A meticulous dissection of a marriage that unfolds with exquisitely controlled elegance.

By turns melancholy, funny and disturbing, Hitoshi Yazaki’s “Sweet Little Lies” is a meticulous dissection of a marriage that unfolds with the same exquisitely controlled elegance that characterizes its heroine, Ruriko (a mesmerizing Miki Nakatani). The marriage in question, in all its oddities and compromises, is entirely her creation, crystallized around her husband’s inadequacies and sustained by a combination of affectionate solicitude and implacable will. Navigating small rituals and large infidelities with equal grace, Nakatani infuses every gesture with calm, unknowable beauty. With strong critical support, this gorgeously composed, uniquely Japanese-style “Scenes From a Marriage” could conceivably carve an arthouse niche.

Superficially, Ruriko and Satoshi (Nao Omori) share a calm, idyllic relationship. Ruriko lovingly prepares hubby’s meals, smilingly awakens him, unfailingly sends him off to work and meets him at the door when he returns. The couple never argue, Satoshi politely responsive to his wife’s requests. But every night, he locks himself in his room to play videogames, the couple communicating via cell phone. Although they sleep side by side, sex has been absent for the last two of their three years of marriage, Satoshi comically ill at ease around his beautiful wife.

Though the script offers no explanation for Satoshi’s odd behavior, the camera, trained on Ruriko, implies hidden depths and unplumbed mysteries all the more unsettling for the eerie calm surrounding her flawless exterior.

Ruriko is a well-known artist — a creator of one-of-a-kind teddy bears. Their bodies lie heaped on dressers, while disconnected heads and limbs await assembly. In one especially creepy scene, Ruriko’s hand indecisively hovers over a teddy bear, and she repeatedly jabs a pin into its empty eye socket.

Both spouses drift into secret affairs, Ruriko with an intense young musician, Haruo (ballet dancer Juichi Kobayashi). Satoshi is seduced by fellow scuba-diving club member Shiho (Chizuru Ikewaki), who, chubby, cheerful and forthrightly hedonistic, is Ruriko’s antithesis. Initially, the affairs, far from undermining the marriage, seem to strengthen it, providing passion and spontaneity otherwise absent in the couple’s excruciatingly polite, sexless arrangement.

Yet the marriage offers a base of security, a shared past that neither partner is willing to surrender, to the great chagrin of their not-so-significant others. Ruriko, at one point, expresses her love of windows (and helmer Yazaki, significantly, frames much of this intimate film from them); she admits that Satoshi acts as her window, a fixed point that allows the mind to travel without fear.

Strangely, the pic’s most tragic scene belongs to Satoshi, who seeks to synthesize his split existence by taking his wife to an elegant restaurant he once enjoyed with Shiho. He sentimentally fetes their wedding anniversary, only to hear Ruriko dismissively declare that anniversaries are irrelevant, since marriage is for life. Satoshi simultaneously recognizes the role Ruriko has assigned him and the utter impossibility of ever enriching it.

With its muted tones and long stretches of silence, “Lies” reps a significant addition to Yazaki’s masterful but all-too-infrequent oeuvre, a marked contrast to 2006’s colorful, multistranded (if equally femme-centric) “Strawberry Shortcakes.”

Sweet Little Lies

Japan

Production

A Broadmedia, Glory Group, Nichion, Pony Canyon, Hollywood Channel production. (International sales: Shochiku, Tokyo.) Produced by Hiroshi Miyazaki, Junko Tanabe. Executive producers, Masato Hayama, Eiji Izumi. Directed by Hitoshi Yazaki. Screenplay, Kyoko Inukai, from the novel by Kaori Ekuni.

Crew

Camera (color), Isao Ishii; editor, Yoshiyuki Okuhara; music Takeshi Senoo; production designer, Yasuyo Takahashi; sound (DTS stereo), Masayuki Iwakura. Reviewed at Japan Cuts, New York, July 8, 2010. Running time: 117 MIN.

With

Miki Nakatani, Nao Omori, Chizuru Ikewaki, Juichi Kobayashi, Mei Kurokawa, Ando Sakura, Akiko Kazami, Yuko Oshima.
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