You have to admire Vincent Gallo, especially as a director. After the critical success of Buffalo '66, Gallo could have easily taken the well-traveled indie route, directing the kind of hipster fare that would fill seats at the Angelika. Instead, he waited five years and created a near-solo project that is going to alienate (and aggravate) many people.
It's no secret that Filmbrain is a fan of Gallo's work. Though he finds Gallo's politics repugnant, and his bile-ridden scorn towards just about everybody in the film industry more than a bit immature, his work as an actor and director has been consistently fascinating. Claire Denis, who has used him in four of her films, really knows how to bring out the best in him as an actor. In 2001's Trouble Every Day, she drew our attention to his hair -- both his untamed black locks and the three-day stubble on his face -- and it become an integral part of his character. It's the same thing in The Brown Bunny, where Gallo, again playing a character not at peace, allows his disheveled physical presence to speak volumes, thanks to the many extreme close-ups of his head. ("Never mind that Filmbrain, just talk about the blowjob!")
Gallo plays Bud Clay, a motorcycle racer who, like Buffalo '66's Billy Brown (what's with Gallo and brown?) clearly has "issues". Early on in the film he tries to convince a young woman he's just met to travel across country with him, and this could easily be Billy post-Layla. However, it doesn't take long to realize that Bud is even more damaged than Billy, and that he is a man of very few words. Bud has run-ins with various women on his cross-country journey, all of whom are named after flowers, appear to be emotionally bruised, and who seem to share an irresistible attraction to him. We know very little about Bud -- all we know in fact is that he's in love with Daisy (Chloë Sevigny), with whom he hopes to reconcile once he reaches Los Angeles. In one of the film's more interesting scenes, Bud has a very awkward visit with Daisy's parents, and it almost mirrors the dinner scene in Buffalo '66. Though he doesn't shoot it Ozu style (using 360 degree space) the gestures, character placement, and dialog is strangely similar -- particularly with the father in the scene, whose physical position at the table is identical to how Ben Gazzara sat in B66.
So, what does the rest of the film consist of? Driving. In a van. Lots of it. Gallo mounted two cameras in the van, which allowed him to shoot those scenes without assistance. (In fact, there are only a few scenes in the film that required another cameraman.) We alternate between close-ups of his profile (which continue to get more and more extreme until we get intimate with his pores) and shots through the bug-splattered windshield. If it wasn't for the Gordon Lightfoot and Jackson C. Frank songs on the soundtrack you might think you were watching a Kiarostami film.
The entire look (and sound design) of the film is astounding. Gallo has truly captured a 70's feel -- think Monte Hellman or John Cassavetes -- that will appeal to fans of that era. The camerawork during the opening scene (a motorcycle race, filmed from high up in the stands) along with the continual cutting in and out of the sound of the race -- is magnificent. (Gallo utilized a new Super 16 to 35-millimeter transfer process that is gorgeous.) He uses interesting framing throughout -- either having characters off to one side of the frame, or cutting off half their faces, and it's very effective.
The question remains though -- is The Brown Bunny any good? ("Hey, Filmbrain, this is the fifth paragraph and you still haven't mentioned the blowjob!") It's a tough question to answer. From early on it's clear that Bud is running from ghosts, and Filmbrain was immediately interested in learning who or what they are, and why he interacts the way he does with women. This made the journey, long as it is, worthwhile. Filmbrain had no problem with the driving scenes, nor did he ever find it dull. (Keep in mind this is coming from someone who happily watched Satantango three times.) The final twenty minutes, which finds Bud back in Los Angeles with Daisy, is a more than satisfactory payoff (no, not the blowjob) for everything that has led up to it. The only thing that detracts from the dénouement is Gallo's performance, which though meant to be tragic, just isn't strong enough, and resulted in more than a few titters from the audience.
As for "the scene that everybody wants to see", there's nothing erotic or thrilling about it -- it's actually quite depressing, especially in light of what follows. Filmbrain can't help wondering if the emotional impact of the Daisy scene would be lessened if the act was simulated, but there's little point in doing so -- Gallo made the film he intended to, and without any compromises. The scene does not come off as pretentious (like virtually every Catherine Breillat film) nor does it draw unnecessary attention to itself -- the scene is about much more than simply Chloë fellating Vincent.
The critical reaction to the film has been very interesting. After the initial bashing at Cannes (when the film was thirty minutes longer) and the now infamous war-of-words between Gallo and Roger Ebert, some more positive reviews started to appear, especially in Europe. One French critic described the film as pure, unadulterated narcissism, and he meant it as a compliment. Critic Mark Pearson got it right when he said "...its narcissism stems more from a paranoid distrust of others than an overweening egotism." Gallo clearly loved this project, and there's so much of him in it (too much, for some). Filmbrain strongly disagrees with those (like Aaron Out of Focus) who claim that Gallo set out to antagonize his audience, or that he metaphorically has the audience blowing him at the end -- nothing could be further from the truth. Though Filmbrain loathes using the term, this truly is an "art" film. At the 2003 Cannes awards ceremony, one of the prizewinners, in his acceptance speech, told Vincent Gallo not to worry about the audience reaction, and that he should continue making brave films such as this. The Brown Bunny isn't a masterpiece, nor is it even a great film, but it is a powerful, hypnotic, haunting, and yes, brave piece that is as much about cinema as it is about Vincent Gallo, and easily one of the best films of 2004.
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