Univision

"On War" tries to plunge deep into its heart of darkness and winds up more in the vicinity of its navel.

“On War” tries to plunge deep into its heart of darkness and winds up more in the vicinity of its navel. Casting a very game Mathieu Amalric as his filmmaking alter ego, Bertrand Bonello offers up an extended rumination on life, liberty and man’s relationship to nature, but for all its visual wonders, which are estimable, the film’s initially amusing self-awareness gives way to self-seriousness and an impenetrable narrative rather too early in the game. Fests will surely enlist, but this slow-moving curio item reps a tricky commercial proposition outside France.

Bonello’s first feature since 2003’s contempo Greek-myth transplant “Tiresia” finds the Gallic helmer in a highly introspective, self-reflexive mood. Opening scene, with Paris-based director Bertrand (Amalric) searching for inspiration in a shop that sells coffins and gravestones, will remind some of Fellini’s “8½,” although as “On War” develops, its protag seems to be wrestling less with artistic funk than with an overall spiritual crisis.

A hilarious accident leaves Bertrand trapped in a coffin overnight (and confirms, along with his sidewalk encounter in “A Christmas Tale,” that Amalric is a brilliant physical comedian), a nightmarish experience that nonetheless gives him new insight. Hoping to recapture that sense of contented stillness via less claustrophobic means, he encounters a strangely attentive man on the street (Guillaume Depardieu) who takes him to the Kingdom, a large house in the countryside where several free-spirited youngsters have retreated from society.

Bertrand spends two weeks at this rural getaway, where he grows close to the leader of the group, Uma (Asia Argento). As this enigmatic high priestess leads her commune in bizarre yet strangely soothing outdoor exercises, sometimes while wearing animal masks, and as the pic starts to fracture itself into chapters with titles like “The Nature of War,” viewers will be forced to decide whether to surrender or flee.

Stimulated and refreshed by the experience, Bertrand returns briefly to Paris and his bemused but supportive lover Louise (Clotilde Hesme), but quickly heads back to the Kingdom, where pic plunges into ever-increasing realms of narrative self-indulgence, including a jungle-set dream sequence that directly evokes “Apocalypse Now.” Brief cameos by Laurent Lucas as himself and Michel Piccoli as a mysterious guru type — billed in the press notes as the Great Hou (who?) — fail to clarify the murk.

Before it turns ponderous, however, “On War” is surprisingly hypnotic for viewers willing to make the journey, with lyrical passages showing the characters’ rapturous intimacy with nature. Pic’s single most mesmerizing scene, in which Bertrand and his new friends dance for what seems like hours, their eyes closed as the music rises to a pulsing crescendo, is a stunner.

Like a sort of Zen clown, Amalric excels at revealing his character’s humorous side, slyly sending up Bertrand’s experiment even as he embraces it with wide-eyed enthusiasm. Argento, who can usually be counted on to enliven the dreariest proceedings, surprises by not only staying fully robed but also delivering her mellowest performance in quite some time (although between this and Catherine Breillat’s “The Last Mistress,” one wonders if she is now contractually obligated to drink blood in her movies).

While the nature of Bertrand’s “war” is never clearly specified, it would seem to refer to his struggle to find pleasure and fulfillment away from the civilized world. Visually, pic fascinates with its shifts between the urban bustle of Paris and the often stunningly composed outdoor sequences, captured in mostly stationary shots by Josee Deshaies (who also lensed Bonello’s “The Pornographer”).

Eclectic soundtrack teems with material composed by Bonello himself, supplemented by snatches of Mozart, Panda Bear, Robert Wyatt and Bob Dylan, who is quoted at the outset.

On War

France

Production

A Les Films du Lendemain, My New Picture presentation, with the participation of Centre National de la Cinematographie, Canal Plus, TPS Star. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Kristina Larsen, Bertrand Bonello. Directed, written by Bertrand Bonello.

Crew

Camera (color), Josee Deshaies; editor, Fabrice Rouaud; music, Bonello; production designer, Antoine Platteau; sound (Dolby Digital), Olivier Le Vacon, Nicolas Moreau; Vincent Vatoux; Jean-Pierre Laforce; choreographer, Bernardo Montet; assistant director, Christophe Jeauffroy. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight), May 16, 2008. Running time: 132 MIN.

With

Mathieu Amalric, Asia Argento, Guillaume Depardieu, Clotilde Hesme, Laurent Delbecque, Elina Lowensohn, Lea Seydoux, Aurore Clement, Laurent Lucas, Michel Piccoli.

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