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celluloid relapse: mr franco, the man of many faces

James Franco is a man of many faces. As Harry Osborn (Spiderman, 2002), his troubled visage was one of wealth, confusion and later, festering anger. His portrayal of Aron Ralston in 127 Hours (2010) betrayed a succession of emotions and thoughts ranging from hedonist, ‘ouch! It appears my arm is trapped!’, to acceptance. In Milk (2008), it betrayed love, dedication and sacrifice – as did his derrière. Franco’s face occasionally even makes a cameo appearance in the real world as NYU film student and doer of normal person things.

This is quite a face – a fact confirmed by large hordes of screaming, pre-pubescent girls and gossip magazines. However, none of these aforementioned expressions comes even vaguely close to what may be perceived as Franco’s shining magnum opus of facial expressions. Lengthy, intense and quite unique, Franco’s Tristan in Tristan + Isolde (2006) is, to date, his greatest accomplishment. Somehow, for over two hours, he looks utterly and hopelessly carsick, and all without ever getting into a car.

It is a mystery why this would ever be considered an appropriate facial expression for such a film. Set in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, it is certain that cars were yet to be invented. Wagon, horse or boat sicknesses could be to blame, but Tristan doesn’t spend enough time on any of these forms of transport to warrant profound nausea. Tristan’s achy breaky heart here could also be the culprit, but considering he looked like this before he met the love of his life, Isolde (Sophia Myles), this too becomes increasingly unlikely. One is forced to conclude that the famous warrior Tristan has always had to suppress the urge to vomit. That must surely make fighting immeasurably problematic.

As claimed by the film’s catch line, Tristan + Isolde is an archetypal, tragic love story of the same pedigree as Romeo and Juliet. This notion is in fact a fabulous hyperbole, as the version of Tristan + Isolde told in the film is not particularly tragic, and aside from adultery and betrayal, nothing really sordid happens. No lives are taken, no secret marriages – zilch. With its many operatic, trilled cries of ‘Tristaaan!’, Wagner’s version is sufficiently more dramatic and admittedly much more interesting. It unfortunately loses points in this context as it is not actually a film.

Men in the Dark Ages were all apparently proud, harboured the same liking for feathered hairdos and were never wont to leave the house or castle without a large, phallic weapon firmly in their grasp. This was the world into which Tristan was born which, despite the scrupulously coiffed locks of its warriors, was one of severe geopolitical and domestic insecurity. Following some confusing and perhaps unnecessary plot developments, a partially deceased Tristan is washed upon the shores of bonny Ireland, only to be found and cared for by Isolde. Of course they fall in love, of course Tristan has to run away and of course he returns to Ireland to win her in a tournament on behalf of his King who, of course, only has one hand. Any internal emotional turmoil felt by the divided lovers is, too, completely expected. So too is an attempt at a tragic ending.

Tristan + Isolde is, unfortunately, resoundingly predictable and uninteresting. Expensive sets, costumes, fight scenes and an impressive attention to historical detail are not enough to salvage an interesting premise. Inevitably, it becomes farcical.  All that remains to recommend it is the face of a very attractive protagonist, and a crude prosthetic hand.

It may seem from the outset the likening of Franco’s performance to an individual suffering from motion sickness is more than a little cruel, but such a comparison was meant as a compliment of extraordinary dimensions. When in a state such as carsickness, the majority of us at best resemble slobbering, incoherent and very irritable zombies. We most certainly do not have the capacity to look suave, fight, nor to win the affections of attractive females. Franco and his versatile face defy all logic and expectation by being completely stunning.

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