05/21/2014 07:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Director Bennett Miller Speaks at Cannes: 'We Are All So Vulnerable, and Not Always Aware of It"


It is one of the best films in the competition at Cannes this year: Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, based on the true story of a Du Pont family member who lured an Olympic wrestler (and his brother) to his estate to form a wrestling team, an invitation that led to tragedy. What makes the film riveting is how Miller creates the psychological needs that drive the main characters.

First we have Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), whose eyes are stricken with self-doubt, a man evidently traumatized by his parents' death when he was two and his subsequent need to have a "father" figure. Tatum is superb in this role, assuming the physical might of his character at the same time that he embodies the man's psychical depression. When he walks into his new residence, a luxurious chalet on the Du Pont estate, we feel his alienation and dire loneliness in his unsure steps. In other scenes, he looks with longing at his older brother (Mark Ruffalo), who, in contrast to him, is confident and has managed to create a happy family.

the two brothers

The other main character is John Du Pont, brilliantly played by Steve Carell as an absurdly childish man, dominated by his aristocratic mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who needs to create a wrestling team to forge a sense of manhood. Du Pont pontificates about American values, and will not take no for an answer. Soon he dominates the vulnerable Mark Schultz -- and tries next to dominate his less malleable brother.

The ingredients are ripe for a tragedy to ensue.

At first, the movie does not promise to be as intelligent and dramatic as it becomes: The spectator may believe that this is a typical sports film, with a tired critique of the American theme of the "rise of the underdog" as a subtext. American flags abound. Mark Schultz is depicted taking up the American success cause in speeches on television, believing not only in the American myth, but in the mythic glory of the Du Pont family, one of the wealthiest in the United States, which made its wealth from gunpowder and chemicals.

But soon enough, the craziness of the psychological dynamics takes over. The luxurious grounds of the Du Pont estate begins to seem ominous. Nobody seems to live in the coldly quiet mansion except for Du Pont and his mother, and sheltered in his chalet, the young wrestler.

"This is not particularly about politics and America," the director told us here in Cannes, steering journalists away this more banal "political" interpretation of his film.

He continued to explain, in a very soft and modest voice, as understated in tone as the psychology in his film:

"I tried to create a context that will sensitize you to what is beneath the story. There is a lot of male non-expressed communication in this film, and there is an undercurrent behind the undercurrent. Every scene is just the tip of the iceberg."

I asked Mr. Miller what his own understanding of "vulnerability" is: an interest that we have seen in his previous works, such as the celebrated Capote.

"I feel we are all so vulnerable anyway. It is a matter of how aware we are of it. I don't think these characters in my film are aware of how vulnerable they are and nobody was aware that this outcome would happen. What we are doing and what we think we are doing is not always the same."

He added his own take on the meaning of tragedy: "It is impossible in hindsight not to look at these characters as having these vulnerabilities. The fault lies not in the stars."