By Dennis Lim
“My Blueberry Nights” is turning out to be the worst-reviewed film of Wong Kar-wai’s career, but Cannes attendees who were counting on an opening-night triumph had better luck last night at the Directors’ Fortnight, which kicked off with Anton Corbijn’s “Control,” an electrifying biopic of Ian Curtis that delivers everything Wong’s film promised and more: pop-star glamour, knockout cinematography, tragic-romantic grandeur.
A tribute to the late Joy Division frontman, the Dutch-born rock photographer’s debut feature is as loving as a fan’s mash note and as laconic as its doomed hero. (The title of the source book, “Touching From a Distance,” by the singer’s widow Deborah Curtis, nicely sums up the film’s approach.) Curtis’s story, briefly outlined in Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People,” is well known to many and intimately familiar to Joy Division devotees he killed himself in 1980, at 23, on the eve of what would have been his band’s first U.S. tour. “Control” doesn’t exactly shed new light on Curtis’ life and death, but it’s a dream match of filmmaker and subject. Corbijn got his break working for the NME in the late ’70s, shooting Joy Division and other seminal British post-punk acts, and his trademark aesthetic angsty achromatic chiaroscuro perfectly fits the band’s.
In the central role, Sam Riley nails Curtis’s awkward, hostile intensity both off and especially on stage: the possessed messianic figure with the thousand-yard stare and the windmill arms. (Riley played Fall leader Mark E. Smith in “Party People,” which occasions a wry in-joke here.) Beginning with his adolescence as an intense, introverted kid in grim Macclesfield, closely studying David Bowie and Lou Reed in his bedroom the film ticks off the milestones in Curtis’s short life: He marries teen sweetheart Debbie (Samantha Morton) at 19, gets a job at the unemployment office, is diagnosed with epilepsy (which the film implies was psychosomatic), has a baby daughter, grows distant from Debbie, plunges into an affair with Belgian fan Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), and endures the surprisingly rapid and painful ascent of Joy Division (assorted music-biz Mancunians, including the ubiquitous Tony Wilson, played here by Craig Parkinson, provide comic relief).
The film takes pains not to assign blame for the suicide, but without presumptuous psychologizing it gets into Curtis’ head. At any rate it conveys the crippling nausea he apparently felt whether on stage before a screaming throng or in the stifling, guilt-inducing domestic nest (you can hear in his baby’s gurgling and his wife’s gentle offer of a cup of tea the rumblings of a panic attack). Shot by Martin Ruhe in crisp, Corbijn-style black and white, “Control” isn’t as adventurous as “Last Days” in attempting to circumvent the limiting conventions of the rock biopic the rock-suicide biopic at that but from a fan’s point of view, it’s more satisfying. For one thing, there are songs: Most of the greatest hits are here, many of them credibly performed by the actors in live or studio settings. For another, it’s a bold and touching feat of empathy: without diminishing his mystique, “Control” makes a mythic figure life-sized.
As for “My Blueberry Nights,” Wong’s first English-language film is to repeat the consensus slight to the point of frivolity. English-speaking critics have griped that Wong has a tin-eared grasp of the language; it’s perhaps more honest to admit that his dreamy/mundane pop philosophy was more attractive, even exotic, in subtitled Cantonese. (As Norah Jones’ character notes, explaining to David Strathairn’s why she’s writing letters and not calling: “Some things are better on paper.”) There’s also a problem of repetition and overfamiliarity (which in “2046” registered as self-examination). Wong devotees will be able to trace a web of correspondences that don’t always flatter the new film. Jones and Jude Law, for instance, are simply a gender-flipped version of the “Chungking Express” pair: she has Tony Leung’s doe-eyed sadness while he’s inherited Faye Wong’s quirky hyperactivity. Speaking of “Chungking,” Cat Power’s drowsy “The Greatest” stands in for “California Dreaming,” but here the repeated pop song seems less a romantic talisman than a soundtrack cost-cutting measure.
Perversely interior given its cross-country premise, “My Blueberry Nights” is less about the romance of the road than the romance of the countertop: the mythic site, in the diners and bars of Wong’s America, of solitary meals and too many drinks, where the kindness of strangers is likely to apply. The New York segments, set largely within a small glass-fronted cafe, are the loveliest. The scenes resolve into a pleasant blur of closing-time conversations and D.P. Darius Khondji, shooting through glass whenever possible (a Windexed pane, a cake dish), cultivates a fishbowl intimacy. Even off his peak, there are things Wong does better than almost any filmmaker on earth: shooting physical intimacy, for instance. The first Jones-Law kiss is simplicity itself a few extreme close-ups, a lingering overhead shot, total silence but it’s a real time stopper, up there in the swoon pantheon with the taxicab snuggle in “Happy Together” or the back-alley last goodbyes of “In the Mood for Love.”
[Photo: “My Blueberry Nights,” Weinstein Company, 2007]