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Wednesday, May 5, 2004
Future through sepia-colored glasses
By KAORI SHOJI
The future is not now, it's retro in "Immortel (ad vitam)" (released in Japan as "God Diva") -- the latest Euro sci-fi created by French comic-book artist Enki Bilal.
Bilal, whose work has a cult following in Europe and Japan, is famed for adapting his own work for the cinema. His second directorial feature, "Tykho Moon" (1996), was his breakthrough work. Eager fans had all awaited this followup, rumored during production to be ambitious and blindingly futuristic, using digitally animated characters alongside real actors.
Surprise: "Immortel" has very little that's not old, chipped and nostalgic. Visually, it's eye candy, but the pleasure is that of wandering into an antique shop and rediscovering the exquisite familiarity of objects from the past. Considering that the story is set in New York, 2095, this seems like an exercise in paradox, a cinematic oxymoron.
The future, according to Bilal, is drenched in a sepia light that matches the skyscrapers' crumbling paint. Rusty, beat-up cars run on suspended railings that crisscross the sky. Giant neon (not LCD) billboards flicker with the latest news bulletins a la "Blade Runner." Actually, a lot of "Immortel" seems to have mutated from that 1982 bible of sci-fi. There's a whole lot of recycled material about the confrontation between humans and androids, and the notion that memory is the defining human trait. There's even a romantic encounter between a human male and a nonhuman woman. Retro? You better believe it.
Everything about "Immortel" reminds us how difficult it has become to draw the future and how in the past decade or so, the tendency for sci-fi has been to dip into the past. (Remember how the last of the "Alien" series had Ripley trapped in a medieval dungeon with guys dressed like Franciscan friars?) The world Bilal creates here is a cross between the Egyptian Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There's a lot of antiquated pagan elegance, but on the other hand everything creaks, the plumbing stinks and the clubs have that dreary Soviet decor. A mysterious pyramid has inexplicably appeared out of nowhere and hovers above Central Park, and the Park itself is shrouded in perpetual blizzards.
The most lustrous and futuristic presence in "Immortel" turns out to be Charlotte Rampling, sporting a fantastic black wig and shimmering Egyptian makeup. She has an ambience so cool it's advisable to wear a jacket just to watch her walk across the screen. Next to her, the digital characters are at a definite disadvantage -- she's the one who resembles a high-tech creation while they seemed to have jumped out of Bilal's drawing pad.
Unfortunately, Rampling shows up far too seldom. She plays Dr. Elma Turner, who befriends the lead femme, Jill (Linda Hardy), a nonhuman patient of hers with snow-white skin and blue hair. Dr. Elma is fascinated by Jill, who's a new species of nonhuman -- her organs are positioned differently from those of mere mortals and they're as youthful as those of a 3-month-old baby. Her brain is quick and intuitive, but she possesses no memory. Gradually, doctor and patient warm to each other before Jill becomes involved with Nikopol (Thomas Kretschmann), an escaped political criminal. Nikopol picks up Jill in a bar, and then invites himself over to her hotel room where he semi-forces her into a sexual relationship.
The catch is that all of this is done against his will, since his body has been possessed by an Egyptian deity named Horus (voice by Thomas M. Pollard). For reasons that are never really specified, Horus is in dire need of a proper female who will carry his child and orders Nikopol to impregnate Jill. Why them? Because in the whole of Manhattan, they seem to be the only ones whose bodies are 100 percent natural -- the rest of the populace habitually update themselves with artificial limbs, organs and skin and this doesn't work for Horus at all. (It's a good thing he didn't land in Beverly Hills.)
Honestly, though, a lot of the plot I just didn't get. Entire chunks of "Immortel" are left unexplained and then prove to be beside the point anyway. For example, we are introduced to a computer-animated (is he human?) cop named Inspector Froebe, NYPD's smartest officer. Half of his face had been torn off by a nonhuman (a species called Dayaks) offender five years ago, which is still a sore point with him. But he never solves anything, and the Dayak issue is never discussed. There are other odds and ends that remain curiously incomplete. Maybe they're not significant to the story but such sloppiness doesn't do it any favors either.
Most damaging of all is the hollowness of the nondigital characters. Jill is described as a "fresh and rare young woman" but apart from her physical attributes, we never get to know who she is and why she's deemed so special. Nikopol is supposedly a charismatic political rebel but he seems to have no other function than to chat up Jill a bit before sleeping with her, then repeating the whole process again the next day, and the day after. (So what are his political views?) Heroics are replaced by (or reduced to) propagation -- how bleak can the future get?