It’s surprising, on reflection, that more fashion designers don’t go into filmmaking. Their art hinges on unfettered visual imagination with an activating element of human performance, savvy to the demands of a paying audience. Tom Ford proved the logic of the transition; in their first feature, the headily ornate but narratively anemic “Woodshock,” Kate and Laura Mulleavy don’t come to the medium quite as fully formed.
The good news is that the celebrated sisterly duo behind the Rodarte couture label bring much of their singularly striking, busy aesthetic to the screen: With its layer upon layer of filters, lens flares, neon imprints, overlaid floral motifs and crystalline refractions, the film is as extravagantly embellished as one of their most gawp-worthy gowns. Yet this sparse meditation on a legal cannabis dealer (Kirsten Dunst) sent into concentric spirals of trauma and hallucination by her mother’s death could desperately use some extra detailing at the level of character and psychology. As it is, the vicarious intrigue of watching someone else’s increasingly distant drug trips burns out pretty fast, leaving viewers with an abstruse fusion of stoner cinema and slow cinema that plays to no obvious audience. A24 can play up “Woodshock’s” attractive, cultish trappings ahead of its Stateside opening on September 22, but it’d be more seductive as a nightclub background projection than as a theatrical experience.
“Woodshock” wastes no time getting to the despairing heart of its drama: Near the beginning, a distraught Theresa (Dunst) prepares a lethal cocktail of marijuana and another, indeterminate substance at the behest of her terminally ill mother (Susan Traylor), the preparation of the final spliff depicted in extreme, near-reverent closeup. The invalid peacefully slips away; Theresa, meanwhile, is left in a tormented state of mourning from which she can’t seem to extricate herself, with or without psychotropic assistance. That’s as clear and emotionally acute as the narrative gets before “Woodshock” disappears into the hazy no man’s land between reality and the disorienting hall of mirrors that is its heroine’s addled psyche.
The title refers to the mental state of extreme fear and panic associated with losing one’s bearings in the wilderness, here also given a literal application: Theresa lives with her ineffectual boyfriend Nick (British rising star Joe Cole, given precious little to work with) on the fringes of a redwood forest in California’s Humboldt County. How much time she spends wandering its paths or simply dreaming herself along them is anyone’s guess. (At one point, when a fevered Theresa tosses an entire box of eggs into the kitchen sink, it’s hard not to wonder if the Mulleavys are deliberately poking fun at the “this is your brain on drugs” cautionary campaigns of the 1980s.) When not brooding, tripping or both, Theresa works alongside her burly, romantically suggestive friend Keith (the reliable Pilou Asbaek, also under-exploited) at a kind of artisan marijuana boutique for the medically eligible. The question of when the film is set, given this high-end, above-board business and the absence of any contemporary technology from the screen, is kept deliberately elusive.
Production designer and co-producer K.K. Barrett situates the film in a similarly dreamy, inexact milieu to his work with Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola — the decorative flourishes of kitsch in Theresa’s boxy, claustrophobic house could be period detailing or retro hipster affectations — while the Mulleavys’ own costumes (in collaboration with Christie Wittenborn) shift in formality, silhouette and sheer shimmer to match Theresa’s deteriorating grasp on reality. The further she slips into oblivion, the closer she gets to exquisitely sequined Rodarte nirvana. Highly inventive Finnish cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg (an ASC winner for his work on “Concrete Night”) deftly evokes colliding shards of reality, altered reality and outright delusion through glimmering games of watercolor-soft focus and double exposure.
With the film’s human element so glassy and its storytelling so thin, however, all this elegant formal trickery soon turns more aggravating than intoxicating — by its extremely splintered, impressionistic finale, the film skates perilously close to misery chic. Dunst has form in playing irretrievably inverted depression to riveting effect, but the Mulleavys’ script hardly gives her as complex an emotional or intellectual palette to work with as, say, Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia.” Theresa’s relationships with Nick and Keith are likewise marked by watery conflict and attraction. By the time a lucid strain of narrative and feeling does emerge from “Woodshock’s” stunned tangle of whispery impulses and reflections, it lends proceedings a discomfiting whiff of anti-euthanasia sentiment, with the film in no steady state to get political on us.