While never-ending rain and a strange disease spread by cockroaches ravage Taiwan, a plumber makes a hole between two apartments and the inhabitants of each form a unique connection, enacted in musical numbers.
Tsai Ming-liang returns with this latest entry in his Walker series, in which his monk acquires an unexpected acolyte in the form of Denis Lavant as he makes his way through the streets of a sun-dappled Marseille.
Visage is one of those movies that it's hard to parallel. Some films that particular scenes reminded me of were Matthew Barney's Cremaster 5, Peter Kennedy's Flux Film 37 and Godard's Pierrot Le Fou, but Tsai's style really seems to sit away from what everyone else is doing.
Visage follows the production of a film maudit, directed by Kang, a Taiwanese director who has come to Paris. It's definitely a film of fragments, the story is hard to follow because it's clear that quite a lot of it occurs between scenes, even within scenes action often occurs offshot. As a viewer I felt like an interloper, because the camera is often tight in a corner or outside of the room where action occurs. It's as if Tsai wants to shun the viewer, to emphasise the distance between a viewer/voyeur's comprehension and what is taking place. As a comparison, Flux Film 37 is a short film where a man sits in front of a camera, chewing gum with a frown on his face, carefully sticking transparencies onto the camera until finally nothing is visible, an act of defiance against the viewer. As well as perhaps shooting in this spirit, one of the characters (Laetitia Casta the supermodel playing Salomé in the movie within the movie) also starts taping herself up from view, blacking out a window until the shot goes black and taping up her mirror slowly and deliberately. I also felt this was a kind of dark metaphor, of a loss of innocence, of a person's transformation from being a public creature interested in life and self-exploratory, to a sexual entity, closed off, lolling in a lust-sty.
Although the film contains no violence or sex (at one point a sexual act is performed off frame), it's probably one of the most hard to watch films I've seen in a while, where a film director is falling apart mentally, a slave to his bizarre vision and his lustful impulses. Violent shots include Kang stood by the side of a snow machine, letting it obliterate his face from view and his eyes from seeing and an actor covered in bandages with the smell of food tantalisingly wafting into his nostrils.
A funerary conflagration, flesh balls splatchering in a pan, the Producer (Fanny Ardant) whispering key information inaudibly into Antoine's (Jean-Pierre Leaud) ear, are nihilistic affronts to the viewer.
Whilst the film is dark, there are moments of supremely ironic musical and slapstick interludes, which you can either choose to laugh with or be appalled by depending on your whim.
Ultimately the film appears almost an act of self-immolation, a shot of a universe where people are mere meat prey to lustful impulses, unable to look beyond the surface or the face of things. Tsai here takes more than a little of the taste of Rivette's l'amour par terre (1984), in both movies directors portrayed as sole initiates in mysteries that they control. This went down like a stone at Cannes, perhaps deservedly - repulsion an appropriate response. It is however a film of extreme visual and technical competence that I was greedy for and which provoked a lot of thought.
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