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Fairy tales don’t usually begin the way Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon does, but director Ana Lily Amirpour isn’t one to let convention get in her way. This trippy Venice competition title opens with a moody shot of a sinister bayou in Louisiana. Spanish moss hangs from oak and cypress trees. Clouds slither across the sky, occasionally crossing paths with the full moon. The uninviting marsh water is dark and still. Miles away, a young woman named Mona (Jeon Jong-seo) sits in an asylum, wrapped in a white straitjacket and rocking back and forth in her cell. When her night attendant visits her chambers to clip her toenails, the routine exchange ends with the attendant stabbing herself in the thigh with the nail clippers, and Mona making a run for it.
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon solidifies Amirpour’s reputation as a master of subversion. As with her previous two films — A Girl Walks Home at Night and The Bad Batch — she takes the framework of fantasy-adventure films and fills it with her own eclectic touches. In this version of the story, our heroine and her accomplices are misfits, people society pushes to the margins. With its hyper-saturated mood, hypnotic music and highly stylized cinematography, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon will surely thrill the director’s existing fans and convert new ones.
After escaping the asylum, Mona runs into a group of strangers under a highway. They come to her aid, no questions asked: They hand her a beer, give her a pair of faded black Converse sneakers, and point her in the direction of New Orleans. Somewhat buoyed by this first instance of kindness, our escapee heads to the Crescent City, planning to leave the asylum in the rearview. “I’m not going back to that place,” a phrase she utters to almost everyone she meets, becomes a refrain, a reminder of her haunting, mysterious past.
Navigating the modern world after nearly a decade in captivity is harder than expected. But fear is not a part of Mona’s equation. She possesses supernatural powers that allow her, with just a stare, to control people and their actions. The film is chiefly concerned with how this ability saves Mona, and the friends she makes along the way, from dangerous situations. Jeon (Burning) excels in her first English-language role, imbuing Mona with personality despite her limited dialogue. Much of that is achieved through Jeon’s measured performance of Mona’s unusual ability — contorting her face as she accesses her rage, slowly and deliberately twisting her head and lifting her arms before lashing out.
Mona’s first stop in New Orleans is a seedy convenience store frequented by a group of heavily tattooed young men. Seeing Mona alone, they approach and interrogate her. Where are her friends? Who is she? What does she want? Food is the answer to that last question, and when the man with a hot container of food in his hand refuses to share, Mona goes into the store and tries to buy a bag of cheese puffs and a beer. Fuzz (Ed Skrein), one of the boys from the ragtag group, follows her. Already smitten with this mysterious girl, he pays for her meager meal, and then, as men do, asks for a kiss.
Somewhere on the other side of town, Officer Harold (Craig Robinson) opens an ominous and funny fortune cookie that reads: “Forget what you know.” But before he can think twice about it, he receives a call from dispatch alerting officers in the area to keep an eye out for a schizophrenic patient who escaped from the asylum. Next comes an assignment: Go to a convenience store near the French Quarter to deal with two drunk women causing a scene. It’s not hard to guess what happens next.
Thanks to her powers, Mona escapes relatively unscathed and continues her tour of New Orleans. Her next stop is a fast-food restaurant where she meets Bonnie (Kate Hudson), who dances at a strip club on Bourbon Street. The two become fast friends, and Mona views Bonnie as a guardian. Bonnie’s intentions with Mona are more opaque, but she does encourage a friendship between Mona and her son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), which blossoms sweetly over the course of the film.
Amirpour’s screenplay is straightforward. Save a few shocking moments, everything plays out as expected. That’s most disappointing when it comes to our heroine’s backstory, which is only lightly touched upon. Still, one could argue that the script’s spareness leaves more room for the helmer’s inventive visual language to take center stage. Deep purples, bright greens, blues and reds blanket each shot, giving the entire film a rave-like quality. The music — an eclectic mix of EDM, rock and other genres — only adds to the trippy experience.
New Orleans feels, sounds and looks different under this director’s eye. Parts of the setting feel underutilized to me, but I’d be curious to read reactions from city natives. Even if you’re not completely taken with the story, experiencing Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon’s atmospheric weirdness makes it worth watching at least once.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: 141 Entertainment, Grisbi Productions
Cast: Jeon Jong-seo, Kate Hudson, Craig Robinson, Ed Skrein, Evan Whitten
Director-screenwriter: Ana Lily Amirpour
Producers: John Lesher, Dylan Weathered, Robbie Mierls, Adam Mirels
Executive producers: Erika Olde, Mike Upton, Luke Rodgers, Nicola Smith, Jamie Fairweather, Sam Roseme, Thorsten Schumacher, Lars Sylvest
Director of photography: Pawel Pogorzelski
Production designer: Brandon Tonner-Connolly
Costume designer: Natalie O'Brien
Editor: Taylor Levy
Music: Daniele Luppi
Casting directors: Kim Davis-Wagner, Justine Arteta
Sales: Rocket Science
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