New Line // 2007 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // February 26th, 2008
Come back, or I shall die.
In September 2007 a sumptuous period drama named Silk was released in a little over 100 theaters. No one came out to watch and the movie quickly disappeared. So, was Silk underpublicized, or is it just a bad movie?
In 19th century France Hervé Joncour (Michael Pitt, Bully) is a young, stoic layabout who marries Hélène (Keira Knightly, Atonement), a beautiful school teacher who yearns for children of her own. But shortly after their marriage, Hervé receives an attractive job offer from his friend Baldabiou (Alfred Molina, The Hoax). Baldabiou runs a silk business, but nearly all of his silkworm eggs were ruined. To save his business he enlists Hervé to travel to Japan and barter for some Japanese silkworm eggs, which supposedly are the finest in the world.
Hervé is successful on his first trip, though there are complications. His return trips necessitate him spending long periods of time away from his wife. Also, he finds himself entranced with an unnamed Japanese woman (Sei Ashina), who happens to be the concubine of his gruff trading partner. And she seems to like him, too.
Silk is directed by François Girard, who also co-wrote the script with Michael Golding. Girard is a French Canadian who previously wrote and directed The Red Violin and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. He clearly has a beautiful eye for scenery, as Silk contains some of the most beautiful panoramic shots I've ever seen on film. In fact, this movie is so picturesque I think it might make for a better experience if one just turned down the sound and admired the visuals.
This is because there really isn't much in the way of story here. Or characterization. Nor are the performances very dynamic. But that's putting it mildly. Though no actor could really shine with this material, Michael Pitt does gives one of the worst performances I have ever seen by a lead actor. Now I don't say that lightly; nor do I say it because I have anything against Pitt. I thought he was good in Bully and very good in The Last Days. Sure, his striking resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio will probably permanently relegate to second-tier status, but I previously thought of him as a promising actor.
But not anymore. The problem with Pitt is that he injects Hervé with absolutely no personality. To be fair, Pitt is hampered; there isn't much personality present in the script. But this is no excuse to give such a tired, languid performance. Pitt's countenance throughout the entire movie resembles a middle manager on a Monday morning before his first cup of coffee. His eyes are half closed, he mumbles, he seems to be permanently daydreaming; even during his lovemaking scenes Pitt seems as if he is on the verge of falling asleep.
Still, I don't want to put all the blame for this fiasco on Pitt. The bottom line is that this film -- visuals notwithstanding -- is incredibly dull and tedious. The only real source of drama is the supposed tension Hervé feels between his fidelity to his wife and lust for the Japanese paramour. There are many problems with this, not least of which is that this is a slender reed to hang a feature motion picture. But the problem is exasperated by the fact that Hervé speaks no Japanese and none of the women in the Japanese village speak English. While there might be an unspoken attraction, there is little reason to believe there is anything like an unspoken love between the two. Additionally, Hervé's extramarital relations are needlessly complicated by the fact that there isn't one Japanese woman he becomes entangled with, but two.
There are also, I might add, several problems with the film that I couldn't help but chew over while Pitt stared vacuously out into his French garden for what seemed like hours on end. Why does Baldabiou pick Hervé to barter for silkworm eggs? Hervé can't speak Japanese, and he doesn't seem especially smart or ambitious. I also don't understand how Hervé can even barter with the Japanese. He's by himself and unarmed. The Japanese have guns and seem to have no compunctions with violence. Why don't they just kill Hervé and take the gold? Why doesn't Hervé seem at all concerned about this possibility?
But still, the most frustrating question is how Hervé and this girl could possibly be in love (which we are led to believe). They barely know each other! Am I just a cynical crank for not believing that love at first sight is possible in this situation? Maybe, but I won't apologize for that. And if you aren't ready to accept this conceit then I strongly recommend you stear clear of Silk. Actually, even if you are ready to accept it, I still doubt you're going to like this one very much.
New Line surely realized this film had little chance to gain a wide audience on DVD, and so the only special feature is a trailer. The one saving grace is a beautiful picture. Hervé's long treks across Asia may be impertinently long, but they look breathtaking on a widescreen TV.
While François Girard previously written and directed some very good films, Silk is not one of them. It is a meditative film that proves to be far more dull and laborious than profound or trenchant. While there is little to recommend here -- the story, the characters, and the performances are all flat -- the beautiful scenery provide something of a diversion. So it's got that going for it. And that's nice.
Silk is so guilty I can't help but wonder if it isn't actually some brilliant satirization of long-winded period dramas, and I'm just not getting it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site