×

Film Review: ‘Vision’

Juliette Binoche is on the trail of a magic herb in Naomi Kawase's gentle fever dream, which mixes some of her most seductive filmmaking with shakier digressions.

Director:
Naomi Kawase
With:
Juliette Binoche, Masatoshi Nagase, Takanori Iwata, Mari Natsuki, Minami

1 hour 49 minutes

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Vision'

Reviewed at San Sebastián Film Festival (competing), Sept. 26, 2018. (Also in Toronto, Busan festivals.) Running time: 109 MIN.

Production: (Japan-France) An LDH Japan, Slot Machine, Kumie production. (International sales: Elle Driver, Paris.) Producers: Satoshi Miyazaki, Marianne Slot, Naomi Kawase. Executive producer: Exile Hiro.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Naomi Kawase. Camera (color, widescreen): Arata Dodo. Editors: Yoichi Shibuya, François Gédigier. Music: Makoto Ozone.

With: Juliette Binoche, Masatoshi Nagase, Takanori Iwata, Mari Natsuki, Minami, Mirai Moriyama (English, French, Japanese dialogue)

More Film

  • Cuba Gooding Jr

    Cuba Gooding Jr. Sued for Allegedly Pinching Nightclub Server

    A Tao nightclub server who alleges that Cuba Gooding Jr., pinched her rear-end last year has sued the Oscar-winning actor for sexual battery. Natasha Ashworth had previously come forward to New York law enforcement, though her name had not been released publicly. Gooding was indicted last week on four misdemeanor counts, including two counts stemming [...]

  • Taika Waititi Natalie Portman SDCC 2019

    Natalie Portman Weighs in on 'Thor: Love and Thunder's' Possible Breast Cancer Storyline

    Natalie Portman doesn’t know if “Thor: Love and Thunder” will include a breast cancer storyline for her character Jane Foster, but she’s definitely intrigued by the possibility. “It’s just very rare that these kinds of big entertainment films look at more serious, real-life issues,” she told Variety at L.A. Dance Project’s 8th annual fundraising gala [...]

  • Luxbox Closes Sales on Venice Film

    Luxbox Closes Sales on Venice Film 'Sole' to U.S., France (EXCLUSIVE)

    Fiorella Moretti and Hedi Zardi’s Paris-based sales agency Luxbox has closed several territory deals on Carlos Sironi’s “Sole,” which screened in Venice Film Festival’s Orizzonti section and Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery sidebar. The film just won the audience award at Pingyao Intl. Film Festival in China and a Special Jury Mention for the lead actors [...]

  • Puerto Rican singer Ozuna poses during

    Ozuna Joins Vin Diesel in 'Fast & Furious 9'

    Ozuna, one of Latin music’s fastest-rising stars, has signed with UTA for representation. And to kick off the relationship, the agency has landed him a role in “Fast & Furious 9.” He is also in talks to join the film’s soundtrack. Justin Lin, who directed “Fast & Furious 6,” returns to direct the ninth installment [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Writers Guild Boosting Efforts in Project Development Amid Agency Standoff

    The Writers Guild of America, locked in a six-month standoff with major talent agencies, has announced that it’s boosting efforts at gathering TV, streaming and film project development data to help members find new employment opportunities. The WGA made the disclosure in a message to members on Monday. The guild directed its 15,000 members to fire [...]

  • Fernando Meirelles The Two Popes

    AFI Fest Adds 'The Two Popes,' 'Aeronauts,' Alan Pakula Tribute

    The American Film Institute has added “The Two Popes” and “The Aeronauts” as galas during the upcoming AFI Fest along with a tribute to the late director Alan Pakula. AFI had previously announced that the romantic drama “Queen & Slim” would launch the 33rd annual festival on Nov. 14 and close with the world premiere [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content