The Upside of AestheticsThe Holy Girl and Princess Raccoon
I enjoy a good story well told. Hell, I think everyone enjoys that. (Except Michael Bay.) And Lord knows there are many, many great films that involve just that. But every now and then, a movie will come along that demonstrates what can be done with a minimum of story. Rather than narrative propulsion, these films rely on visual dynamism to carry themselves along. Sometimes this approach pays off, sometimes not. But it's usually interesting to see people trying something new.
Lucrecia Martel's "The Holy Girl" is a film like that. The story doesn't move so much as waft along, held together by the thinnest of threads. What matters is the texture, the feel of life moving at a languid pace. What plot there is involves a series of encounters between a young Catholic student, her mother and a doctor who is scheduled to speak at a convention held in the hotel in which they all temporarily reside. Set during the summer months, the heat in the air is matched by the strange sexual tension that suffuses much of the film. There is an obvious (and much-indulged) erotic air that charges many scenes. Nobody's having sex, but everyone's thinking about it. (This lends an additional edge to the scenes where a sexual atmosphere would be inappropriate.)
So the atmosphere is there, but how's the film? Interestingly enough, it's Martel's take-life-as-it-comes that both enhances and seemingly derails her film. Well, maybe 'derails' is too strong a word, but there's something initially unsatisfying about the finished product. It's a film of incident, of glances and unspoken words and all that, and there comes a point where I got the feeling that there just isn't enough to hold onto. I will admit getting restless during the film's second half, especially when points that I thought had already been made started being reasserted (the theology-class debates, for instance, seem a bit needless as the film goes on). It's impeccably acted and beautifully mounted, but it all seems a bit wispy. Then again, I mistrust my own opinion in this matter -- I spent much of the film in the throes of a caffeine crash, and my decision to not read anything about the film before seeing it meant that I had no idea what kind of film I was going to see. A second viewing under more ideal circumstances might very well change my mind; I walked out thinking I'd seen a promising but overly flawed work, but it's a month later and the movie still sticks in my mind. Martel's command of the cinematic image is such that her film proves to be unforgettable even as it hardly seems to exist. And then there's the ending, which is about as close to perfect as endings get. I look forward to seeing this again.
I also look forward to seeing again the latest film from demented Japanese auteur Seijun Suzuki, the incomparable "Princess Raccoon", but not out of any need to firm up my thoughts on the film -- one viewing was enough to confirm that it just might be Suzuki's masterpiece. Rather, I look forward to seeing this again because hopefully when I lay eyes upon it again it will be in some form of general release, which I think the people of America needs right now. I truly believe that if you showed this movie to everyone in the world, there'd be a lot more hugging going on.
The film's story is simple to the point of myth. It's a gender-reversed "Snow White", in which a young prince is cast out by his father for being too beautiful but escapes death through the assistance of a young princess who rules the tanuki kingdom in the forest. (A tanuki is some kind of shape-shifting raccoon-dog thing, and is here represented when needed by a stuffed animal.) So far, we're still in Grimm Brothers territory. Nothing terribly transcendent about that. Take this story, though, and infuse it with the deliberate artifice of Kabuki theater and the crackpot sense of humor for which Suzuki is justly famous. Then, drop forty-two and a half tabs of brown acid. Oh, and while you're tripping, go ahead and write some songs for the film. That's what it's like to watch this movie. Suzuki has fashioned for himself a maddening tightrope act wherein, for the film's entire length, he walks the line between awesome and too-kitschy-by-half. And yet, he comes out smelling like daffodils. What's the difference between this film and, say, his last film (the disastrous "Pistol Opera")? One word, my friends: fun.
Yes, Suzuki has rediscovered his sense of fun. Suzuki's films are always aesthetically interesting. That's just a given. But in all his better films, there's a sense of manic invention, of getting away with something that just shouldn't be. I've believed for some time that working in color tends to overwhelm this notion in Suzuki; his directorial style is so image-obsessed that working in color usually gives him too much art to focus on, and the invention gets lost in the process. Not so with this, though -- the extraordinary sense of joy that permeates this film is too irrepressible to be aestheticized away. Aside from being well-constructed, it's hilarious and heartfelt and unpredictable. (I'm staying away from plot or scene particulars because I think the film should be experienced cold for maximum effect, but watch for the Frog of Paradise. And roshambo.) The actors are game, the songs are great and the ending packs an unexpected punch. It's a happy pill on celluloid. If you don't walk out humming, you've lost the will to live.