All Is Lost is a man-stranded-at-sea movie, starring Robert Redford, in a role that has almost no dialogue, as a fellow who wakes up in his small yacht, somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, only to discover that a random floating shipping crate — who knows how it got there? — has gashed a hole in the boat’s hull. It’s like his own miniature iceberg scrape: All of a sudden, his boat could go down, and him with it. Most movies that strand a solitary figure at sea, like Life of Pi, or on a desert island, like Cast Away or the template of the whole genre, Robinson Crusoe, are lonely but upbeat tales of invention and survival. J.C. Chandor, the writer and director of All Is Lost, does a radical existential twist on those tales. The film opens with Redford in voiceover, reading a farewell note to his family (confessing his selfishness, he says “I’m sorry,” and explains that he has only half a day’s rations left, and that he’s resigned to his fate, and that “all is lost”). It’s quite a bummer of a beginning, and when the movie then flashes back eight days, we’re already primed to experience Redford’s journey not as a series of small, ingenious acts of self-salvation but as a gradual downward spiral, the story of a man getting sucked into the void.
This is only the second feature directed by Chandor, who made the incisively suspenseful collapse-of-Wall Street drama Margin Call, and he works in a style of great purity. There’s hardly an overtly “movieish” moment in All Is Lost. Redford does try to save himself, repairing the hole in the boat with glue and burlap, pumping out the water that has flooded the cabin, climbing the boat’s very tall mast (that’s Redford up there — he did most of his own stunt work), or trying to get a radio signal (for a few seconds, it crackles on, then off). He’s contained and meticulous, and despite what we feel in our bones is coming, we’re moved by his ingenuity. But then a storm hits, a real nighttime whopper with towering black waves (it’s scarier than anything in The Perfect Storm), and Redford barely comes out of it alive. As the film goes on, he’s surviving, but he’s also losing. Redford’s performance is powerful: That face is still handsome but also ravaged, and for the first time, we see, and read, every crevice in it. Something strange and new creeps into Redford’s eyes. It’s fear. And, in the last part of the movie, the resigning of himself to death. All Is Lost has many of the things you’d expect in a storm-tossed tale like this one (sharks, a perilous life raft), but every moment remains believable and human-scale. This is Robert Redford, at the age of 76 (he looks and moves like a very fit man of 60), doing what too many stars should do and don’t: Taking a chance. Reinventing his art. Going for it. It’s an amazing thing to see. I left the screening of All Is Lost about six hours ago, and I can tell you, I am still haunted by its ending.
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Last night, I went to a rooftop party that featured one celebrity — Jessica Chastain, looking incandescent in her alabaster way — but the real star of the evening was the bling. Liz Taylor’s bling. The event came after a screening of the restored, four-hour version of Cleopatra (1963), which was held to commemorate the film’s 50th anniversary, and it was organized by Bulgari, the fabled Italian jeweler where Taylor found many of her most cherished pieces. A number of them were on display, in the kind of stately glass cases that house ancient Egyptian statue heads at the Metropolitian Museum of Art, and there was something eerily intimate about gawking at Taylor’s jewels — in particular, the emerald diamond necklace that Richard Burton gave her as a wedding present, with its emeralds weighing 60.5 carats. (It was recently purchased back by Bulgari at auction for a little over $6 million.) The necklace looks regal, outsize, unreal. The jewels are so big, in fact, that although the piece is stunning, it also doesn’t look all that different from the knockoff version with fake glittery crystals that you could buy at a mall for 15 bucks. There was something poignant about it: There’s no doubt that Richard Burton was crazy about Elizabeth Taylor (and who wouldn’t be?), but maybe no one should work quite this hard or spend this much to prove their love.
I didn’t go to the Cleopatra screening, fearing that four hours of that movie’s ponderous cardboard historical kitsch might do me in. But it struck me that what was really being celebrated — the true meaning of Cleopatra, in fact — was the 50th anniversary of the birth of modern celebrity culture. Because Taylor and Burton really invented it, right at that moment. It’s not just that they tempestuously fell in love while making Cleopatra. It’s that the film’s legendary awfulness is an important part of the story. Because what happened on that set when Liz met Dick is that their romance became more than gossip — it became a movie — and the humongously flawed backdrop of Cleopatra itself only symbolized how much more fascinating their movie was than so much of what they would ultimately come to do on-screen. Their back-and-forth, love-hate, jewel-encrusted romance eclipsed the romance of movies. And that’s why, in so many ways, Liz and Dick brought us to the place we are now, where the light of celebrity shines in our eyes so brightly that it’s often hard to see anything else.
Owen’s other posts from Cannes: