Say what you will about rarefied Japanese enviro-auteur Naomi Kawase, but there are relatively few filmmakers whose work can be identified from its image system alone, and she is firmly in that club. It takes mere seconds for “Vision” (her tenth feature, and her first to be shot partially in English) to announce itself as a Kawase enterprise, as its opening shots dwell woozily on translucent clouds masking the sun, an emerald shag-pile carpet of forest treetops viewed from above, and a sudden shaft of sunlight hitting a single taupe tree trunk like a flaming arrow. The quasi-mystical marvels of nature in repose are Kawase’s earnest stock-in-trade, and they’ve rarely been quite so gorgeously gazed upon as they are in “Vision”: When Juliette Binoche’s heartsick travel writer Jeanne wanders into these woods, her eyes and ours are very much aligned in beauty-drunk wonder.
The spell is likely to wear off a little sooner for the audience than it does for Jeanne, but for nearly an hour, “Vision” is restfully enrapturing and surprisingly sexy. As Jeanne sets off in search of a magically pain-relieving herb — no, not that one — Kawase’s filmmaking is so serenely tuned into its protagonist’s besotted point of view that this fey supernatural premise seems perfectly reasonable, a simple pretext for a more enveloping sensual awakening. But when “Vision” goes full windchime nirvana in its second half, fudging chronology and existential dimensions to borderline incoherent effect, its delicate dreamscape collapses a bit. The final result is a mixed hessian bag of Kawase’s best and worst creative impulses; still, buoyed by Binoche’s ever-disarming presence, it should be her most widely distributed work to date.
That “Vision” premiered in Toronto rather than Cannes, Kawase’s usual stomping ground, arguably reflects its slightly more crossover-minded commercial sheen. “Commercial,” however, will always be a relative term for a filmmaker who remains committed to a defiantly elusory storytelling style. The film actually makes more sense the less its characters speak: “A thousand years ago, on the day the spores flew, I was born,” announces Aki (Mari Natsuki), a blind, elderly woodland hermit, near the outset of proceedings, which should clue viewers into the kind of reality they’re entering.
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Such gnomic pronouncements are exactly what Jeanne is after, though, when she arrives in the Yoshino mountains with her young translator Hana (Minami) in tow: Nursing a deep-seated personal sorrow alluded to only in brief, enigmatic, golden-lit flashbacks, she is determined to source and gather “vision,” the aforementioned herb that, as it happens, conveniently releases its spores once a millennium. The next spore-fest is nigh, then, and only Aki knows which way the wind is blowing. More skeptical is Tomo (Masatoshi Nagase, in his third straight Kawase collaboration), a taciturn man of the woods who offers Jeanne shelter on her vision quest. While she waits for the leaves to shake, he turns out to provide emotional succour of a more carnal variety: Binoche and Nagase have genuinely tingly unspoken chemistry, and “Vision” is at its loveliest when they calmly, candidly woo each other.
Unfortunately, the mysterious herbal tonic isn’t a mere MacGuffin for a more grounded tale of midlife desire, and once the spores get restless, we drift away from this romance into a more abstruse, breeze-buffeted exploration of Jeanne’s mournings and yearnings. As Aki vanishes, dreamy young explorer Rin (Takanori Iwata) appears on the scene, seemingly bringing more emotional history for Jeanne to work through. Is he a past lover resurfacing, or is Jeanne floating through multiple timelines at once? Answers, needless to say, are not forthcoming, as the characters themselves largely recede into the film’s verdant organic tapestry.
By this point, the film’s pleasures are exclusively ones of sound and, well, vision. Arata Dodo’s supple, lucent lensing is as infectiously hypnotized by the landscape as Jeanne is; even if viewers find themselves frustrated by Kawase’s twinkly retreat from narrative terra firma, it’s impossible not to gawp at the camera’s aerial caress of the forest in autumnal transition, complemented by the densely layered whistles and rustles of Makoto Ozone’s score and Roman Dymny’s airy, attentive sound design. For such generous sensory delights, “Vision” is worth enduring its less penetrable talk of prime number cicadas, or the dialogue’s babbling stream of runny, faux-poetic sentiments. (“Love is like the waves, it never ends,” Jeanne muses at one point, testing Binoche’s innate sincerity as a performer to breaking point.) We shouldn’t have to compromise, however, when for its terrific first half, “Vision” has elemental magic in its green fingertips; sometimes, Kawase can’t quite see the trees for the forest.