Face -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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CANNES -- Malaysian-born, Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-Liang's films have always required a lot of work. He's a rigorous practitioner of the extreme long-take aesthetic, and audiences have been willing to stick with such demanding masterpieces as "What Time Is It Over There?" "The River" and "Vive l'amour" because despite the constant battle to overcome ennui, Tsai always pays off, either in humor, fresh insight into the human condition or a novel, strikingly profound combination of the visual and aural.

Alas, that is not the case with his latest offering, the very bloated "Face," which starts off impenetrable and ends that way as well. Gorgeous images regularly punctuate the film, but they will not be enough for most viewers, and thus even specialty art house potential seems slim. A pickup by a U.S. distributor would be in the miraculous range. Perhaps the film will do better on DVD among the cinematic cognoscenti whose appetites are only whetted by negative reviews like this one.

"Face" is about little more than itself, its director and Francois Truffaut -- in that order. The "plot line" that can be pieced together by reading the press kit and slogging through the entire film (and using a lot of imagination) is that a Chinese director (Lee Kang-Sheng) has come to France to make a film about Salome and wants Truffaut regular Jean Pierre Leaud to play Herod. Fanny Ardant, another Truffaut regular at the other end of his short life, works on the film as a kind of production assistant.

Tsai also appears to believe that he has become a famous-enough auteur (this is his 10th film) to openly quote himself. Thus, those familiar with "Hole" will find the flooded waters and the sudden breaking into unmotivated song from that film in the new one as well. (Now the songs are in Chinese and Spanish, lip-synched by Laetitia Costa.) The fish tank from "What Time Is It Over There?" also re-appears as well as the Parisian fountain that provides its memorable ending, but this time quizzically with a deer that has been a nonrunning motif.

Images succeed one another with little or no narrative connection, yet many of them are stunning in their own right. For example, at one point the director and actor Leaud are in the forest watching the same forest depicted on television, and Leaud hands his pet bird to the director, who cleverly pretends to make it fly from televised tree to tree. Something deep about reality and representation is probably being said here, but it is unclear just what. In any case, the gesture presumably abets the mirrors that have been placed earlier throughout the snow-covered woods. It also must be said that with the gorgeous model Costa playing Salome, the dance of the seven veils is a huge treat.

Other motifs just seem to fall flat, like the one in which a character (Costa?) obsessively covers windows and mirrors with black tape. It goes without saying that every application of the tape is shown at full length. Shots rarely show what they normally would, and everything is seen as through a mirror -- or at least through a reflecting window -- darkly. Characters seen on screen are rarely those heard on the soundtrack, who remain off-camera.

Completely gratuitous cameos by the likes of Jeanne Moreau, Nathalie Baye and Mathieu Almaric prove little more than embarrassing.

As one would expect in a movie called "Face," faces abound, but they rarely add up to anything beyond their sheer there-ness. This kind of lengthy self-indulgence by an heretofore brilliant director is almost enough to make you want the producers to rise up against the auteurs and take over again.

Section: Competition

Sales: Fortissimo Films. Production companies: JBA Prods., Homegreen Films, Le Musee du Louvre, Tarantula, Circe Films, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Fanny Ardant, Laetitia Costa, Jean Pierre Leaud, Lee Kang-Sheng, Lu Y-Ching, Norman Atun, Chen Shiang-chyi
Director-screenwriter: Tsai Ming-Liang
Producer: Jacque Bidou, Marianne Dumoulin
Director of photography: Liao Peng Jung
Production designer: Patrick Dechesne, Alain-Pascal Housiaux, Lee Tien-Chueh
Costume designer: Anne Dunsford, Wang Chia Huei, Christian Lacroix
Editor: Jacques Comets
No rating, 141 minutes