'The Royal Road': Sundance Review

Royal Road
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
An ambitious essay film that fascinates but never quite coheres.

Nostalgia, California's urban landscapes, an impossible lesbian relationship and the Mexican-American War all come together in this eclectic work.

For anyone who's ever wanted a movie about nostalgia, California's urban landscapes, the pursuit of an impossible lesbian relationship and the Mexican-American War in the 1840s all rolled into one, with references to movie classics sprinkled in for good measure, Jenni Olson's The Royal Road finally provides all that and more. This rigorously assembled essay film, shot on 16mm and consisting of long, static takes of panoramas, is accompanied by an extremely wide-ranging voiceover from the filmmaker herself. It will find some takers at cinematheques and similar art-loving venues but faces an uphill battle for any kind of theatrical distribution beyond that rarefied realm.

The feature's named after the Camino Real, which connected missions in Mexico with those in California, all the way up to Sonoma. Part of that ancient road — the stretch between Los Angeles and San Francisco, to be precise — is the path that lies between the (unnamed) narrator and her unavailable but nonetheless flirtatious object of affection, a woman referred to by the archetypal name of "Juliet."

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With the exception of a few didactic animated maps that illustrate the invasion of Mexico by the nascent United States, the film contains mostly views that are close or along the titular road. Cinematographer Sophia Constantinou, who also shot Olson's equally distant, post-modern feeling The Joy of Life, here again shows an eye for rigorous framing (in a boxy aspect ratio) and a preference for near empty urban landscapes, underlining one of Olson's central ideas, namely that "unlike people, landscapes and buildings tend to endure for many generations."

She goes on to suggest, in one of the voiceover's more successful attempts at injecting a lyrical note, that the landscapes and constructions shown have an "intimacy with the past that no person, however old, can approach," before launching into a short defense of nostalgia. The latter passage is brought about by an old lecture from Tony Kushner, briefly excerpted here in what's somewhat oddly billed as a "voiceover cameo," that took the opposite view and made Olson feel guilty about her dislike for "bad new things."

The material, which also includes an incursion into the life of Blessed Junipero Serra, who founded many of California's missions (and who's scheduled for canonization in September of this year), is heterogeneous to say the least. But Olson almost manages to keep things together because the slow but steady stream of landscape shots provide a visual constant and the stream-of-consciousness technique of her monolog allows her to juxtapose her own sentimental travails as a butch lesbian (or "gender dysphoric tomboy from the Midwest" as she at one point calls herself) with historical facts, thus imbuing even the drier aspects with a sense of personal intimacy.

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This technique is the most obvious and also the most fun in Olson's frequent referencing of movie classics such as Vertigo — with its famous San Juan Batista mission scenes — with the voiceover explaining at the start that from a young age, borrowing masculine personas from the silver screen has been "a mode of survival" for the narrator. Since the films are only spoken about and never excerpted, they fit perfectly into the free-associative dreamscape that the voiceover evokes.

If this ambitious film never quite coheres into a single whole, something that an artificial division into several chapters only helps to underline, it does provide a lot to chew on along the way.

Production companies: Jenni Olson Productions, The Film Collaborative

Cast: Jenni Olson, Tony Kushner

Writer-director: Jenni Olson

Producer: Julie Dorf

Executive producers: Deb Kinney, Paul Marcarelli

Director of photography: Sophie Constantinou

Editor: Dawn Logsdon

Sales: Preferred Content

No rating, 65 minutes