DIRECTED BY: Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Joon-ho Bong
PLOT: An anthology of three short films set in Tokyo: an experimental filmmaker’s girlfriend feels useless until she undergoes a strange transformation; a bizarre man-creature crawls out of the sewers and terrorizes the city; and an urban hermit falls in love with a pizza-delivery girl with buttons tattooed on her body.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: It suffers from the curse of most anthology films: unevenness. Leos Carax’s “Merde” is almost weird enough to carry it across the finish line, but the other two entries, while interesting, drag the film down to the borderline.
COMMENTS: If Paris’ tradition earns it an anthology film dedicated to love, then teeming, tragic Tokyo gets a triptych on the theme of weirdness. But even though Tokyo is top-billed, this exercise is hardly about the city at all. The Japanese metropolis is depicted as too practical, too generic, for a love letter; it instead becomes a metaphor for urban absurdity and anxiety. Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is up to bat first. His “Interior Design,” about a couple sleeping on a friend’s floor while searching for an apartment, starts out so slow that mainstream viewers may be tricked into thinking it’s a conventional drama. The character development and performances are good, although these particular people—a struggling experimental filmmaker and his passive, too-sacrificing girlfriend—don’t seem quite interesting enough to make a movie about, so we wonder what exactly he’s up to. Along the way there’s a subtle and funny parody of a parody of the sort of pretentious art-school films that don’t really exist anywhere, but that people like to imagine anyway when dismissing the avant-garde (the beams from the headlight of a motorcycle driven by a skull faced man form a swastika, among other absurd jokes). The third act brings a metamorphosis that lets Gondry indulge his talent for weird and striking visuals; it ends with a disturbing and humorous metaphor for depersonalization that makes the sly point that there may be greater things to aspire to in life than just being useful.
Joon-ho Bong’s “Tokyo Shaking” is the closer, and the weakest outing. His story concerns a “hikikomori,” or urban hermit, living on takeout pizza in a self-imposed exile from human contact and sunlight. It’s an interesting character and there are some bizarre incidents along the way, but in the end the story misses the universal pathos at which it was aiming.
The centerpiece, Carax’s “Merde,” is a change of pace in tone and an upping of the ante in weirdness. The scenario involves a nasty man named Merde with a twisted red beard, milky eye and a shuffling gait who randomly arises from the sewers and makes an extreme nuisance of himself, embarrassing and assaulting the proper Japanese bystanders, before descending back under the city as quickly as he came. Eventually his provocations go beyond the merely gauche and he’s hunted down and put on trial; his defense lawyer is a civilized Frenchman who shares the same physical characteristics and inexplicably speaks his language of grunts, whines, hops and slaps. Merde himself is reminiscent of one of those socially obnoxious “Saturday Night Live” sketch characters that Will Ferrel used to specialize in, if Ferrel had been willing to play mute and push the character’s oddness to scary limits. On the way to a mystical conclusion the script takes satirical jabs at Japanese xenophobia and the death penalty, and parodies the frenzies created by TV news broadcasts. Fans have interpreted this strange story as everything from a spoof of Godzilla films to a twisted Christ allegory, and both theories fit the film; it’s that kind of parable. Although Gondry and Bong’s offerings fit into the weird genre, it’s “Merde” that makes this omnibus of unease worth the watch for fans of the absurd.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a defiantly odd picture — its middle portion, in particular, directed by the always strange Carax, isn’t out to win any friends. But the refusal of ‘Tokyo!’ to proffer even the most perfunctory air kiss is what makes it so intriguing… Perhaps ‘Merde’ is just too aggressively bizarre, for no good reason. But sometimes a movie that makes you ask, ‘What the hell was that?’ can be its own reason for existing.”–Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com