Silk

Bottom Line: Exotic imagery trumps storytelling in this period puzzler.

Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- The arresting European and Japanese locales, period costumes, sets and props all seem poised for a much richer and more significant movie than "Silk" has to offer. You search its images, which seems to have more to do with mid-19th century methods of international travel than characters or events, for any sort of action to glom on to. Few movies ever have gone to such a length to tell so slight -- and, worse, unengaging -- a story.

Based on Alessandro Baricco's 1996 best-selling novel, this film by Francois Girard (who made the splendid "The Red Violin") stages a love story with an O. Henry ending against the world of the silk trade in the 1860s. It's an exotic world that requires a man to make a dangerous journey from France to Japan -- prior to the Suez Canal -- no less than three times, estranging him from his wife back home but creating a romantic obsession with a Japanese girl who lives "at the end of the world."

Stars Michael Pitt and Keira Knightley are ill-suited to this period. They are modern actors who feel out of time and place despite their costumes, and their talents are poorly used by this moody tone poem of far-flung loves. Audiences will find the whole thing an alien puzzle, filled with wondrous images that are little more than postcards from the past. Knightley's current popularity and the book's admirers may create enough buzz for a solid opening. After that, boxoffice looks to be light.

Pitt's Herve Joncour appears headed for a run-of-the-mill military career until a trader named Baldabiou (Alfred Molina) plucks him from the army to journey to Africa to buy silkworm eggs to replace those ruined by a mysterious disease in Europe. However, the epidemic reaches Africa before Herve does. So the only hope for the silk mills that has caused Herve's hometown to prosper is for him to journey to Japan, a country entirely closed to foreigners, to buy pristine eggs.

His three trips to Japan, each increasingly more dangerous, drives an unspoken wedge between him and his wife, Helene (Knightley), who remains childless. Meanwhile, in a snowy mountain village in Japan, where he is led each time blindfolded, for whatever reason, he falls under the protection of a powerful baron, Hara Jubei (Koji Yakusho).

The baron's concubine intrigues him. On his second visit he is gifted with his own girl of ethereal beauty (Sei Ashina). Their lovemaking is as photogenic as Girard can make it.

Even Baldabiou warns him against a third visit. A rebellion has broken out in Japan. Yet Herve's obsession with The Girl forces him to return. So again, for a third time, the film treats the viewer to the train trip from Vienna to Moravia, a caravan to cross 3,000 miles of Russian steppes, a boat ride in a smuggler's ship and that blindfolded horse trip up the mountain. It's a long way to go to get laid.

You learn little about the silk trade or these characters or the political tumult and war that make the journeys so tricky. All Girard and co-writer Michael Golding seek out are gorgeous shots of travel, exotic lands, the picturesque French village (actually shot in Italian towns), the silk factory, steaming bathing pools in Japan surrounded by snow and lovemaking at each end of the earth.

What a gorgeous coffee table book these images would make. But what a dull movie.

SILK
Picturehouse
Picturehouse presents in association with Alliance Atlantis/Asmik Ace Entertainment/Mesuda Film a Rhombus Media/Fandango/Bee Vine Pidctures presentation
Credits:
Director: Francois Girard
Writers: Francois Girard, Michael Golding
Based on the novel by: Alessandro Baricco
Producers: Niv Fichman, Nandine Luque, Domenico Procacci, Sonoko Sakai
Executive producers: Tom Yoda, Yashshi Shina, Akira Ishii, Camela Galano, Jonathan Debin, Patrice Theroux, Alessandro Baricco
Director of photography: Alain Dostie
Production designer: Francois Seguin
Costume designers: Carlo Poggioli, Kazuko Kurosawa
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Editor: Pia Di Ciaula
Cast:
Herve Joncour: Michael Pitt
Helene Joncour: Keira Knightley
Baldabiou: Alfred Molina
Hara Jubei: Koji Yakusho
Madame Blanche: Miki Nakatani
Ludovic: Mark Rendall
Girl: Sei Ashina
Running time -- 109 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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