Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The art-house shuffle, a preview

Here's the early verdict on this weekend's art-house fare: The forecast calls for the arrival of a nimble bit of French romance and a very strange movie about the city of Tokyo.


First up: "Shall We Kiss?" This trifle of a comedy from director Emmanuel Mouret eventually tries to get serious. By the time we get to the end, though, it's a bit late for furrowed brows.

"Shall We Kiss?" -- opening Friday at the Esquire -- kicks off when Gabriel (Michael Cohen) puts the moves on a sophisticated-looking woman (Julie Gayet) who's trying to hail a cab in the city of Nantes. What appears to be a budding romance turns into something else. Over a couple of glasses of wine, Gayet's character tells the story of Parisian pals (Mouret and Virginie Ledoyen) whose friendship spills over into romance. Mouret’s character explains that he’s suffering from an acute lack of physical affection. Ledoyen's Judith decides to help relieve his misery, even though she's happily married.

The comedy stems from the detailed way in which the characters talk through their sexual intimacy. The initial exchange goes something like this:

Him: May I touch your breast?
Her: Yes.
Him: The other breast?
Her: Yes.

Those aren't exact quotes, but you get the idea. These lovers try to be as detached from their ardor as possible, which is what makes the scene amusing. It's as if they really believe they can drain their behavior of psychological complexity.

A lush musical score that’s reliant on Schubert and Tchaikovsky lessens the sting of the movie's many contrivances. This is one French movie in which what you see really is what you get. "Shall We Kiss?" resembles a nice glass of wine that lacks the kind of complexity that would make it truly memorable. It's one more big-screen bauble that evaporates from memory by the time you hit the parking lot. If not then, wait a day.


The anthology movie “Tokyo!” is another story. In fact, it’s three other stories – each from a different director. If the idea was to obtain three outsider views of Tokyo, the goal has been achieved -- albeit with mixed results. I wasn't entirely sure whether the movie was about the city of Tokyo or about the sensibilities of the three participating directors. I presume it's supposed to be a mix of both, but the short form doesn't exactly allow for balance. Directorial expression wins out.

-- Michel Gondry (“The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) offers the most playful of the three episodes. Gondry’s “Interior Design” begins when an aspiring filmmaker (Ryo Kase) and his girlfriend (Ayako Fujitani) move in with a friend while trying to establish themselves in Tokyo. Hunting for an apartment and for jobs proves a drag for the characters, but their period adjustment leads Gondry toward amusingly surreal territory. I'm not always partial to Gondry's work, but he never shortchanges an audience when it comes to imagination, and "Interior Design" is no exception.
-- French director Leos Carax dispenses with all charm in the most overtly toxic (and sometimes funniest) of the three episodes. In “Merde,” (look it up in a French/English dictionary if you don’t already know the meaning), Carax tells the story of a demonic madman (Denis Lavant) who lives in the sewers of Tokyo. Lavant’s character – a repulsively filthy fellow with an elfin beard – terrorizes the city. Comic edge gives way to horror when this creature begins flinging hand grenades around. Otherwise, Carax's dark humor prevails. Only a French attorney (Jean-Francois Balmer) is able to carry on a conversation with the creature, who speaks an unknown language and seems to embody every antagonism that lurks beneath Tokyo's teeming surface.
-- Korean director Boon Joon-ho, whose art-house horror movie “The Host” made a splash in 2006, submits the final entry in this sporadically successful trilogy. Bong focuses on a hikikomori, the Japanese name for urban hermits who shut themselves up in their homes. They eat take-out food and never venture beyond their thresholds. In this case, the hikikomori (Teruyuki Kagawa) hasn't left his house in ten years. He's jolted out of his homebound stupor by a pizza delivery girl, by earthquakes and by the need for the film to be about something other than the neatly stored pizza boxes that Kagawa's character has accumulated.

I'm not sold on anthology films, but each of the three movies has something to recommend it. Each director has an idiosyncratic talent that either elevates the proceedings or turns them into a show-off's showcase -- probably a bit of both, and "Tokyo!" comes off more as a curiosity than a full-bodied movie experience. Look for "Tokyo!" at the Mayan starting Friday.

No comments: