Cannes Day 7: Donald Trump Pic ‘The Apprentice’ Stirs Up Controversy

Controversy has swept into Cannes, riding on the back of a new Donald Trump biopic (but is the movie any good?). Plus: David Cronenberg returns and there are acquisitions aplenty.

“The Apprentice” courts controversy

Any movie about the life of Donald Trump was going to stir up controversy. But “The Apprentice,” from Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi (whose last film, the brutal “Holy Spider,” competed for the Palme d’Or in 2022) and starring Sebastian Stan as the former (and possible future) president, is enraging pretty much everybody.

Before the film even screened, one of the film’s backers, billionaire Dan Snyder, issued cease-and-desist letters against the film, which he had partially funded believing that it would be a warm portrait of the former commander-in-chief. (Snyder is a hardcore conservative who donated more than $1 million to Trump and his inaugural committee in 2016.) Upon learning that the film is unflattering, and features a much-talked-about sequence where Trump rapes his former wife Ivana (played by “Borat 2” breakout Maria Bakalova), Snyder attempted to, at first, exert creative control and, now, is attempting to block the film from getting a release.

Trump himself also threatened legal action over the film on Monday, with his campaign’s chief spokesman Steven Cheung telling TheWrap they will “be filing a lawsuit.” (Trump is currently on trial in New York City for his Stormy Daniels hush money fraud conviction.)

“The Apprentice,” at the very least, screened at Cannes — and the response has been decidedly muted. Named after Trump’s reality show, follows the mogul in his early days as he is mentored by Roy Cohn (played by “Succession” Emmy winner Jeremy Strong). IndieWire critic David Ehrlich wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that he was “mostly bored” by this obvious “I’ve created a monster” drama, and awarded it a C in his review. New York Magazine critic Bilge Ebiri described the movie as “a hodgepodge of scenes from the life of Trump and Cohn with little emotional fluidity.”

Ebiri continued: “At his premiere, Abbasi talked about tackling the rising tide of fascism head-on, but I’m not sure this choppy dress-up picture does that. And at some point we might wonder why we’re spending two hours watching a movie that, as it goes on, starts to feel more and more like a fancy, vaguely arty ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch that refuses to end.” (Rafa Sales Ross, writing for The Playlist, liked it more, saying that it “works” and giving it a B+.)

Our own review, courtesy of Steve Pond, was also more mixed, longing for a Trump film that lived up to a filmmaker as interesting as Abbasi: “It’s a true-life horror story in some ways, and Abbasi approaches it as a Frankenstein tale in which the mad doctor creates a monster and then loses control of it. But after years of Trump imitations (and the real thing), it also can’t help but feel a little cartoonish, and maybe not the best use of the director’s particular talents.”

As to when the rest of us will get to see “The Apprentice,” well, that is stickier. The movie has no domestic distributor, and it might not have one for a little while. Beyond the legal wranglings of Snyder and Trump himself, New York Times writer Kyle Buchanan wrote, “I spoke with buyers who worried that the film could end up in a sort of no man’s land where liberal audiences aren’t inclined to see it and conservative moviegoers will rail against its depiction of Trump.” Buchanan continued: “A gutsy studio could run an attention-getting awards campaign for Stan and Strong. That could mitigate some of the potential audience apathy, though it does pose an awards-season conundrum: For once, can Hollywood’s liberal left be encouraged to vote for Trump?”

Cronenberg gets personal

Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, known for body horror favorites like “The Fly” and “Videodrome,” is no stranger to Cannes. His controversial “Crash” won a Special Jury Prize when it premiered there in 1996, and several of his subsequent films, including “A History of Violence” and, most recently, 2022’s wonderful “Crimes of the Future,” competed for the Palme d’Or. He’s back, in competition once more, with “The Shrouds,” a movie about a businessman (Vincent Cassel, looking eerily like to the director) who develops a technology that allows him to watch his late wife decompose.

Originally developed as a streaming series for Netflix, who ultimately rejected the project for being too weird, the project is inspired by the death of his wife, Carolyn Zeifman, who passed away in 2017. (The two had been married for nearly 40 years.) The movie is probably exactly what you expect a Cronenberg-sized exploration of grief would be and the response, so far at least, has been mixed.

New York Magazine critic Bilge Ebiri wrote a largely negative review, but conceded, “I will admit to not being a fan of the director’s later efforts (I prefer the earlier, funnier ones), but it feels like a gift to the world that he keeps making them, pursuing his own twisted muse no matter where it takes him.” Screen Daily critic Tim Grierson was similarly unimpressed and wrote on X: “You can feel Cronenberg’s unfathomable grief in every frame, his acknowledgment that nothing can bring back what he’s lost. That makes the film terribly poignant, but it doesn’t make up for a muddled story that severs us from that emotional connection.”

But not everyone was so harsh. The Irish Times writer Donald Clarke wrote on X that, while you can feel it “conspicuously cobbled together from an unfinished TV series,” it is still “funny, spooky and genuinely emotional.” IndieWire critic David Ehrlich swung around to the film, writing on X that he had seen it “awhile ago and was left cold … But I couldn’t stop thinking about it and now it’s grown into one of my favorite of his films, so perceptive about the physicality of mourning.” (He gave it an A-.)

Our own review by Steve Pond said this of Cronenberg’s latest: “It’s a deeply personal look at loss that finds plenty of time to get creepy but never loses sight of the fact that it’s a movie about grief.”

“The Shrouds” doesn’t have domestic distribution yet, but hopefully will secure a home before the festival wraps up. We need this in our lives. What distributor will have the guts?

Latest acquisitions

How about films that you will see (eventually)?

Metrograph Pictures acquired North American rights to “Santosh,” Sandhya Suri’s narrative feature debut, following its world premiere in Un Certain Regard. The film follows the title character, a recent widow who inherits her husband’s job as a constable in a rural area of Northern India. When a girl is murdered, she is drawn into the investigation.

Meanwhile, Sideshow and Janus Films have acquired all North American rights to “All We Imagine as Light,” written and directed by Payal Kapadia. It is the first Indian film to screen in official competition at Cannes in 30 years. Kapadia previously brought her documentary “A Night of Knowing Nothing” to Directors’ Fortnight, where she won the L’Œil d’Or for Best Documentary in 2021.

But that’s not all!

Continuing their acquisition spree at the festival, Neon has acquired the North American rights to “Sentimental Value,” to be directed by Oscar nominee Joachim Trier and starring Renate Reinsve. This marks a reunion for Neon, Trier and Reinsve following “The Worst Person in the World,” which was nominated for an Academy Award and rightfully earned Reinsve the Best Actress award at Cannes. The project is being described as a “family drama,” with Neon releasing the movie next year.

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