'Face'

Tsai Ming-liang's laborious Francophone feature winds up seriously irritating the skin.

Although it occasionally sports a pretty “Face,” Tsai Ming-liang’s laborious Francophone feature winds up seriously irritating the skin without ever actually getting under it. First project under the Louvre Invites Filmmakers program is about — either ironically or prophetically — a Taiwanese director’s catastrophic attempts to shoot the myth of Salome in France. Filled with the helmer’s habitual shenanigans, and including a cast of Gallic stars, pic nonetheless feels shoddily conceived and highly overindulgent, even for Tsai. Only diehard fans will hark to this strictly arthouse item, which reps a shaky cinematic debut for Gaul’s foremost house of art.

This is actually the second time that Tsai has made a film in France, and both “Face” and 2001’s “What Time Is It Over There?” use similar Parisian locations, two of the same actors, and several repeated references to the French New Wave, especially to Francois Truffaut. But while “Time” convincingly portrayed the urban solitude, “Face” loses its narrative wind in clunky musical set pieces, misguided French-language thesping, and a near 2½-hour running time that far outstays its welcome.

Pic starts off in typical Tsai fashion with a well-staged gag in which filmmaker Hsaio-Kong (Lee Kang-Sheng) tries to repair a leaky faucet, but winds up flooding his mom’s (Lu Yi-Ching) entire apartment. Plumbing accidents seem to be a must in the helmer’s films (as is casting Lee as his alter-ego and deadpan actress Lu as the mother). Lee and Lu’s Taiwan-set scenes, however, play much better than those taking place in France.

Kong is seen back in Paris directing his Salome movie — although one really needs to know the myth by heart to grasp that, especially since the film has no dialogue and consists entirely of cheesy music videos in which the model playing Salome (real-life supermodel Laetitia Casta) lip syncs to songs in highly uncomfortable locations (a sewer, a snowstorm, a meat locker).

Kong seems bent on making the entire shoot unpleasant, while also trying to avoid being sucked in by Salome’s seductive dances and displays of flesh. This and the depression caused by the death of Kong’s mother complicate things for his hysterical producer (Fanny Ardant), who also has to put up with a poorly wrangled forest animal and a senile lead actor (Jean-Pierre Leaud).

As the story alternates between the numerous dance sequences (inadequately handled by Casta) and behind-the-scenes antics involving Leaud and a cameoing Jeanne Moreau and Nathalie Baye, it never develops a coherent thread or enough suggestiveness to sustain the action. Even a rather surprising scene in which Kong both gives and is given fellatio by Mathieu Amalric seems only there for the heck of it (or perhaps as some kind of sleazy metaphor for the world of international co-productions).

Visually speaking, Tsai provides a few memorable images, especially a scene filmed entirely with light from cigarettes and lighters that’s captured beautifully by regular d.p. Liao Pen-Jung. Sound work by Roberto Van Eijden (“The Silent Army”) and Jean Mallet (“Before I Forget”) impressively orchestrates the interior spaces, which are filled with Tati-esque effects.

Print and press notes both indicate that this is “Opus 1″ of the Louvre’s new filmmaking initiative, which will allow directors (seemingly, other than Ron Howard) access to the museum’s primo collection. Pic includes one noticeable museum-set scene featuring Da Vinci’s “St. John the Baptist,” but the link between that and the rest of the action is only interesting if you know, or care about Salome’s story — something that the film doesn’t help.

Face

France - Taiwan-Belgium - Netherlands

Production

A Rezo release (in France) of a JBA Prod., Le Musee du Louvre, Arte France Cinema (France)/Homegreen Films (Taiwan)/Tarantula (Belgium)/Circe Films (Netherlands) production, in association Fortissimo Films, with participation of Arte France, Cinecinema, Tax Shelter ING Invest, Department of Cultural Affairs Taipei City Government. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Jacques Bidou, Marianne Dumoulin. Directed, written by Tsai Ming-Liang.

Crew

Camera (color), Liao Pen-Jung; editor, Jacques Comets; music, Jean-Claude Petit; production designers, Patrick Dechesne, Alain-Pascal Housiaux; costume designer, Anne Dunsford; sound (Dolby SRD/DTS Digital), Robert Van Eijden, Jean Mallet, Philippe Baudhuin; choreography, Philippe Decoufle; assistant directors, Vincent Wang, Ong Chao Hong; casting, Aurelie Guichard, Dorothee Chesnot. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 22, 2009. Running time: 141 MIN.

With

Fanny Ardant, Laetitia Casta, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Lee Kang-Sheng, Lu Yi-Ching, Norman Atun, Jeanne Moreau, Nathalie Baye, Mathieu Amalric, Yang Kuei Mei, Chen Chao Rong.

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