Pretty Haute Machines

With often astonishing aesthetic designs and an unfortunate lack of narrative drive, Tom Tykwer’s Perfume and Christian Volckman’s Renaissance are very much worth seeing–but are neither of them really worth investing past the seeing.

The lesser of the two is Volckman’s sci-fi noir anime, shot with some fancy-shmancy motion-capture technologies and all shadow and light, the look is everything I wished Sin City had really been. There is the bleak hard-lined pleasure of the chiaroscuro comix feel (akin to Eddie Campbell’s minimal design for the Alan Moore “From Hell”), and the elaborate baroque density of the drawn future Paris swallows up your attention–you want to pause and let your eyes wander. And there are moments of lovely cinematic verve, too: as the seemingly-sinister Dr. Muller discusses research on progeria, a reflection of half of his aged, ragged face overlays the face of protagonist cop Karas, forming a whole face, equal parts bold youth and decrepit age, a visual rhyme on what’s being said. But, alas, all too often what’s said is boilerplate tough-guy noir chatter, or boilerplate Dick-ian dystopia, or boilerplate blah blah. It’s a dull film to listen to, or to try and untangle as narrative. But damn it looks fine.

Tykwer’s film works far better, and I actually recommend it. He’s an astonishingly inventive director, proclaiming (in interviews around his breakout hit Run Lola Run) that we have yet to really investigate what cinema can do. And in his films he’s played with temporality and coincidence in ways that invigorate the medium–my favorite being a lovely intertwined narrative-of-coincidence called Winter Sleepers. In this film, about a 18th-century French orphan named Grenouille, gifted/cursed with an astonishing nose, Tykwer sets out to show us the tactile, sensual force of scent. The film is layered in grime, and is laden with images that recall anatomical texts of the time, in love with grotesquery and a sick ironic glee in the physical. The film’s production design recalls Monty P’s Holy Grail, yet Tykwer’s ambition is to capture both that fecal reality and the fecund artistic visions of the time, as well–I am not particularly versed in art history, but the film constantly echoes great contemporaneous paintings in its compositions and tableaux. It’s never less than a stunning vision, and the story often seduces, too, whether John Hurt’s trademark comic fatalism in voiceover or the newcomer Ben Wishart’s great physical performance as Grenouille–or a remarkable penultimate scene that ends in ways I don’t want to spoil. But the film also finds itself slowed to a crawl at moments in its attempt to capture the vision, or (worse) dully running through the paces of a serial killer film (which it most definitively is not). I wish it had been tighter, as funny and gripping as the novel, or at least as involving in its storyline as its sights. But it is worth seeing.

3 thoughts on “Pretty Haute Machines”

  1. Perfume is visually interesting yes, but nothing on the screen ever reaches the dizzying heights of Run Lola Run or even his brief contribution to Paris Je T’aime. And though I can see why Mike was drawn to the story, I thought it was dull as dirt (no matter how fecund). I did, however, manage to fast forward my way to the end if only to speed through the lovely visual assemblages . . . Renaissance, on the other hand, kept me interested for about fifteen minutes and then I turned it off. I can’t disagree with anything Mike writes about it; I just didn’t care enough to continue.

  2. I thought about giving 300 its own thread, but its strengths, weaknesses–even its hyperbolic concerns about death and manly manness–seem of a piece with these two films. I’d rank this in between — for half an hour, I was so taken with the interplay of actors, fx, and rich dense backgrounds that I could enjoy as exaggeration the stiff abdomens and stiffer rhetoric of the movie’s set-up. Spartans don’t take no guff seems to be the gist of the story. But carefully-crafted spurts of blood and constant slow-fast-slow battle scenes do wear on me, after a while. So it’s more engaging than French sci-fi but with none of Perfume‘s intelligence.

    And it’s tempting to read 300 as jingoistic hooey. The film was seen by some (both positively and negatively) as a very thinly-veiled allegory for American resistance to Muslim hordes. I couldn’t figure out why the Persians in the film were all big black men, and the “Asian hordes” (and, yes, they’re called the Asian hordes) were so pointedly non-Anglo-Saxon, limning the rich plummy English accents of the various Greeks. There’s no doubt the film–and, I’d wager, the Miller text from which it faithfully springs–is xenophobic, racist, a fucking throwback to John Milius which seems to imagine itself returning to and recovering a mythological history. (In ancient times, everyone spoke with stiff rhetoric, etc.)

    But the film’s so hyperbolized–its look AND its narrative–that identification with the Spartans is constantly deconstructed, too. They are a suicide force, they’re all English… maybe it’s just that the film’s ideological weight is so overdetermined that it seems to collapse, implode–not erasing those racist overtones but darkening and shading them to a buffed explicitness that seems to call attention and maybe even undermine….

    … but then I got kind of bored thinking about it and watched yet another misshapen giant grotesque fight with King Leonidas, lose a limb or two, and I moved on.

  3. if we’re talking about beautiful bodies that don’t bear much thinking about, i fell asleep last evening while watching something called into the blue. all i can remember is that it involves jessica alba swimming around in tightly fitted bikinis.

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