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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2003


On roads to nowhere

The Brown Bunny

Rating: * (out of 5)
Director: Vincent Gallo
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Le Fils

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: French
Opens Dec. 13
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Many People walked out of this year's Cannes Film Festival declaring it the worst in a generation. And whether you choose to look at the festival's winners or losers, either way there's plenty of evidence to support that proposition.

News photo
Vincent Gallo and Chloe Sevigny in "The Brown Bunny" (top); Morgan Marinne and Oliver Gourmet in "Le Fils"
News photo

Even Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" (opening early next year), which achieved the unprecedented honor of taking both the Palme d'Or and the Director's Award, took its share of flak.

This was a film largely loved and hated for the same reasons. Its advocates -- many of them French -- praised its opaque, detached viewpoint and general indictment of America's culture of violence (through its choice of topic, a high-school massacre modeled on the Columbine High killings.) Its detractors -- many of them American -- saw a film with no insight whatsoever into one of America's most wrenching tragedies; its victory (hot on the heels of "Bowling For Columbine") evidence of a knee-jerk anti-Americanism that trumped the larger issue of cinematic quality.

The French-American split was also noticeable with Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny," his long-awaited second film after the cult hit "Buffalo '66." Actually, "The Brown Bunny" received one of the worst receptions ever recorded at Cannes (even the press screening was filled with jeers), with just about everyone except the French critics declaring it an unmitigated disaster.

It's easy to understand the virulently anti-Gallo reaction as a matter of dashed expectations, similar to what befell David Lynch when he went to Cannes with "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," two years after "Wild at Heart" took the Palme d'Or. "Buffalo '66" was such a quirky, singular product of Gallo's obsessions that it was always going to be a hard act to follow.

But "The Brown Bunny" goes far beyond merely disappointing to attain a rarely achieved level of awfulness.

Gallo has his eye set on a minimalist, existentialist road movie, pitched somewhere between Wim Wenders and Michelangelo Antonioni, an austere, rigorous approach that doesn't sit well with his streak of self-indulgence. (This trait was mitigated in "Buffalo" by an outre sense of self-deprecating humor.)

"Brown Bunny" literally reeks of narcissism, starting with the credits: "Written, directed, edited and produced by Vincent Gallo." Oh, he's also the "director of photography," never mind the fact that some other peons actually shot the film while Gallo was busy starring in it. "Hair/makeup/wardrobe" are also credited to Gallo. Perhaps he should have added an "appreciated by Vincent Gallo" credit, since he'll probably be on his lonesome in that department as well. Except for the French critics of course, but Gallo returned their love by calling it "salt in the wound."

"The Brown Bunny" is a road movie that only a hikikomori could love. It follows bike-racer Bud Clay (Gallo) as he drives across country from New Hampshire to his next race in California, and reminisces about a lover named Daisy (Chloe Sevigny).

Here's how it goes: Gallo broods. Then he drives down those lonesome highways, and we're treated to interminable, home-movie quality shots from the back seat looking out the front windshield. Then he'll try to pick up some girl (in Gallo's world, all women are irresistibly drawn to him) with a line like "You look pretty. You want to come to California with me? Please? Pleeeaasse? Please?" Then when the girl agrees to his whining, he hits the road. Cue more brooding, and more highway shots. Repeat cycle.

As monotonous as the visuals are, the trite soft-rock crooned on the soundtrack is even worse. "Autumn's leaving, and winter's coming, I think that I'll be moving on. . . . I've got to leave her and find another, I've got to sing my heart's true song." Yup, ol' Vincent is as free as a bird now, and that bird will never change . . .

After 60 long minutes of angst-ridden glowering, Bud finally has a rendezvous with Daisy in a Los Angeles hotel. This scene -- in which Sevigny actually fellates Gallo -- finally explains why Bud has been so miserable for the whole film, but understanding and caring are two different things. The viewer will probably decline to accompany Gallo as he disappears up his own bunghole of whiney misery.

Minimalist shots that take a long time to show very little seem to be the "in" style among Cannes cognoscenti who support festival director Gilles Jacob's selections. Just as a good part of the "The Brown Bunny" consists of shots of the back of Gallo's head as he drives along the highway, the camera angle of choice in the Belgian award-winner "Le Fils" ("Musuko no Manazashi") is about one meter behind the head of its lead actor, Olivier Gourmet.

Did I mention that Gourmet received the Best Actor award? Perhaps I'm old-fashioned in thinking that the face is more expressive than a bald spot, but a more infuriating and boring way to shoot the film would be hard to imagine. And giving the Best Actor award to an actor whose sweaty neck and bulging shoulders get more screen time than his face is a move that just reeks of contrariness. Or, as the French might say, a contretemps: It seems like the less a film is able to communicate anything directly to an audience, the more certain critics love it, because it renders them as necessary intermediaries to "explain" and "interpret" the film.

I bumped into the filmmakers, brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, in a small Golden-Gai watering hole, and asked them to explain why they chose to shoot in this way: They gave sighs of exasperation, and said they'd been asked that in every interview they did in Tokyo and were tired of answering the question. Fair enough, but that speaks volumes about how off-putting the film's cinematography is.

It's a shame, really, because the Dardenne brothers ("Rosetta") have an interesting story at the heart of their film. Gourmet plays a vocational school teacher of carpentry who reacts with agitation and alarm when a new student (Morgan Marinne) is added to his rolls. We soon learn why: The boy, just out of reform school, was the person who murdered his son in a robbery several years before.

Gourmet remains inscrutable, which is no doubt the film's attraction: We never know what his intentions are. Maybe he has a need to learn what sort of boy could commit such a deed, and whether or not he's actually repentant. For all we know, he may be planning on killing the boy in revenge, a possibility we're constantly reminded of by all the sharp tools and saws lying around the carpentry shop.

The Dardennes, however, are less interested in suspense than the documentary aspects of filming what a carpenter does. We are thus treated to long scenes of wood-cutting and ladder-climbing, interspersed with Gourmet doing sit-ups, listening to his answering machine or heating a tin of soup. There's truth in the mundane, but a little of it goes a long way.

There are rich themes about the desire for revenge vs. the possibility of rehabilitation, but they're buried amid the boredom. It's easy to see the dour realism of "Le Fils" as a reaction to the strained, outrageous plotting of a Hollywood "issue film" like "The Life of David Gale," but in the end, it suffers from a similar fault: a story designed to prove a point, regardless of plausibility. If you buy a teacher actually taking his son's killer under his wing, your mileage may vary.

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