Cannes Diary #8
American films were a rare breed in Cannes this year, but in competition there was one such selection with a uniquely American story. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, a look at the strange life of strange millionaire John du Pont, had its premiere last week at the festival, where its filmmaker was awarded the Best Director prize over the weekend.
Months after releasing the 2005 film Capote, Miller says he received a letter from Harper Lee. The author of To Kill a Mockingbird, a longtime friend of Capote’s, acknowledged that Miller’s film reimagined much about its subject yet ultimately told the truth about him. With Foxcatcher, Miller said last week that he again sought to use fiction as a way to get to the truth.
Exploring a version of reality on screen is customary in the films of Bennett Miller. His first feature was the 1998 documentary The Cruise, a touching portrait of a New York City tour guide who performs for customers just as he seems to be performing for Miller’s mini-DV camera. By spending hours with his subject, Timothy “Speed” Levitch, Miller creates a compelling look at a distinctive individual. In Capote years later, Miller examined the life of the American author, and in Moneyball three years ago he explored the true story of a major league baseball team and its rejuvenation through a statistical approach.
Foxcatcher delves into the true story of du Pont (played by Steve Carell), an heir to a massive family fortune who killed an American gold-medal wrestler he’d befriended. After Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively) won the medal for wrestling at the 1984 Olympics, du Pont lured the brothers to train at a facility he’d built on his family’s expansive Pennsylvania estate where he lived with his aging mother, herself an equestrian trophy winner.
Du Pont develops a curious relationship with the athletes, in particular Mark Schultz. They train as “Team Foxcatcher” at du Pont’s estate, and he styles himself as a kind of mentor for the men. The motive for the murder is unclear, as is du Pont’s intense interest in the athletes in the first place. Is it paternal? Maniacal? Sexual? Is he merely collecting these athletes the way other wealthy individuals assemble an art collection?
Foxcatcher arrived in Cannes as a curiosity, after an abrupt decision last year to postpone its scheduled December release. The film had been set to screen at AFI Fest in Los Angeles when its release was pushed back to this year. Last week, it debuted at the festival’s midpoint to one of the more enthusiastic responses of the week. Cheers of bravo were heard from journalists at the start of a press conference immediately following the first screening. Miller said on Saturday that he was surprised to get a phone call while at breakfast in Paris early that morning asking him to return to Cannes for the evening awards ceremony.
After reading an article about the intriguing true-crime story of the murder, and the odd relationship between du Pont and the Schultzes, Miller said he began to explore the story further, ultimately embarking upon a journalistic investigation that included interviewing those involved.
“One way of understanding the universe is through a microscope. The other is through a telescope,” Miller noted during the Cannes press conference. “And this is the microscopic approach.”
A childhood friend of Miller’s, Dan Futterman, who authored the script for Capote, co-wrote the Foxcatcher screenplay with E. Max Frye.
“This is a story with some uncomfortable truths. Everyone I spoke with seemed to be guarding some aspect of what happened,” Miller offered. “It really was an exploration. There were no real dots to connect.”
Foxcatcher doesn’t explain du Pont or his crime but rather makes him and the relationships more complex.
“These guys were bound to this guy who didn’t know anything about wrestling,” Miller said. “The first question is, what is the transaction and how honest are they with each other about it?”
Miller hoped to raise a number of questions through his extended examination.
“By really staring at it, hopefully in an unflinching way, [you] see past the thing that you are looking at,” he said. “It is not so much about telling a story but observing a story to create a context that will sensitize you to what’s happening beneath the story.”
“There’s a lot of American-male, repressed non-communication happening in this film,” Miller continued.
International journalists in Cannes seemed particularly enthralled by what they read as an indictment of the United States. One writer asked Miller about his cultural critique, but the director demurred.
“The film itself does not take a moral position as much as it’s meant to be an investigation in an attempt to understand and feel some of these dynamics,” Miller said. “What happened was so bizarre and absurdist and comical and ultimately horrible. Within this story there were themes that seemed much larger than the story. I can relate it to the world that we live in our country but . . . I do not want to venture out and make a comment about it.”
Foxcatcher will be released in theaters at the end of the year.