Saturday, April 5, 2008

My Blueberry Nights

In My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-Wai's up to his old tricks and, unlike in the series of occasionally breathtaking films he made in the 1990s and the early part of this decade, they no longer feel particularly fresh. Perhaps because his trademark aesthetic is placed in service of such unimaginative, but insistently dramatic material - a banal self-discovery plot, an interpolated tale about the sad fate of an alcoholic - each slow motion cutaway, each impossibly lovely shot of an overhead train, each pop song repeated on the soundtrack begins to feel like so much drab aestheticising, a talented director taking refuge in the comforts of a "signature" style.
Despite a somewhat heavier reliance on standard plotting (and an American setting), My Blueberry Nights is really not too dissimilar from what Wong usually does; it's simply that he doesn't do it nearly as well. Wong's films have always been mostly interested in surfaces; they're best at building distinctive moods out of carefully orchestrated visual patterns and appropriately atmospheric music, while only occasionally offering anything more than immediate sensual pleasures. At their best, these pleasures can be heady. But where Fallen Angels conjured up an unmistakable sense of nocturnal disorientation and In the Mood For Love evoked a woozy romanticism, Nights struggles to achieve a comparable distillation of mood. In the end, Wong leaves us with little more than an occasional visual loveliness which, in the absence of any substance on which to anchor its aestheticism, grows quickly tiresome.

The film begins at an outer-borough café that, except for the elevated train that passes by every time a character steps outside, seems the lone presence in the darkness of a thoroughly depopulated street. The setting feels deliberately displaced - bearing little relation to any conception of a real New York, it invokes instead an anonymous nighttime city - an impression reinforced by Wong's strategy of spatial disorientation in which nearly every shot is a close-up and the backgrounds remain completely out-of-focus. With the absence of the usual orienting markers (establishing shots, legible backgrounds), all we're left with are faces. In this case, they belong to Jeremy (Jude Law), the café owner and Elizabeth (Norah Jones), a young woman coming off a bad breakup. As the two talk over blueberry pie, their conversation gives rise to inevitable romantic stirrings, the attachment cemented through a rather icky conceit in which Jeremy kisses the remains of whipped cream from Elizabeth's lips after she falls asleep at her table.

Hoping to escape her old romantic patterns, Elizabeth then cuts out, leaving town without a word, heading West and supporting herself with a series of waitress and bartender jobs. That her voyage is intended as one of self-discovery is a point that Wong seems rather too insistent on making. Not content to have his heroine continually try out new variations on her name - we watch her name tags change from Lizzie to Betty to Beth* - he has her report directly on her findings at the film's conclusion. We learn, for example, that she tried to view the world with distrust and was pleased to find she couldn't. As spoken by Norah Jones - well established as a singer, but making her screen debut - combating a newcomer's tentativeness with too much insistence, all this, unfortunately, sounds rather unconvincing. It would take a far more confident actor to sell these kinds of trite life-lessons.

Elizabeth's first stop on her journey is Memphis, where she works as a bartender and befriends an alcoholic cop, his addiction intensified by the breakup of his marriage. After nearly shooting his ex-wife, the cop wanders off in a booze-filled stupor and fatally crashes his car. Why Wong chose to devote so much time to such a conventionally melodramatic story, unenlivened by any singular details that might have added a hint of dramatic interest and why he chose to place the whole thing at the center of his film is an open question. It's also unclear why he set the sequence in Memphis since, except for an Otis Redding song repeated on the soundtrack - meant to signify that particular city - there's nothing location-specific about his presentation.

The film threatens to bottom out completely in the section's conclusion as the ex-wife (Rachel Weisz) tells her side of the story to "Lizzie", until a surprising final gesture goes some way towards dissipating the dreariness of the preceding scene. With the two women seated outside the bar on the sidewalk - Weisz occupying the foreground of the screen and Jones remaining out-of-focus in the background - the ex-wife fills us in on the not very illuminating details of a story we haven't much cared about to begin with. After she's done speaking, Jones leans consolingly towards the bereaved woman, her movement bringing her out of the background and into focus. In the subtlety of this final staging, Wong brings a touch of grace to a scene marked throughout by a heavy-handed banality.

The next section, too, serves to at least partially revive what, by this point, has become a rather moribund undertaking, thanks largely to Natalie Portman's enthusiastic turn as a gambling obsessed rich-girl who befriends Elizabeth in a Nevada casino. Unfortunately, this segment gets bogged down in a sort of psychological reductivism, as Wong introduces an unnecessary sub-plot (Portman's character attempting to work through her issues surrounding her dying father), but at least the actress, rigged out with a platinum-blond dye job and giving off an air of agreeable unpredictability, injects the sequence with a certain animation that's noticeably absent from the rest of the film.

But, after she helps Elizabeth negotiate the purchase of a used car, there's nothing left for the latter to do but return to New York and tie up the film's romantic plotting. The rather indifferent conclusion, conceived as one more series of blurred background close-ups and consummated over a final slice of blueberry pie, finds Wong struggling even with the sort of understated romantic presentation that he once pulled off so effortlessly. In the final analysis, what defines My Blueberry Nights is just this failure to achieve the expected results from the old cinematic strategies. Far from being a great departure for the filmmaker, Wong's approach to the material is the same as it's always been: subject it to a heavy dose of aestheticising. It's just that this time around, it doesn't seem to take and, setting aside the uninspired drivel that comprises the film's central narrative, this empty aestheticism is all that remains.

* In the film's final section, her name-tag is never clearly legible and from what we can see, the name seems longer than "Beth". But the Natalie Portman character (Leslie) continually addresses her by that name and that's the only way she's identified in the segment. It's possible that the tag read "Elizabeth" and Leslie took the initiative of shortening the name, which would be wholly consistent with her aim of trying to mold Elizabeth's character. In the end, Elizabeth rejects Leslie's efforts to imbue her with cynicism and when she returns to New York, she identifies once again as "Elizabeth".


1minutefilmreview said...

Great! Very comprehensive!


Indie_dinosaur said...

I just saw the film and I loved it... the images were so evocative and Norah Jones was beautiful! I just bought the soundtrack and can't stop listening to it - one of my definite faves!!