Postcard from Venice: Vincent Gallo Keeps His Promises, François Ozon Scores With Stars

potiche_225.jpgIt's a chilly, overcast day in Venice, and as I walk along the Lido down Lungomare Guglielmo Marconi, peering over the tall hedges that separate the street from the sea, the water looks gray and foreboding. What a pretentious-sounding sentence that is! But then, I've just come from seeing artiste Vincent Gallo's Promises Written in Water, one of two pictures Gallo is presenting at the festival. The other is a short (The Agent), and Gallo also appears as an actor in another film in competition, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing.

After the Brown Bunny booing incident of Cannes 2003, I suspect festival audiences now turn out to see Gallo's films at least partly for sport. Most of us couldn't help giggling as the opening credits for Promises rolled: Starring Vincent Gallo. Music by Vincent Gallo. Editing by Vincent Gallo. Produced, written and directed by Vincent Gallo. He did hire a gaffer, but still. (Find the back story of Gallo's consolidation of Promises duties here.)

But at the end of the movie, just as many people clapped as booed. My sense is that Promises Written in Water wasn't as bad as some were hoping, and was better than some were expecting. Me, I'm on the fence: I'm a fan of The Brown Bunny, though I didn't see its disastrous Cannes debut. (Gallo recut the film before its U.S. theatrical release.) I think The Brown Bunny captures something elusive about the inertia of grief, about the way intense emotional suffering can place you in a kind of suspended animation. I even like the lyrical tedium of the filmmaking, particularly the way Gallo's visuals capture the foreversville of long-distance driving.

I'm not as sold on Promises -- I think of it as The Lite Brown Bunny -- but I can't bring myself to dismiss it, either. We already know Gallo is pretentious as heck. Check out the first sentence of his bio, as found in the official film festival catalog: "Born in 1961, the artist, director, actor, screenwriter and musician Vincent Gallo is undoubtedly one of the most talented, charismatic and eccentric artists of American independent cinema." Even Gallo's pretension has affect -- it's a pimple on top of a pimple.

On the other hand, I've seen worse much films made by filmmakers who radiate modesty. In Promises, as in The Brown Bunny, Gallo struggles to capture with images delicate ideas that can't really be put into words. And in these dialogue-happy times, I give any filmmaker credit for at least giving that a try.

It's hard to say, exactly, what Promises is about. Early in the picture we get an artful (or is it just arty?) overhead shot of a naked blond woman curled up in a bathtub, like an embryo inside an eggshell. Then we see Gallo's character skimming the Help Wanted ads in a newspaper. He circles one that says "Funeral Director." There are times when I think Gallo is sexy in a scary-Jesus kind of way, but I do have to say, that's just not a face I'd want to see from the other side of the casket.

Promises progresses strangely and tentatively, its narrative fractured and splayed. Gallo's character appears to be involved with a woman, played by Delfine Bafort (a delicate blond beauty with enormous, hungry eyes), who, it seems, is dealing with some sort of illness that will prove fatal. Much of the movie consists of idle chit-chat between the two of them. At one point, the woman asks Gallo if he's called his girlfriend. He answers the question not just once, but six or seven times, each time changing his delivery, his expression and even little factual details. It's a stunt, but I think Gallo is trying, perhaps unsuccessfully, to grab at some wispy but valid notions about process: In filmmaking (or in any art), how many chances do you get for a re-do? Or how many chances do you dare take before you spoil the intended effect?

The picture, which is in black-and-white, has a texture that's alternately satiny and flannel-napped, and some of Gallo's long takes are quite languid and hypnotic. And sometimes they're just boring. The picture feels like a sketch for something bigger and more carefully shaped, and even though it's only 75 minutes, it needs to be leaner. I couldn't, in good conscience, send any of my friends out to pay good money to watch Promises Written in Water. But as much as I want to laugh at Gallo, maybe even slap him silly, I'm glad I saw it. Perhaps I'm suffering from what a colleague of mine, Nick James, the editor of Sight & Sound, calls "the Lagoon Effect" -- meaning that even crap movies look better in Venice. (It also doesn't hurt that this a city where a glass of Prosecco costs about the same as a Coke.) Yet Gallo, his overinflated ego notwithstanding, seems to be working toward something rather than just coasting. His greatness is all in his head; if he can ever settle for just being interesting, he might really give us something to watch.

potiche_225.jpgI confess I have a low tolerance for the movies of François Ozon, from the aggressively winking and twinkling 8 Women to Ricky, an exhausting little fable about a devilish baby-angel who sprouts wings. Even that popular favorite Swimming Pool left me lukewarm (although I did enjoy Charlotte Rampling, as I almost always do). So I was pleased to find that Ozon's latest, Potiche, in competition at the festival, was quite tolerable, perhaps even mildly pleasant.

That's largely due to the presence of Catherine Deneuve (as a French trophy wife who launches a political career by temporarily taking over management of her husband's umbrella company) and Gerard Depardieu (as the town official with whom she once, long ago, had a fling, and who ends up being her political opponent). Deneuve gives a casual, great-lady performance here: She seems to enjoy swanning about and looking fabulous. She's best in her scenes with Depardieu, particularly in a sequence where the two sashay and shake it up on the dance floor (the movie is set in the mid-1970s). The Frenchwoman sitting next to me at the screening I attended clapped with delight at nearly everything Depardieu and Deneuve did, and while I wouldn't go that far, I can say I survived the experience feeling blessedly un-tortured.