moved from the Un Certain Regard sidebar into the competition where expectations are amped up considerably - especially for a well-regarded filmmaker like Van Sant, the director of “Good Will Hunting,” ”Milk” and “My Own Private Idaho.”

“Then it went to competition and I was like: ‘OK, wow. This is scary,’” said Van Sant. “But it doesn’t matter what you’ve made. It’s always going to be scary.”

But sunnier days could still shine on “The Sea of Trees.” It was picked up for U.S. distribution by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions ahead of the festival. The movie-going public generally has less of an issue with sentimentality than Cannes critics, and McConaughey is one of the most popular stars in film right now. A release date hasn’t yet been announced, but sometime next year is likely.

In moviemaking, the breaks can go either way.

“Every film you do,” Van Sant says, “has its possibility of hitting just the right note at the right time.”


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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