Promises Written in Water

Plays like notes for an arthouse film about love and death, but not the real thing.

After the notoriously hostile reception to “The Brown Bunny” at Cannes in 2003, multihyphenate Vincent Gallo has waited a long time to helm another feature. “Promises Written in Water” marks his return, but this inchoate, underwhelming black-and-white drama reps a disappointment both for those gleefully expecting a disaster and for supporters hoping for something better. A jagged tale of a funeral-home assistant (Gallo, of course) with girl trouble, pic plays like notes for an arthouse film about love and death — maybe even a good one — but not the real thing. “Promises” should trickle into niche distribution and evaporate on ancillary.

Opening voiceover by a French-accented femme, later revealed to be a beauty named Mallory (model Delfine Bafort), explains she’s been told she’s going to die soon. This sets up a preoccupation with mortality that chimes with the next scene, in which an unnamed character (Gallo) circles a job in the classified ads for a funeral-home apprentice.

After a flurry of inexplicable, mostly single-shot scenes showing Gallo pacing a room in tight closeup or smoking cigarettes in a cafe, he and Mallory eventually go on a date, during which she asks if he has called a woman named Colette. He says, perhaps a dozen times in different ways, that he did call her and she’s gone to Thailand or Taiwan (both are mentioned) with a 55-year-old man. Sequence looks more than anything like one long, unedited take in which Gallo the actor is trying out different ways to say the same line, as Bafort (almost entirely offscreen for the whole scene) struggles to keep up.

Even auds predisposed to cut the film some slack will struggle to parse exactly what is going on here. Did Mallory and the guy ever become lovers? (There’s a strangely mesmerizing scene in which he keeps going in for a kiss and then pulling back.) Is she already dead from the start — a device Gallo has used before — and we’re watching the bereaved guy’s memories or fantasies? And why does he prop up another dead, skinny bald girl (Hope Tomeselli) in order to photograph her?

All in all, “Promises” has more plot than “Bunny” but makes much less sense, and proves considerably less engaging in general. Although there are lyrical bits — such as the kiss scene or a moment when Mallory dances for the protag (invoking shades of “Buffalo ’66”), all rendered instantly retro-cool-looking by lenser Masanobu Takayanagi’s grainy monochrome stock — there’s almost no way to get any emotional traction going with characters we know so little about.

Tech credits have a low-budget-and-proud-of-it sheen. Running time is blessedly short.

Promises Written in Water

  • Production: A Gray Daisy Films, Vincent Gallo Prods. production. (International sales: Gray Daisy Films, Los Angeles.) Produced, directed, written, edited by Vincent Gallo.
  • Crew: Camera (B&W, 16mm-to-35mm), Masanobu Takayanagi; music/music supervisor, Gallo; production designer, Gallo; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter V. Meiselmann; Jon Mete. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 6, 2010. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Visions.) Running time: 73 MIN.
  • With: With: Vincent Gallo, Delfine Bafort, Sage Stallone, Lisa Love, Hope Tomeselli, Brenda Epperson.