The story of a married silkworm merchant-turned-smuggler in 19th century France traveling to Japan for his town's supply of silkworms after a disease wipes out their African supply. During his stay in Japan, he becomes obsessed with the concubine of a local baron.
The story follows a married couple, apart for a night while the husband takes a business trip with a colleague to whom he's attracted. While he's resisting temptation, his wife encounters her past love.
A married silkworm smuggler, Herve Joncour, in 19th Century France who travels to Japan to collect his clandestine cargo. While there he spots a beautiful Japanese woman, the concubine of a local baron, with whom he becomes obsessed. Without speaking the same language, they communicate through letters until war intervenes. Their unrequited love persists however, and Herve's wife Helene begins to suspect. Written by
Steaming water. Strange trees. Laughing children. Her skin... those eyes. But why should I tell you about it? Why now? Maybe I just need to tell someone about it. And that someone is you.
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Silk was a flop, not the international success its backers had hoped for after the director's The Red Violin made such a splash a decade earlier. It is worthy of attention, in pinpointing some cautionary messages to other would-be Visionary (that recently overworked term) filmmakers.
1. TRAVELOGUE: Film is unfortunately a highly literal, through visuals, medium, and it is easy to become mesmerized by the shots. Mature directors scrupulously avoid this pitfall, but perhaps Canadian director Francois Girard has subconsciously assimilated the approach of Terrence Malick. Like Malick, he only ventures forth from his artistic cave once a decade, and feels compelled to make each shot the most perfect and beautiful of all time. This is not cinema -this is "how I spent my vacation" -a $20,000,000 slide show.
2. FOOLED BY THE RUSHES: It could be a by-product of the far-flung co-production status (Silk is structured officially as a Canadian/Italian/Japanese project, an unusual combo), but the movie displays an age-old problem of Hollywood, caused by over-monitoring of the rushes. Many a stiff, stolid film result has looked "marvelous" in the dailies. Studios traditionally made decisions like director firings or bringing in a troubleshooter to haul in the reins on a project based on the quality of the rushes. This makes sense in a bean-counter universe, but has nothing to do with the ultimate movie, which as Hitchcock noted, is stored in the director's head. Watching Silk I was struck that the rushes coming back from the various locations truly must have looked fabulous, but that is no indicator that they would ultimately amount to anything in a gestalt sense. Only the director and his editors know what will be needed in terms of coverage, and how the pieces might mesh into a whole. It's easy to get bamboozled by striking shots, just as at the other extreme it's easy to assume the worst when a neophyte director falls behind schedule and isn't giving the execs their daily meters of processed celluloid.
3. DISTANCING: Brecht and Godard have long been the inspiration for film directors to keep the audience at a safe distance -break up the naturally hypnotic effect that a movie has for the viewer, which Hitchcock exploited to a fare-thee-well. In Silk, Girard uses the crutch of voice-over narration to sabotage one's involvement in the action/dialog/story. Like Zentropa, another pretentious exercise by a wannabe "visionary" director, the somnolent narration literally puts the viewer to sleep. His insistence on oft-criticized bland American accents for French characters further abstracts the story, and makes it near-impossible to smoothly enter into the life of the protagonists. Low affect is the instruction to lead Michael Pitt and even Alfred Molina, the latter bringing professional life to his rattled off exposition, and even some wit. Keira Knightley gets to actually emote in her patented shy-but-effusive manner, but I noticed the director cutting away from her as quickly as possible, and even though she is the key central figure of the story's romantic theme, her overall screen time is reduced to the bare minimum. The dialog by Girard and Michael Golding is almost all in the form of recitations: never sounding natural or using vernacular. That's as big a mistake as the bland American accents.
4. CRYPTIC: Adapting a novel is difficult; perhaps this is why the Academy gives a separate Oscar category for adaptations as opposed to the Original Screenplay niche for the Woody Allens of the world. Too often a film (or TV) adaptation REQUIRES that the viewer be not just conversant but well-nigh totally immersed in the source work in order to appreciate the film. (I recently watched the British TV series A Dance to the Music of Time, via Netflix, after a marathon reading of all 12 Powell novels it's based upon, and the damn thing would have made no sense whatsoever without having the books fresh in my mind.) For Silk, many basic and virtually all nuanced elements are lost without knowledge of the source, a damning fault. The intended purity of not subtitling the Japanese dialog segments falls squarely into this problem area too. The movie should stand alone, and if it can't, why bother? It's not impossible -everybody's favorite of all-time The Godfather saw Coppola creating a work of art that never requires one to go back and read Mario Puzo's pulp novel.
5. THE PITT FACTOR: Folks love to criticize young Mr. Pitt, an actor who future generations will scratch their heads over: "how did he get into so many films?". Pauly Shore, Phillips Holmes in the '30s, and many 4-F performers like Sonny Tufts and William Prince during WW II come to mind. Following the death of James Dean, for over a decade innumerable folks imitated his breakthrough persona, of which I recall Michael Parks and Christopher Jones becoming the most typecast. Now we have Mr. Pitt, the lookalike thespian doomed to live in the shadow of Leonardo DiCaprio, let alone his equally handsome namesake Brad. What a cross to bear!
6. UNLOCKING THE MYSTERY: I was reminded of Werner Herzog's overlooked classic Heart of Glass while watching Silk. Both films have transcendentally beautiful landscapes. Underneath the main romantic and cross-cultural themes, they have the same core parable: a one-industry community (Glassblowing in Herzog, Silk creation here) poised on the edge of disaster. Herzog hypnotized his cast to get a unique, otherworldly effect. Girard has Pitt & most others sleepwalking, to null effect.
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