Cannes Film Festival 2007 (World Premiere)–Wong Kar Wais first English language feature, “My Blueberry Nights,” the opening night of the 60th Cannes Festival, is a decidedly mixed bag, a film that lacks the brilliance and mood of his Hong Kong Pictures, but nonetheless bears some artistic merits, particularly for viewers unfamiliar with his oeuvre.
Reportedly, the programmers' selection marks the first time in Cannes history that a film by a Chinese director has kicked off the festival.
Mediocre and old fashioned are not words associated with Wong Kar Wai's work (“Happy Together,” “In the Mood for Love,” “2046”), and yet they quite accurately describe his first foray into genre cinema, in this case a road movie, femme-dominated, shot entirely in the U.S.
Neither exciting nor dull, “My Blueberry Nights” is sharply uneven. The yarn has a decent beginning and a weak second reel that's far too long, but then it improves considerably, ending on an emotionally satisfying, if also too predictable and symmetrical manner.
Wong's hardcore fans may be disappointed by his new film, which lacks the unique signature and personal vision of his good Hong Kong films. “My Blueberry Night” was clearly made with an eye on the marketplace in an effort to increase the appeal of a director, who so far has been a critics darling but little-known to lay audiences outside the global art house circuit.
Like the yarn's central item, blueberry pie (that no customer wants, by the way) with vanilla ice cream, the movie itself is a shallow saga, layered from the outside by the helmer's melancholy tone and noir sensibility. Wong's stylistic touches are like vanilla ice cream poured over a familiar (and a bit stale) story in an effort to make the product appear fresher and shinier. Indeed, the material resists the director's stylistic interference, resulting in a hybrid, a movie that's neither satisfying as a genre item nor idiosyncratic enough as an arthouse item.
It's often hard to assess a film's commercial prospects (how it will play with lay audiences) by its first press screening, but judging by the tame response this morning (not much applause, but no boos either), it's safe to predict that the Weinstein Co. (which has the movie in the U.S.) will face a challenge in putting this picture over with mainstream audiences.
First, the good news. Unlike many foreign art directors (Chen Kaige, Lars von Trier, and others), Wong Kar Wai has not made an embarrassing English-language feature. However, like other art directors (Atom Egoyan is a prime example), Wong proves that it's not easy to morph from moody, contemplative, personal filmmaking into a more conventionally generic cinema. “My Blueberry Nights,” no matter how you look at it, is a genre film par excellence, displaying an expected narrative structure, typical characters, iconography and physical settings .
Wong tries to imbue the yarn of a disenchanted waitresses (nicely played by Norah Jones, who's extremely photogenic and likable) with personal and stylistic flourishes, but he can't really conceal the fact that the narrative and all of the characters are familiar, from the lead waitress in search of identity and happiness, all the way to the secondary characters she encounters in her odyssey toward self-empowerment.
What makes the compromised picture slightly more enjoyable to watch than it has the right to be is the stellar cast that, alongside music diva Norah Jones, includes Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, and best of all, Natalie Portman.
The tale begins and ends in New York City, at a cafe-bakery owned by Jeremy (Jude Law), a sensitive Brit from Manchester with a chip on his shoulder and a penchant for philosophizing about his customers-particularly the disillusioned types, those who tend to leave their keys in his place, which he later places in a big jar.
Every day, a beautiful woman named Elizabeth (Jones) comes in and orders a slice of blueberry pie, then sits and gazes out the window. One night, she tells Jeremy her story: a man she thought she could never live without has left her. After that, Elizabeth disappears, though not before falling asleep at the counter, allowing Jeremy to steal a kiss in an erotic gesture meant to clean up her messy lips, covered with leftovers of vanilla ice scream! Knowing Wong's thematic obsession with unrequited love and melancholy yearning, you can bet the stolen kiss would recur.
Jeremy soon discovers that Elizabeth has left town, setting off on a long journey towards a new beginning. But as the voice-over informs us, people who leave and pretend to get lost expect to be found. And so, in a manner of a dreamlike fable, we know that Elizabeth will be back.
Along the way, assuming a different name and identity, Elizabeth befriends various people (played by David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman, among others), each with problems and dilemmas of their own. For a while, Wong keeps a consistent gaze and nearly everything that we see is from Elizabeth's subjective POV.
Spanning almost a year, structurally, the film is divided into chapters, such as Day 1 or Day 57 or Day 300, with titles indicating the mileage (in kilometers, too) that Elizabeth has traveled. Once she hits the road, Elizabeth makes major stops in Memphis, Nevada, and Vegas, before returning to New York as a different, more self-aware, or at least less nave, woman.
The Memphis chapter is rather dull, because it's defined by an uninteresting story: The painful marital break-up of a drunk, disenchanted cop named Arnie (Strathairn), who can't accept the fact that his wife Sue Lynn (Rachel Weisz) had left him for another man. Frequenting the bar where Elizabeth works night after night, Arnie washes down his pain with eight or nine whiskeys, deluding himself that this is his last night of drinking.
You could say that Arnie is doomed and, indeed, once his fate is sealed, we get to know his wife Sue Lynn's side of the story. After a series of hysterical confrontations, in which the gifted Weisz is overacting in big drunk scenes (Hollywood style), there are some quieter and more touching moments between her and Elizabeth.
The female bonding and camaraderie that Elizabeth develops with Arnie and later on with Natalie Portman's Leslie becomes a motif of the movie recalling other road pictures about waitresses, such as Scorsese's “Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More” (with Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd) and Ridley Scott's “Thelma and Louise” (With Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis).
“My Blueberry Night” is at its liveliest in the next to last reel, in which Elizabeth meets and befriends a cocky gambler and con artist named Lesie (Natalie Portman, rendering the film's best performance). At first, Leslie tries to teach Elizabeth her tricks of the trade, only to realize that there's a lesson or two she herself could learn from her presumably nave and too trusting companion. (A subplot about Leslie and her problematic relationship with her dying father is too simplistically Freudian and too sentimental).
What lends the narrative greater complexity and interest are the endlessly shifting perspectives and POVs. Like many of Wong's films, “My Blueberry Nights” is accompanied by voice-over narration. We go back and forth between Jeremy and Elizabeth's sides of the story-and their efforts to connect on some level.
What doesn't work, and slows down the narrative, which is not terribly exciting in the first place, are the postcards that Jeremy and Elizabeth write to each other and are read loud. The text of the postcards, and some of the voice-overs, is too simple, and often banal, failing to add extra layers of meaning or emotionalism to the proceedings.
Despite narrative shortcoming, “My Blueberry Nights” is nice to look at and listen to music-wise. Shot across the U.S. in New York, Memphis, Nevada and along the legendary Route 66, the film features Wongs trademark visual flair, courtesy of his gifted lenser Darius Khondji, working for the first time with Wong, and regular art designer and editor, William Chang, who deserves greater credit than given to in visually shaping Wong's work.
If this intimate noirish tale of love and self-discovery is ultimately disappointing, it's due to our familiarity with the saga and its characters. None of the persona is eccentric, fresh, or colorful enough to sustain our attention, let alone arouse our emotions. Straining to be cool, “My Blueberry Nights” comes across as an overbaked picture that lacks genuine narrative pull.
As for the burning question: Can Norah Jones act, the answer is affirmative. Endowed with a strong, charismatic presence, Jones is photogenic. Having worked with some of the most beautiful actresses in world cinema today (Maggie Cheung and Gong Li, among them), Wong gives Jones the full-star treatment with close-ups and mega close-ups. With additional acting experience, Jones could develop into an A-list dramatic actress.
About Wong Kar-Wai
Wong Kar-Wai is an award-winning writer/director whose unique style has influenced a generation of filmmakers. His acclaimed work includes the arthouse hits “In the Mood for Love,” “Happy Together” (which earned him the Best Director Award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival), “Chungking Express,” and “2046.”
Running time: 111 minutes
The Weinstein Co.
Block 2 Pictures/Jet Tone Films/StudioCanal
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Screenwriters: Wong Kar Wai, Lawrence Block
Story by: Wong Kar Wai
Producers: Jack Pang Yee Wah, Wong Kar Wai
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer/editor: William Chang
Music: Ry Cooder
Costume designer: Sharon Globerson
Elizabeth (Norah Jones)
Jeremy (Jude Law)
Arnie (David Strathairn)
Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz)
Leslie (Natalie Portman)
Katya (Chan Marshall)