Published on May 3rd, 2007 | by Hans Fruck0
The Science of Sleep + Curse of the Golden Flower
THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP– limited release from May 3
Clouds float on the notes of an off-key piano, dreams are filled with misunderstood languages, a velveteen horse rides into the waiting arms of a paper boat and Michel Gondry returns, following the delicate narrative explosions of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with the scattergun visual fantasy of The Science of Sleep.
Gael Garcia Bernal (Amores Perros) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Jane Eyre) star as Stephane and Stephanie, two awkward neighbours who find in each other a supernatural symmetry. Stephane has returned from Mexico to his family home in Paris, where his mother has found him a job as a typesetter for a calendar company. Thwarted in his ambition to produce a calendar of Disasterology (each month commemorating a different natural disaster in Stephane’s kindergarten hand), the disconsolate boy turns his artistic passions to the courting of cold Stephanie. A hoarder of treasures with a mezzanine bed and whimsical creative bent, Stephanie might be the perfect match for our oddball anti-hero, if only she could open her heart and he could learn to trust it.
Written and directed by Gondry, the film lacks the fierce emotional candor that Charlie Kaufman brought to Eternal Sunshine, but Gondry’s visual imagination runs boundless and unfettered, which is almost worth the trade. Told in uncertain shifts between Stephane’s dream life and waking world, The Science of Sleep slips from English to French to Spanish and back while scenes of absurd fancy and miraculous invention assault the viewer. A window that is a TV screen is an escape hatch; Stephane is the host of a cardboard cooking show and his mother the regular guest; giant hands fumble tiny pieces of paper; Stephane flies over a shivering paper city. Gondry uses stop motion animation and found objects to create a universe so oddly familiar but ultimately surreal that it can only remind us of our dreams. Like David Lynch, he is exploring a world that exists alongside the narratives of our lives, that feeds the narrative of life, but is by definition a haphazard and disorganised account. He revels in the random flowers of his own unique vision and he passes them on to Stephane, his proxy, and Stephanie, his eccentric princess. This is the mind of Michel Gondry let loose on film. It is funny, it is beautiful, and like all the unaccountable passages of our sweet dreams, it is just a little sad.
CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER– general release
What the hell happened to Zhang Yimou? I only ask because, I swear, the director of shlock like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower can’t – just can’t – be the same man who directed Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, To Live, and Red Sorghum. From the subtlety of Raise the Red Lantern how does a director stumble into vacuous spectacle like Hero – and then repeat it not once but twice? Got me. But whatever the source and circumstances of Yimou’s startling decline, its reality is undeniable. If you don’t believe me, sit your arse down and watch Curse of the Golden Flower, aka Exhibit C for the Prosecution.
Curse of the Golden Flower is set in the 10th-century court of the Tang dynasty. Gong Li plays an Empress who’s being poisoned by her husband (Chow Yun Fat) because she’s having an affair with his son (her stepson). This palace intrigue sets the stage for a plot thick – and you can take that any way you like – with dynastic politics and melodrama. I’d go into greater detail, but trust me, it’s not worth it.
Like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower plunges straight into melodrama, and as in those films, that’s a problem. Having pitched the film at such a heightened level, Yimou has nowhere to go dramatically. His response now, as then, is to fearlessly pile melodrama on top of melodrama – seldom, if ever, in the history of cinema have so many tears trickled so picturesquely down so many cheeks. But despite the histrionics, the characters remain virginally unmolested by anything resembling a real emotion. And predictably, all this unearned anguish is uninvolving and eye-rollingly absurd.
A little like Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Curse of the Golden Flower is nothing but a vast, masturbatory exercise in pageantry. Time after time, Yimou tries to bludgeon the viewer into submission with the size of the Forbidden City, the vastness of the imperial guard, the finery of the royal family, and the size and synchrony of the royal household. Many viewers will bridle at these elephantine assaults.
As in House of Flying Daggers, Yimou’s colour palette is seizure-inducing and his visuals impressive but soulless. Yimou reveals himself to be too much the art director and ringmaster and too little the storyteller. In truth, the story is simply a pretext for one photographic money shot after another. Speaking of which, the amount of cleavage on display is positively Himalayan. But even as eye candy, the film falters because Yimou never knows when too much is way, way too much (after a while even jiggling breasts lose their mesmeric powers).
Curse of the Golden Flower boasts plenty of fighting but little suspense. For all his infatuation with slow-mo shots of swinging hair and rippling robes, Yimou can’t produce an involving action sequence because he can’t evoke an emotional investment in his characters. This makes the combat scenes occasionally impressive but ultimately empty – an apt summary of the entire film.
It’s sad to see a formerly great director like Yimou and a still great actress like Gong Li slumming it in over-financed, under-written dreck like this. If you harbour fond memories of either, give this a miss and rent Raise the Red Lantern instead.