Promises Written in Water -- Film Review



VENICE -- Actor-director Vincent Gallo had three reasons for coming to Venice, including his starring role as an Afghan fighter in "Essential Killing" and a short film he directed, "The Agent," starring Sage Stallone. Finally, playing in the feature competition, "Promises Written in Water" is an incomprehensible, disappointing effort in which he receives producing, directing, writing, editing, music and acting credits, so there really is no one else to blame if this story about a man who broods on love and death disappears into the waves almost immediately after its festival outings.

Even making allowances for the director's presumed difficulties in financing another picture after the hostile reception of "The Brown Bunny" in 2003 at Cannes, and giving the current film due credit for its signs of originality and ambition, "Promises" is frustratingly uncommunicative.

The film's title recalls John Keats' famous epitaph, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water," which the poet, lying bitterly on his deathbed, asked to be inscribed on his tombstone. The film is a somewhat morbid meditation on the theme of death, with an incongruous tip of the hat to John Cassavetes and the French Nouvelle Vague. Had Gallo decided to cut the audience a little more slack, it might have worked on this level.

In an opening voice-over, a dying woman -- who is maybe Kevin's (Gallo) almost-girlfriend, Mallory (model Delfine Bafort) -- asks to be cremated and her ashes dispersed. Who is she?
Not only are the characters, their actions and intentions left deliberately unclear, so is the timeline. Does Kevin take a job working in a funeral home for a "world famous mortician" before or after someone dies? Is it Mallory -- the promiscuous bad girl he dates and impulsively wants to marry -- who dies? Her thin body is seen curled up underwater in the bathtub, as though dead.

Another possible candidate for the death that presumably provokes his initial moody pensiveness is an emaciated young woman (Hope Tomeselli) he photographs as a cadaver . Or is this how the beautiful Mallory ends up, postmortem? If so, the viewer needs more clues. One has a suspicion that the dots somehow might connect and that editor Gallo didn't realize how indecipherable the story is with the timeline so mixed up.

The film also goes off on blood-curling tangents, most notably a long, single-take dialogue scene between Kevin and Mallory in which he throws the same three lines at her over and over again, as though working on his delivery while the camera runs. One keeps waiting for a follow-up scene with more of the same, but it never arrives. True, the film lasts a brief 75 minutes, but tacked-on material like this doesn't make friends.

As an actor, Gallo creates a strong presence full of edgy gravitas, illustrated when he speeds around a cemetery in a big, black hearse. Bafort seems cast for her sense of joyful life, an unrepentant seize-the-day quality that comes through in her few lines of dialogue. There is an engaging scene in which she dances wildly for Kevin that recalls Christina Ricci's tap-dancing scene in "Buffalo '66."

Reinforcing the feeling that this is an arty, high-class act is the hand-held camerawork and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi's strikingly grainy black-and-white photography attained by blowing up 16mm to 35mm.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Vincent Gallo Films, Gray Daisy Films
Cast: Vincent Gallo, Delfine Bafort, Sage Stallone, Lisa Love, Hope Tomeselli
Director/screenwriter/producer/music supervisor/editor/production designer: Vincent Gallo
Director of photography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Sales Agent: Gray Daisy Films
No rating, 75 minutes
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