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Wong Kar-Wai's Dreamy Nights: Dispatch from the Cannes Film Festival 2007

Dispatch from the Cannes Film Festival 2007

Jude Law and Nora Jones in My Blueberry Nights (2007)

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

My Blueberry Nights (2007)
Directed by Wong Kar-wai

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Wong Kar-wai makes the most off-handed and superfluous movement emphatic and particular. His new film, My Blueberry Nights, his ninth feature and first in English, opened the 60th Cannes Film festival Wednesday afternoon.

It is far from his highest achievement, but it evidences no betrayal of his special gifts. Wong transposes his elliptical, enigmatic style to an American idiom. Rather than the nihilism of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, he works in a more melancholy and plaintive register, shaping the work around his customary themes of isolation, solitude and loneliness. Wong is often thought of as the most Proustian of contemporary directors, and memory is almost always tormenting and unforgiving in his movies.

The new film is a road movie lost in time, the story circling and pirouetting around the reflections and bruising experiences of Elizabeth (pop star Norah Jones, in her first film role), a young woman coping with her raw, fragile identify following the end of her five-year relationship. Wong remains rather uncompromising, and the film has a musical rhythm constructed like a fugue, drawing out variations of ecstasy, pain and liberation as the story moves horizontally from New York to Memphis and Las Vegas.

Working from his original story, Wong wrote the script with the crime writer Lawrence Block. Storytelling’s never been his strength, and the new movie is bound to disappoint many as insubstantial and repetitive. Wong’s movies are all fever dreams designed to frustrate and undermine as narratives. He is an imagist par excellence. Collaborating with the great cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven), Wong maintains the claustrophobic intensity of In the Mood for Love and 2046, working in widescreen in fascinating and non-conventional ways, shooting mostly in interiors and using a very short, compacted space and repeated close ups to heighten emotion and feeling.

My Blueberry Nights is most effective visually, the camera probing, fluid and tense in the arrangement of objects, the almost ominous row of street lights, the nighthawk landscapes and emptiness of a New York subway car, or the alternately thrilling or confining open spaces of the American West. Wong also finds poignancy in the kind of lower depth roles (cops, waitresses, bar maids, card sharks) that tended to animate the most feverish, morally complex and interesting films of the past.

It has some awkward moments, and dovetailing narrators that duplicate what Wong’s camera has already told more beautifully. Regardless of what language or country he is working in, Wong is unparalleled in his photographic admiration of women. Nobody has a more discerning eye for the shape and contours of women’s faces. Jones, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz and Chan Marshall (turning in an enigmatic part as Jude Law’s former lover) are mesmerizing.

Jones is young and unformed as an actress, but she’s a sharp presence and beautifully expressive. Wong largely finds a way to work around her technical limitations. Burdened in the past by portentous roles that repressed her naturalness, Portman finally is unleashed, for once burrowing into a character. She imbues her part of a gambler with insouciance and edge that acknowledges her intelligence.

My Blueberry Nights is inevitably transitional. Wong’s entire artistic output is that of an outsider, a natural given he was born in Shanghai and moved with his family to Hong Kong as a young boy. Music has always been judicious and inspired in his work, and he gets a pang of regret and remorse from Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” By playing off his typical preoccupations, Wong is never subjected to the loss of identity or absence of a strong point of view that afflicts so many foreign-born directors working in America for the first time. Like pretty much all of his work, it floats and whirls in the imagination.

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