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Friday, Sept. 15, 2006

Stylish, but little substance

A consistent, unspoken longing, a severed ring finger and obsessive sex form the celluloid microcosm that is "L'annulaire," a film so caught up in fine-tuning its very particular moods and nuances that the story is almost beside the point. Strangely, the viewer is OK with that, if only because the central character, Iris (played by former runway model Olga Kurylenko) -- a 21-year old factory worker turned laboratory assistant -- is so ravishing that all sensory perceptions become entrenched in a languid stupor of sheer appreciation. Though Iris never says or does very much, her mere presence in the frame was apparently enough for filmmaker Diane Bertrand, whose gaze upon her is charged with a sublime eroticism, and, accordingly, enshrouds Iris in one of the softest, most translucent lighting schemes in recent cinema. Confronted by such visuals, does one really need a coherent and believable story? The answer, almost, is "not really."

L'annulaire Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Olga Kurylenko in "L'annulaire"

Director: Diane Bertrand
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: French
Opens Sept. 23, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

The opening scenes show Iris in a steamy factory room, bent over a conveyor belt laden with lemonade bottles. By mistake, she grasps one that's broken and at that instant the tip of her ring finger is sliced off, sinking pinkishly into some fizzy liquid. Iris faints, wakes up in the infirmary to see her bandaged hand and collapses into tears. This sequence is the only violent, emotionally intense moment in the entire movie.

During the rest of the 100 minutes, violence is only very gently suggested underneath what comes off as a moisturized sheen of sensuality. Water and other liquids prevail and Iris is always either drenched in rain, misty with sweat, or prey to an unquenchable thirst. Gulp.

Upon leaving the factory, Iris seeks work at the docks, only to be turned away, but she does find a new living space in a seedy hotel. The proprietor informs her that she must share the room with a dock laborer who's on perpetual night shift, and the condition is that she vacate the room by 7 in the morning. Iris agrees, and is intrigued by the man's telltale signs left in the room; his few clothes hanging in the closet and a passport casually thrown on the desk. In turn, the man (Stipe Erceg) sees Iris' dress hanging by the window and carefully, wonderingly fingers the material. By amazing strokes of coincidence, however, they never meet. Instead, Iris becomes mesmerized by her new employer: a lab scientist (Marc Barbe) who creates "specimens" out of peoples' mementos, and who presents her with a pair of enticing strap shoes. "I want you to wear these at all times," he tells her. "Even when I'm not looking."

"L'annulaire" is full of such snippets of poetry, both in the story and the characters, but they remain just that -- snippets -- whose net sum doesn't amount to a whole lot of personality portrayal. Iris, though wonderful to look at, is devoid of depth, apart from a constant pining for her missing finger. The dock worker is silent and constantly dragging on cigarettes. As for the scientist, he seems to have no other function apart from an urgent desire for Iris, which, in turn, triggers her own obsession for this man, who, when they first make love, first strips her completely but leaves his own lab coat on.

This film is based on the novel by Yoko Ogawa, whose works are defined by murky, dreamy sexual obsessions that the heroine may or may not act upon. Director Bertrand faithfully re-enacts the dreaminess and the insulated, slightly clammy texture of the original story. Bertrand hints that all this could, in fact, just be some girlish daydream concocted by Iris to console herself. On the other hand, it's just the kind of fantasy scenario in which a middle-aged scientist would choose to indulge his jaded intellect. (A dark-haired beauty comes knocking on his lab door one morning, says very little and agrees to do everything he says. Niiice.) Time seems to fuel rather than dampen his ardor; initially distant and manipulative in the seduction process, he thaws enough to undress in front of Iris, and when they lie together on hard bathroom tiles (where they are in the habit of frequenting during work hours), he cradles her body so that she won't get tile marks on her back.

In the end, however, you can't help feeling that Iris is a victim, albeit a willing one. During her many closeup shots, you'll notice small round incisions on her temples, almost as if she had once been a specimen or a butterfly, pinned down on a board for someone's careful scrutiny. And yet, as Iris says with simple self-awareness: "I know it's better to leave. But I just don't want to."

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