“Nothing is more beautiful than what disappears before our eyes,” a character murmurs more than once in “Radiance,” a gentle-hearted, quintessentially new-age but fatally cloying new outing from Japan’s premier cinematic naturalist Naomi Kawase. It’s a line that reads as wishful thinking in an attractively sunlit film that all but turns to vapor on screen. In a story of the tentative romance that blossoms between a blind photographer and a kind of seeing-eye translator for the cinema, the film’s thematic preoccupation with the power of images — as perceived through any of the senses — is a worthy and thoughtful one. Yet the execution lacks the visual and emotional rigor of Kawase’s most imposing films, instead swaddling viewers in buttery lighting and blunt, earnest platitudes. Some will respond to such comforts, though “Radiance” is unlikely to significantly expand the international profile of a filmmaker still best loved on the Croisette.
While Kawase has been a Cannes darling for some time — it’s a decade since her stately, poetic grief drama “The Mourning Forest” took the Grand Prix at the festival — it was only with her last film, 2015’s “Sweet Bean,” that she made distribution inroads into a number of western markets. The breakthrough was easy enough to explain: While that film retained her blend of environmental and metaphysical interests, fixing them to a more conventionally heart-warming narrative (with a sugary serving of food porn) worked to winsome effect. That sentimentalist streak returns in “Radiance,” though the effects this time aren’t quite as audience-friendly, given the more self-examining nature of Kawase’s inquiry, and two rather remote lead characters who act as little more than vocal vessels for her poetic musings.
It’s certainly difficult not to see Misako (Ayame Misaki), a wide-eyed young writer of audio descriptions for visually impaired filmgoers, as a direct Kawase surrogate — not least when she sincerely says, “I want cinema to convey a more tangible feeling of hope.” In working toward that goal, however, she finds herself torn between evoking emotion and explaining it to her viewers. Blind trial listeners for the arthouse romance she’s working on respond to her descriptions with confusingly mixed feedback, with some finding her words too vague, and others declaring them overly intrusive on their own imaginations. Her strongest critic in this regard is Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase), a celebrated photographer rapidly losing his vision, and thus caught angrily in limbo between a life independently led by sight and one newly reliant on sound.
One can sense Kawase none-too-subtly responding to her own critics in these studio sequences, which are by far the film’s most subtextually intriguing: Is the filmmaker admitting her own struggle to find the balance between symbolic opacity and banality, or simply defending herself against those who identify any such conflict in her work? Is the film within the film — an apparent tearjerker that climaxes with rapturously crashing waves, tumbling sand sculptures and silk scarves lost to the breeze — a winking self-parody or intended as a serious reflection of her art? Either way, “Radiance” makes itself almost courageously vulnerable to the same criticisms faced by its protagonist: For better or worse, between a succession of lens-flaring dying-of-the-light sunsets and spoken metaphors like “the camera is my heart,” it’s a film unafraid to spell out its poignancy to viewers.
As Misako and Nakamori get past their initially prickly first impressions to see (or not see) the world through each other’s eyes, they begin to complete each other in neatly symbiotic ways: The young woman learns to place greater trust in images while the older man, a stymied merchant of pictures, opens his mind to other means of emotional expression. It’s not exactly an esoteric narrative design, but it’s all a little too schematic to touch the heart, however persistently the rippling piano-led score — a dainty contribution from French-Lebanese jazz artist Ibrahim Maalouf — attempts to convince viewers otherwise. Meanwhile, an underdeveloped subplot concerning Misako’s frail mother (Kazuko Shirakawa) and her retreat into dementia adds little to proceedings but a kind of backup attack on viewers’ tear ducts.
That said, even a maudlin Kawase effort isn’t without its sensory pleasures. Cinematographer Arata Dodo conjures occasional frames of widescreen rapture from the director’s image system, whether it’s two kissing lovers emblazoned as orange silhouettes against the twilight, or a spinning crystal — a perfectly hippy Kawasean motif — scattering shards of multicolored light on gazing faces. What’s missing is the devotional relationship to nature present in much of the director’s previous work: Lush landscapes and non-human life forms are pictured throughout “Radiance,” but contribute more aesthetic embellishment than any complex, cosmic role in the drama. At a key juncture in the story, Misako may take a cathartic walk through the wind-ruffled woods of her childhood, but this forest doesn’t mourn — it’s just a polite, passive observer.