Gentle, intelligent, gorgeously made and utterly eccentric, “Obselidia” exists in its own little world entirely apart from any hitherto detected categories of American independent filmmaking. Centered upon a man devoted to all manner of things that are close to becoming obsolete or extinct, Scottish-born writer-director Diane Bell’s debut feature is the cinematic equivalent of a one-of-a-kind object you might find in curiosity shop — it might be impossible to determine its true worth, but if it strikes your fancy, you’ll snap it up. A specialized item to say the least, the film has no conventional B.O. prospects but is a fine candidate for discriminating smaller fests and alternative exhibition formats.
From the striking title cards to the beautifully composed visuals and unusual collected items that litter the protagonist’s home, “Obselidia” has the look of a hand-crafted piece, something meticulously sculpted or painted in an artist’s studio. On a stylistic level, Bell is clearly in thrall to the French New Wave, specifically to Rohmer in the long, impassioned talks the brainy central couple have on often rarefied topics, and to Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” in a joyous bicycle ride the two take down some conspicuously car-deprived streets in Los Angeles. To top it off, the woman admits, “I just don’t know if I can be with somebody who wouldn’t watch ‘Au hasard Balthazar.’?”
The cultured, emotionally stymied man who articulates the film’s concerns is George (Aussie actor Michael Piccirilli), who works in a library but spends every available moment endeavoring to complete “The Obselidia,” his self-generated “Encyclopedia of Obsolete Things.” In line with this effort, he goes to interview the projectionist at the (actual) Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles, who turns out to be a lively and lovely young lady, Sophie (Scottish thesp Gaynor Howe), who shares his antiquarian sympathies but is on notably better terms with the modern world and its inhabitants.
Polite to the point of nearly creepy formality, George goes into a mild panic when women open the door even a crack to emotional interchange. But unlike a stunning girl he’s met at the library, Sophie is aggressive enough to get him to venture out, initially to Culver City’s (actual) Museum of Jurassic Technology. Thus begins the closest thing the 21st century cinema has yet offered to a 19th century courtship, in which a man and woman exchange ideals, theories, concepts and opinions, but only the most repressed sensuality.
George’s not just stuck in the past but exceptionally rigid, doctrinaire and reluctant to try anything new. Willing to use a computer at the library but not to buy one, he has a rotary phone and refuses to drive; asked by Sophie why he writes on a manual typewriter, he stiffens up and says, “It’s political.”
All the same, they get along so well that, at the pic’s 35-minute mark, the twosome take a trip to Death Valley to speak with a man far more extreme than George. Lewis (the genially imposing Frank Hoyt Taylor) is a former NASA scientist who was the first man to prophesy global warming and now insists there’s nothing to be done about it. Convinced that 80% of the world will resemble Death Valley by 2100, Lewis philosophically says, “It isn’t going to last. Enjoy it while we can.”
Essentially, then, from the big picture down to the smallest object or a fleeting emotion, the film is preoccupied by the ephemeral nature of everything. Eventually, of course, the sun and Earth will die, sooner rather than later, according to George and Lewis. For her part, Sophie says she loves the United States because nothing is built to last, which to her underlines the broader fact that everything is always changing. Sophie’s embrace of the new represents the other side of the coin from George’s relentless collecting and documentation of the old; in certain ways, they would make a perfect couple, if only he could fling off his straitjacket of rectitude and emotional paralysis.
Borderline twee and precious at times, the film is weakest in its attempted comic portrait of George’s maladroit effort to be an outdoorsman; when he protests about sleeping in a tent in Death Valley or learning to drive, he sounds like an unfunny Woody Allen clone. It’s all in the service of an ending that’s both poignant and pat, but overall, the lively handling of ideas is far superior to the tonal control of the occasional slapstick sequences.
His generally agreeable countenance brought down a few notches by glasses far too large, Piccirilli precisely catches George’s meticulous and persnickety sides, making for a protagonist who will rub some the wrong way but is entirely credible to anyone familiar with such types. Howe injects the proceedings with needed energy and enthusiasm, while Taylor projects the requisite gravity seemingly as easily as breathing.
Visually, the picture is a thing of great beauty. Zak Mulligan’s lensing with the Red camera system is shimmeringly luminous as well as vigorously agile and was a deserved recipient of the Sundance cinematography award. The lushly green, inviting areas around George’s home simultaneously seem familiar and not like Los Angeles at all, while Liam Howe’s score is frequently beguiling but sometimes too much.