Tuesday, December 23, 2008

NATURE MORTE (2006) d. Paul Burrows


Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The story of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, is not terribly well remembered by most modern folk, but it is a very compelling myth none-the-less. To simultaneously face two directions and always be “coming and going” is a rather abstract and intriguing concept. For a mortal being, such a physical arrangement of one’s anatomy may have a lot of potential benefit. For a motion picture, the possibility of “being like Janus” is probably not a good thing at all. A film needs to have a clear direction and gather momentum as it tries to attain profundity. NATURE MORTE is a film that is truly the essence of a movie that evidenced Janus-like characteristics, and sadly this is to its detriment.

NATURE MORTE is the story of an American art critic and an undercover French policeman who combine their wits and skills to track down the perpetrator of a series of forgeries of the painter/serial killer John Stephenson. Stephenson had a history of capturing, torturing and killing beautiful women, and then painting the scenes of his barbarity, until his apparent suicide. Art Critic and Policeman follow their trail from Marseille to Thailand and then back to London, discovering along the way that another artist/murderer may have emerged from Stephenson’s ashes. Instead of just following leads, the duo is forced to descend into a world of lascivious and lurid behavior filled with intrigue and enticing evils that threaten everyone around them.

It always feels mean-spirited to tear apart elements of a film that so obviously wanted to go an artistic, eclectic and cutting-edge route, but honesty is an essential component in film critique. NATURE MORTE earns points for its efforts to blaze its own trail and be “nouveau”, but just like with the twin visages of Janus, for every positive trait in NATURE MORTE, there is a corresponding weakness, most commonly right within each category of analysis. For example, the plot of this movie seems to want to create a sense of dangerous intrigue, sinful salaciousness (the box art is foolishly licentious and it was a mistake to go with that image), exotic locales and cosmopolitan characters. All of this is laudable and keeps NATURE MORTE from being miserably pointless, but the pacing of the narrative is excruciatingly slow, the dialogue is overwhelmingly “talky” and tends to spend a lot of time contemplating cinematic inaction and a tone bordering on “self-important” deepening to “self-indulgent” develops and can not be shaken off. As a result, the plot does not achieve the needed velocity and dynamism to make this an exciting or at least atmospheric film, but there was a clear attempt to tell a story that had some flavor.

There was a visual dichotomy as well. There was a palpable attempt to create scenes that utilized different camera techniques, a contrasting color palette, a mix of shades and tints, as well as creative angles and unique post-production effects. In addition, locations were chosen carefully to augment the aura of exoticism, while some of the interior sets were intricate and elaborate in their d├ęcor, while the exterior sets often hinted at sophistication and affluence. There were splashes of color in some scenes meant to highlight people or objects while other scenes had brash, monochromatic schemes that left a powerful ocular impact. All of these seemingly impressive qualities were very nearly canceled out by all of the camera work being far too dark and gloomy. It is likely that the film maker wanted to create a “gothic”, “noire” or “alternative” appearance and he very nearly succeeded, but too much of anything is never good, and the unrelieved darkness wiped away crispness and clarity, making it outrageously difficult to observe what was happening. Add to this obscurity the desire to be “creative” in the use of the camera, and many scenes were nearly impossible to watch and enjoy. Once again, it is hard to castigate a director for a brave effort, but the soldier who charges an entrenched machine gun will be cut down summarily, and a courageous cinematic endeavor must be matched by consummate execution too.

Even from an auditory standpoint, NATURE MORTE is a mixed bag. The film score and incidental music were well chosen to fit the “feel” of the story and the appearance of the characters. There is an appealing and somewhat experimental feel to the accompanying music, just as nearly all the visual elements seem clearly to evoke the “art crowd” and “alternative lifestyle” segment of the population. However, it is always a good idea to have your characters portrayed by actors who can really act. A quality performance almost always leaves the impression that you were not looking at an actor but just witnessed the character as part of a tale. This is essential for getting a viewer to “suspend their disbelief”. Throughout most of NATURE MORTE I felt like I was watching actors working very hard to be actors and deliver their lines like actors. As a result, they never became the characters and I was never drawn irresistibly into their stories. Precious little chemistry was created by most of the male characters, although there was an undeniable sexual tension and electricity at times between some of the female characters. The wide mix of foreign accents in NATURE MORTE did help to mask some of the inexperience and/or lack of talent in the performers. A good French or British accent is not sovereign for all the ills of a mediocre or uninspired presentation, but it can often help to add a glaze of classiness that covers a few sins.

NATURE MORTE has a surprisingly deep extras menu that starts off with a sizable and highly stylized Stills Gallery. I must admit I felt like I had stepped into a modern art exhibit while moving through this segment and enjoyed the bright and brassy use of colors. The “Behind the Scenes” Stills Gallery is considerably smaller and not as gripping. There is a 31 minute “Deleted and Alternate Scenes” segment that comes with an introduction and commentary/discussion in between scenes. I enjoyed this segment more than much of the feature film for it gave me a look inside the creative and intellectual process, which is always a valuable journey for any film lover. A 5 ½ minute Blooper Reel is next, followed by the trailer, soundtrack information and the Redemption Films extras section with two trailers and a book teaser. While not all of the extras on NATURE MORTE are mind-bending or deeply illuminating, considering how common it is to see NOTHING on many discs today, I was pleased to see some effort went into the bonus features, and as is usual, I tend to think a little more highly of a film when there is something else to learn about it.

Just as the story of Janus shows us that there are two sides to everyone and more than one way to look at a situation, there are probably folks who will thoroughly enjoy NATURE MORTE. If you have an inventive bent, prefer eclectic fare and have an experimental side, this film may be for you. It is also likely that the younger set may enjoy some of the stylized approaches that are utilized, but I suspect the pacing may be a little too slow for the “text-message” set. NATURE MORTE may very well be the kind of film that a young and inexperienced director/writer like Paul Burrows can learn from and then come back and give us another creative offering that is also better contrived. Creativity, like a rose, must be carefully coaxed into delivering beauty and it is very often the case that time and patience must be exercised before something wonderful blossoms. While NATURE MORTE did not entirely work as a motion picture, it had its moments and with a little polishing and refining, possibly better things could be waiting in the wings from Mr. Paul Burrows.

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