‘Playback Time’: revisiting Willem Dafoe’s unexpected appearance in a ‘Mr. Bean’ movie

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Willem Dafoe is no stranger to the Cannes Film Festival red carpet. Across a career spanning four decades, a number of his movies have premiered at the celebrated event, from Lars von Trier’s shockingly sadomasochistic Antichrist to monochromatic A24 favourite The Lighthouse. But perhaps Dafoe’s most well-documented trip to the French festival came in 2007 with a fictional arthouse film and a British comedy staple.

Before his recent bout of avant-garde roles, Dafoe made an unexpected fictional appearance at Cannes as the vapid villain in Mr. Bean’s Holiday. The actor took on the role of Carson Clay, an American arthouse filmmaker whose latest project is premiering at the festival, though his screening is interrupted by Mr. Bean’s holiday-making footage.

The role came when Dafoe seemed to be embarking upon a string of guaranteed box office successes, starring as the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and lending his voice to an animated fish in Disney’s Finding Nemo. Though he since seems to have found a love for more off-kilter and out-there projects, Dafoe excelled in the role of Clay.

Dropped into the strange, sarcastic world of British comedy – and the even stranger world of the mumbling, teddy-loving Mr. Bean – Dafoe wasn’t exactly in his element on the set of Mr. Bean’s Holiday. But instead of failing under the pressure of the iconic comedy character and the 17 years worth of fans he had amassed, Dafoe rose to the occasion and delivered a scene-stealing performance.

Perhaps borrowing from his own experiences in Hollywood, Dafoe embodied the character of Carson Clay, perfectly encapsulating the self-obsessed, pretentious filmmaker. His standout moment comes at the film’s climax, as he dons a leather jacket and a smug look to introduce the premiere of his film, Playback Time, at Cannes.

“This film is for all of us who hunger for truth,” he declares, “for all of us who cry out in pain, for those whose souls yearn to sing.” The film that follows delivers on none of those promises, proving to be an exercise in narcissism for Clay, with a lengthy opening shot that follows him going up and down an escalator. “Carson Clay Pictures present Carson Clay in a Carson Clay production of a Carson Clay film,” the overlaid text states.

With dramatic voiceovers and endless shots of Clay, Dafoe and the writers poke fun at the arthouse films that premiere at the real-life Cannes Film Festival until his screening is disrupted by the intervention of Rowan Atkinson’s character. Much to Clay’s initial distress, the audience seem much more entertained by videos of Bean trying – and failing – to eat lobster and dance across France.

Instead of refuting the mixup, Dafoe’s character decides to lean into it, claiming the work as his own. “Everyone said this wouldn’t work,” he declares at a press conference, “said it was a terrible risk, but I want to keep on making films just like this.” Leaning entirely into the egotistic character, he delivers a performance that only adds to the project’s comedy in its absurdity.

Mr. Bean’s Holiday might not be the most acclaimed entry into Dafoe’s filmography. It might not have won the most awards or earned the highest Rotten Tomatoes score, but Dafoe still opted to deliver a stellar performance. It’s a demonstration of his aptitude and respect for sillier comedies and his willingness to take the mick out of the sphere he often exists within.

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