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Sometimes an image can get you excited to see a film. When looking to fill a hole in a five film day at TIFF, my friend and I saw an image that looked both fantastical and intriguing, so much so that we blindly said yes, we are going to watch Visage [Face]. I’m the first person to say that a movie can be loved for visual style alone as I always hold the image as more powerful than the word. Oftentimes I can be distracted by a great composition or frame to the point where I’ll give it a pass on the actual plot being driven forward by the imagery. Film is a visceral medium and those artists that realize this fact, able to adapt a book or story to be cinematic and not just a rehash of words, are usually those I enjoy most. I thought that Ming-liang Tsai might become one of these auteurs, but while most of the film is stunning to behold, I could never get around the laborious runtime or the virtual lack of any story. Supposedly it’s about a film crew shooting the Salomé myth at the Louvre, however, until the very end, I didn’t even know they were at the gallery nor did I know a linear story was occurring. I just thought it was vignette after vignette of grandeur with the cast members being the only constant.

Yes, there are definite “characters” throughout, Fanny Ardant as the film’s producer, Jean-Pierre Léaud as the leading man, Laetitia Casta as the leading lady, and Kang-sheng Lee as the director; I did know a film was going on, just not that it was necessarily a plot point. The beginning started quite nicely actually, a static shot of a coffee shop table through a window, the conversations of the table off-screen heard, musings about a film thrown about. It’s a pretty shot that sets the stage for more static camera set-ups pointing straight and catching the action in front of it. The next sequence has the camera high up in a kitchen, filming the sink below. The faucet breaks when turned on and we are treated to about ten to twenty minutes of water being sprayed about, alternately contained and made worse with buckets and broken pipes underneath. Definitely a chore to sit through, the end result is quite gorgeous—a view of the hallway full of water and a fish tank in the foreground, juxtaposing the contained water and the liquid running free. But then it all becomes strange again as the culprit of the sink fiasco goes in, what I assume is his mother’s room, putting his hand on her stomach before she takes it and pushes it lower. What happened there, I have no idea.

So, the general idea becomes apparent as odd things occur. For every scene of artistic splendor, (a view outside a skyscraper watching Ardant through a window covered in reflection at left while the right half of the screen shows cars speeding by on a highway; an extended sequence in pitch black darkness, illuminated by a single lighter played with by Casta and an unknown man that was in her bathtub), there is one that is just a chore to watch, (Casta blacking out a huge window with tape, going around the edges over and over again until covering it up to the center; French A-lister Mathieu Amalric showing up for a random scene in the woods, silently engaging in some sort of sexual activity with Lee’s director). I really think that you could cull hundreds of still frames for a successful art exhibit, unfortunately when you put them together in motion, the viewing experience can be painful.

Even as an art film, which it indeed is, success is limited. I would compare it to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series, only less outrageous. Whereas that one’s laborious shoot intrigues due to the fact that its inhabitants are in grotesque costume or engaging in otherworldly activities begging you to wonder what’s going on, Visage is too close to a real film, making me linger on the question of whether I should be following it normally rather than letting it envelope me. I loved some sequences, including the cigarette lighter illumination; a couple fun song numbers that are obviously lip-synched to; and a final erotic scene, (maybe?), with three women gyrating and disrobing in front of a man lying in a bathtub, covered with tomato paste, inside a meat locker. One can’t forget it as the women look anything but sexy while in that location and the sound of meat hooks and chains clanging makes the whole thing rather jarring. And how can you not be oddly intrigued by the strand of saliva connecting the bathtub man’s lips with the main woman’s after a kiss, stretching further and further out until finally dissolving? Yet even those moments couldn’t detract from the others that only found themselves leaving me shaking my head.

The characters all play themselves, or at least an embodiment of themselves, (Léaud’s role is called Antoine after the famous Truffaut series he starred in many years ago). It’s an interesting fact that may or may not hold any real relevance to the proceedings. When you have Léaud and the director talking about renowned filmmakers and how a little bird Titi embodies them all, or the lengthy attempt of Casta going up a ladder in full heavy wardrobe, you just start wondering when it will finally be over. I won’t say it’s without some merit, but I also can’t recommend it to anyone except an art class looking for inspiration. In that case, the class can fast-forward and rewind, not worrying about the narrative weakly holding it all together, but instead focus on the visual construction, watching for single frames that have the potential to enrapture attention. It’s the only way to get something from what’s on the screen.

Visage [Face] 4/10

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photography:
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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