After 90 minutes of dense, ceaseless conversation on a largely unnavigable sequence of topics from first sexual experiences to the cultivation of wild gooseberries, the last thing any viewer really wants to hear is, “We have been here in vain.” Yet the line is stated twice in the closing stages of Wim Wenders’ prettily sunlit but otherwise insufferable 3D talkfest “The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez,” and even without it, it’d be hard to shake the sense of shaggy-dog inconsequentiality from proceedings. Adapted from a stage work by Austrian writer Peter Handke — who previously collaborated with the director to far more stimulating effect on “Wings of Desire” and “The Wrong Move” — Wenders’ first French-language film doesn’t make much of a case for the material as cinema, or even as a particularly good play. Tuning into the cod-philosophical witterings of two strangers in an idyllic garden while the apparent author of their words hovers metatextually indoors, “Aranjuez” crowds out its few piquant observations with such gassy poetics as, “The soul is howling to the pale horizon like a hungry she-wolf.”
Anyone who finds that line more deep than dippy is in for a soul-stirring time here, though it’s hard to imagine many international distributors giving them a chance to find out: “Aranjeuz” has less of a pulse than the already inert “Every Thing Will Be Fine,” Wenders’ last foray into 3D arthouse drama, which made scarcely a ripple in theaters despite an all-star cast. Even for Wenders completists, the film is of mostly academic interest: an intermediate entry in the filmmaker’s ongoing investigation into the possibilities of stereoscopic imagery, thus far deployed to far more vibrant effect in his documentaries than in his narrative work. Non-fiction has consumed most of Wenders’ creative energy in the last decade or so: There’s certainly nothing in this sometimes breezy, sometimes windy trifle to match the formal and conceptual ingenuity of “Pina” or “The Salt of the Earth.”
And while allowing for the possibility of technical error at the film’s Venice press screening, even the trippy visuals fall short of the inventive standard set by Wenders’ previous 3D work. This critic was not alone in finding the film’s elaborately differentiated planes of vision, many dedicated to the wealth of shimmering foliage in the aforesaid garden, a tad out of balance; between that and a torrent of swiftly sequenced subtitles to keep pace with the roving purple dialogue, the film is harder work on the eyes than its luminous outdoor setting might suggest. As in “Everything Will Be Fine,” however, the pairing of Wenders with dynamic cinematographer (and regular Gaspar Noé collaborator) Benoît Debie instils hope for superior future projects between them. In two dimensions or three, there are stray images here — beginning with a swoon-worthy introductory montage of eerily unpeopled Parisian streetscapes in peak summer — fit to be hung on a wall.
Scored rousingly if somewhat obviously to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” this montage may well represent the film’s premature high point — not least because it has none of Wenders and Handke’s impenetrable dialogue slathered over it. Our two nameless conversationalists, played with somewhat heroic sincerity by stage actress (and Handke’s wife) Sophie Semin and the routinely interesting Reda Kateb, begin their exchange in a nebulous question-and-answer format, as he quizzes her on past romances and sexual encounters, while she replies in the most verbosely evasive way possible.
As the golden afternoon sun washes over them — time here is an elastic concept, as the woman’s sporadic costume changes suggest — the discussion drifts between such obliquely personal matters on her side, while he occasionally changes the subject to mansplain such natural phenomena as sparrows, mulberry leaves and the Pleiades star cluster to her. (She, meanwhile, has no unprompted knowledge of her own to volunteer: “Without your questions, I cannot go on — I am blind and mute,” she simpers. It’s a line one cannot imagine any female writer devising.)
With no thematic or emotional throughline to speak of, and certainly no driving line of argument, it’s hard to say which lifeless topic you wish they’d stick to. If their discussion is intended to be emblematic of traditional relations between man and woman (and their Eden-like surroundings suggest it might), neither gender emerges with much credit or creditable insight. “Who knows what lies dormant in the depths of time?” she asks in anguish at one point.
Certainly not the audience, while even the author (Jens Harzer), watching their back-and-forth from his airy study, checks out at key points, stretching his legs to chop firewood or pick out eminently Wenders-y tunes from the imposing, emerald-lit Wurlitzer in his hallway. Nick Cave, meanwhile, provides another welcome musical break from the chatter, showing up unexplained and unannounced to croon an elegantly morose number on the piano and disappearing just as suddenly — it’s the one time matters approach the genuinely strange, gauzy atmospherics of a dream, but it’s also the gambit of a supposedly idea-driven film that has run completely out of ideas.
The unidentified writer’s presence notionally lends a touch of Pirandello’s playfulness to proceedings, inviting us to question ideas of authorship and character possession: As he bangs away on his old-school typewriter, is he an inventor or an eavesdropper? Is he feeding dialogue to these enigmatic people in the garden, or stealing it from them? Whatever the answer, he can probably do better than this soupy intellectual siesta, and the same goes for Wim Wenders.