It’s been a weird, slow Cannes. Indiana Jones’s high-profile splash aside, the big pictures have been struggling in the sales market. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, for example, remains unsold. (A.O. Scott says it is “a seamless and complicated alternate reality, unsettling nearly every expectation a moviegoer might have about time, psychology and narrative structure” that makes “previous efforts look almost conventional.“)

The poster child for directors struggling to sell interesting films is Steven Soderbergh. His four and a half-hour Che was the most anticipated screening of the festival, and a presumptive Palm d’Or winner even before it ran on Wednesday evening. Reactions have been mixed; in the same Cannes journal where he discussed Charlie Kaufman’s movie, Scott says:

There is a lot, however, that the audience will not learn from this big movie, which has some big problems as well as major virtues. In between the two periods covered in “Che,” Guevara was an important player in the Castro government, but his brutal role in turning a revolutionary movement into a dictatorship goes virtually unmentioned. This, along with Benicio Del Toro’s soulful and charismatic performance, allows Mr. Soderbergh to preserve the romantic notion of Guevara as a martyr and an iconic figure, an idealistic champion of the poor and oppressed. By now, though, this image seems at best naïve and incomplete, at worst sentimental and dishonest. More to the point, perhaps, it is not very interesting.

Part of the problem, however, seems to be merely that this is a very long movie with dialogue almost wholly in Spanish. It’s also a long movie that seems like two. The first half chronicles Che’s part in the Cuban revolution, the second his failed insurrection in Bolivia.

The presumption has been that Soderberg would split the movie into two, called The Argentine and Guerilla. THR quotes from his Thursday press conference, where Soderbergh  said “What I’d like to do is that if it opens in a town, you can see it for a week as one movie, and then you split it up. To me that would be an event.

He also commented on the film’s length (“…it felt like if you’re going to have context, then it’s just going to have to be a certain size.“) and reception (“I find it hilarious that people say that movies are too conventional. And then when (something comes out) that isn’t conventional, they seem annoyed.“).

A Palm d’Or win could change the film’s fortunes, but even with that wreath hanging off the poster, it’s hard to imagine that Che would hit theaters as a four-hour plus experience. The halves released as separate films seems more likely and practical, though I could also see a deal that would have the film hit HDNET or another service at full length while debuting in theatres as two films. 

More snippets of the press conference are available at CNN, or you can listen to the entire thing at the Cannes ’08 website.