Viewers who caught The Brown Bunny in its one-week showing (all six of you) were probably already familiar with at least some of the controversy that's been cuffed to it since its notoriously disastrous premiere at last year's Cannes Film Festival, where it was crowned the worst movie to ever be screened there by no less an authority in bad movies than Roger Ebert. (The ensuing feud between Ebert and Brown Bunny auteur Vincent Gallo is a chapter all by itself.) Of course, definitions of "good" and "bad" vary, as they should, from person to person, though the film's other claim to provocation is a considerably less subjective one -- a three-minute sequence of Gallo getting his dick sucked by Chloë Sevigny. Judging from the extra patrons who magically materialized in the hitherto empty screening room for La Sevigny's flesh flute recital, having a recognizable, even Oscar-nominated actress giving true-blue head on a billboard-sized panorama is enough titillation to brave through the otherwise uneventful 90 minutes preceding it. At my screening, the room's overall mood segued from derisive chortling into hushed wonder as Gallo orchestrated his little symphony in and around Sevigny's mouth. I couldn't help wondering, sheesh, you people never saw a porno before? Or Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses? Or Breillat's Romance? (A note before moving on: Sevigny swallows. Not an important detail, perhaps, but as Jackie "The Joke Man" Martling used to say, it helps to advertise.)
It's important to get the fussing over hardcore theatrics out of the way immediately, because The Brown Bunny, warts and all, is an interesting and even admirable film. Already hogging credit for direction, screenplay and cinematography (and art direction, and costume design, and makeup, etc. etc.), Gallo also plays the movie's grubby antihero, a scruffy brooder first spotted locked in the endless circling of a small-time motorcycle race (and losing, natch). The movie's retro-'70s defeatist tone thus established, Gallo packs up his things into his battered van and takes off to the West Coast, where his lost love (Sevigny) has camped out since their relationship went bust. Or has she?. Making his way across the wastelands of America, Gallo pleads for a young cashier to come with him (only to abandon her moments later), takes a shower, sleeps in his skivvies and races his bike into a desert's vanishing point, but mostly he just drives and peeps through the dirty windshield -- with every activity and movement captured with the utmost raptness by Gallo the director.
As his 1998 debut Buffalo 66 proved, Gallo's self-infatuation leaks into an equally anguished self-loathing. His character's seemingly irresistible allure to women (made inexplicable by the fact that this is Gallo, looking as grimy and serial killerish as ever) is undercut by an aching need to be cradled, to be visualized like a Mexican mural Jesus, to exorcise fucked-up demons of weakness and guilt. Personal to a fault, the film's morbid sentimentalizing would be torturous if Gallo weren't cinematically gifted. Less stylistically audacious than Buffalo 66, The Brown Bunny does not lack for eccentric camera placements and traveling shots that, through their very monotony, achieve a kind of etherealized quality. The film's all mood, the visualization of an unspoken sadness -- a bizarre three-way composition depicting an encounter with Sevigny's beref parents brims with calm intensity, while an extended impromptu smooching session with a worn pit stop gal (Cheryl Thiegs, cruelly photographed though, to these eyes, still a fox), followed by Jackson C. Frank's "Milk and Honey," epitomizes the project's mysterious longing.
Make no mistake about it -- Vincent Gallo is megalomaniacal, pretentious and laboriously self-martyrizing. But he's no fake. In The Brown Bunny he puts himself and his art nakedly up on the screen, exposing himself almost too easily for those ready to skewer him with the knives Gallo himself has handed. His use of transparently metaphorical names (he's "Bud Clay," Sevigny is "Daisy"), his psychotic-tender stare, his compulsive pawing of pliant young women's hair -- all of these practically invite snickering, and he wouldn't be so vulnerable if his wounded-naïf rootlessness weren't so genuine. By the time the film slogs its way to its, ahem, climax, the creepy culminating carnality is no less incomplete than the displaced "lyricism" that's led up to it, and no less intransigently personal. No debacle, no masterpiece, but the work of a fuck-the-audience original who can't help but be himself, for better or worse.
At the other end of the spectrum is the dippy Wicker Park, misleadingly sold as a stalker-girlfriend thriller when in reality it's a Gen-Y romance with European aspirations. (It's a remake of the 1996 French twister L'Appartement.) The plot is a roundelay about misplaced desire and the fragility of love set among trendy twentysomethings, with Josh Hartnett tracking down his lost love (Diane Kruger) while himself being chased by the girlfriend (Rose Byrne) of his pal (Matthew Lillard). Some points for making Byrne less a villainess than a woman pushing her emotions to their limits, although the mock-passionate narrative is pointlessly muddied by futzing with split-screens and temporal splintering -- how I wish director Paul McGuigan had watched less Brian De Palma and more Max Ophüls. The movie's most interesting aspect is actually how prematurely aged the two male leads suddenly look: Lillard looks positively haggard, while Hartnett seems to be turning into Tommy Lee Jones before your very eyes. Vincent Gallo's unwashed, pleading peepers are less disturbing.
Reviewed September 10, 2004.