A Little Worthy Tenderness
“Woefully flimsy” Jonathan Romney commented in The Independent on Sunday. “Some of [Wong’s] most fervent admirers were wincing,” claimed Nicolas Barber in the same paper. Michael Brooke in Sight and Sound suggested it “never really needed to be made”. In such comments there seems to be the element of both the crowd mentality and the bully, of critics attacking a film too slight to defend itself. But let’s defend the film and suggest My Blueberry Nights is a key example of mellifluous romance. This is the type of film that isn’t interested in the solid plotting of the romantic film that moves towards narrative surprise and revelation, but looks constantly instead to find crystallizing moments of emotional intensity. If Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Jack and Sarah, Jerry Maguire and numerous others want characters who need to confront their feelings at a certain stage of the narrative so that the audience can vicariously breathe a huge sigh of relief that those involved will end up with the right partner, the mellifluous romance is interested less in initial emotional denial, possible loss and the teleology of the slow formation of the couple, than an emotion that is simultaneously of the moment and beyond our reach. If Martin Amis can astutely suggest in The New Yorker that films like Four Weddings and Funeral are both ”deeply sentimental in the “colloquial sense: it displays false and unworthy tenderness” and also in “the literary sense: an exhausted form has been speciously revived” (a kind of bastardized Jane Austen), then the mellifluous romance eschews the sentimental on both counts. It refuses false and unworthy tenderness by foregoing the narrative expectations that make us feel so predictably, and thus also looks for a new form to contain the romantic.
What cannot really be denied is that My Blueberry Nights is anything but a slight film, but then which of Wong Kar-Wai’s film are not, and isn’t this consistent with the mellifluously romantic world Wong consistently conjures up? What are Chungking Express, Happy Together and In the Mood for Love really about if we try to break them down, and is the point in Wong’s work to avoid doing so? Just as the director so often works with improvisation and finds the film in the editing suite, so equally the viewer finds the film less in component examination than ethereal reimagining. There are certain films that work well as master-class exercises in component deconstruction. Anything from The Battle of Algiers to The Godfather, from The Deer Hunter to Raging Bull. These are films where the whole and the sum of the parts are equal so that each scene gives off the robustness that adds to the whole. But often in Wong’s work individual scenes carry a solipsistic absurdity that requires a variation on that old war horse – the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Think of the moment where a character at the beginning of Chunking Express says “at our closest point we were 0.1 cm apart. 55 hours later I was in love with this woman.” Or later in the film when Faye Wong hangs out in the apartment of the man she’s besotted by and plays with a toy airplane to ‘California Dreaming’. Images like these could lead the viewer to see only whimsy; yet Wong is a curious filmmaker who wants to build solidity out of fragility. By the end of his films he wants us to believe in the fortuitous encounter, the tentativeness of emotion and the possibility of love with the certitude we might expect from the well-told tale, the solid action film. This is the suspension of a mellifluous, romantic disbelief.
So in My Blueberry Nights Wong seems to want us to believe, and yet this attempt at a curious robust certitude contains the paradoxical. This is after all not the action film’s solid set-pieces that are required, nor the neat plot logic of the tale well-told. No, Wong is looking for something closer to the elaboration of echoes and refrains. When for example he was asked by Sight and Sound why in In the Mood for Love he didn’t show the adulterous lovers, but concentrated on Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung’s spurned spouses, he believed it was because he wanted to show “both relationships – the adulterous affair and the repressed friendship – in the one couple. It’s a technique I learned from Julio Cortazar, who always has this kind of structure. It’s like a circle, the head and tail of a snake meeting.” The structure is less the given of logic than the exploration of intuitive being. How to create a form that justifies less story craft than the immanent instinct? After all, only half the story, as Wong couches is, on the screen: the other half must necessarily occupy our imagination as we intuit the rest of the tale.
In My Blueberry Nights, Wong achieves this imminent instinct over plot logic with a mixture of metaphors, echoes, self- exploration and musical interludes. For example most nights Jude Law’s café owner, Jeremy, finds himself throwing out all of the blueberry pie he insists on still making. The apple pies and cheesecakes go, but rarely the Blueberry one, and Jeremy explains that some cakes are unlucky as some people are unlucky in love. People simply don’t, generally, want the blueberry pie, yet somebody might. That first night Jeremy and the recently spurned Norah Jones’s Elizabeth talk as she eats most of the blueberry pie, and Wong has his first structuring metaphor – an obvious but not entirely crashing symbol for love’s gamble. It is as though Wong took the idea of holding a candle for someone and tried to find variations on it – of which the blueberry pie is the most prominent but hardly the only one.
Another are the sets of keys plonked into Jeremy’s bowl. Elizabeth’s belong to the boyfriend who’s committed an infidelity, and she gives the keys to Jeremy for a curious form of safekeeping: she might someday want them back. As she sees there are numerous sets of keys in the bowl already so he tells her some of the stories behind them. Thus we have the blueberry pie as metaphor for the lovelorn, and the sets of keys as a sign of metaphoric mourning.
Here we have the metaphors echoing back on each other, giving texture that is more consistent it would seem with music than with film narrative. Wong insisted in relation to In the Mood for Love that he needed Cambodia at the end of the film and he phrased it by saying: “We needed something to make visual contrast with the rest of the film. It’s a bit like scoring chamber music; we needed some counter balance.” This is not narrative focus but a creation of mood. Obviously if we think in narrative terms, much here will be predictable and repetitive, but if we think in musical terms the predictability and repetitions are refrains. The metaphor of the blueberry pie, the image of the keys and also, later in the film, as we’ll see, David Strathairn’s love-spurned hubby, Arnie, all contribute to the mood of love.
Thus when Elizabeth decides one evening to stop visiting the café, leaves New York and takes off across the US and arrives in Memphis, she ends up working in a diner during the day and a bar at night. Each evening Arnie comes in and celebrates his last night of drinking, building up a hefty tab since his wife left him. But it is as though the tab functions once again as metaphoric mourning, as another echo of the film’s exploration of love’s labour’s lost. As Arnie sits in the bar drinking himself to oblivion, so once again Wong carries his theme forward through another character. Yet these aren’t only disembodied symbols, these are metaphors that speak for someone and which also allows the characters to speak. Michael Brooke might say pejoratively in his Sight & Sound review that the characters offer up “self-justifying monologues”, but what’s so great about the film is the way it creates an atmospheric space for the characters to express themselves. The metaphoric mourning is both non-diegetic directorial exploration, and at the same time character symptoms that creates empathic opportunities for Jeremy, Elizabeth et al to speak from their hearts and not from social expectation. Jeremy, for example, gets to express thought and feeling through explaining why he makes a blueberry pie each night and by telling the stories of the keys.
Finally there is Wong’s use of music, scored by Ry Cooder and which can’t help but bring to mind two key influences: Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders, and most especially their Paris, Texas. This is music that, whether diegetic of non-diegetic, heard by the character or only by the audience, encapsulates the metaphors, motifs and self-expressivity of the characters. Add Wong’s typically saturated colours (with Darius Khondji as cinematographer) and use of long lenses through glass to suggest the warmth of an aquarium, and the director gives us a wonderful example of the mellifluous romance. It’s a film to put alongside Louis Malle’s The Lovers, Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me and Afterglow, Denis’ Vendredi Soir, Figgis’ One Night Stand and, in a slightly different visual register, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.
This is an encapsulated world which denies the teleology of the romantic comedy and loses itself in the echoing possibilities of love’s labours that are occasionally found. It is a variation perhaps on Gilles Deleuze’s notion (in Cinema 2 – the Time Image), taken from Michel Devillers, of the depersonalized and pronominalized movements that the philosopher sees especially present in the musical – a certain movement of world where “the world takes responsibility for the movement that the subject can no longer or cannot make.” There is often in the characters a lack of personal will that requires a wider purpose than the readily motivational. Often the filmmaker will search out this wilfulness within lack of will, and in My Blueberry Nights Wong offers voice-over, lateral tracks, and long lenses that suggest longing, and a rich musical score (including Laura Jones, Otis Redding, Ruth Brown and Ry Cooder) to match the blueberry palette he utilises.
If critics have such a problem with the film obviously they will draw on its ready weaknesses. Wong’s dialogue sounds very much like that of a filmmaker working in a foreign tongue, and casting Law and Jones exacerbates the problem – because Law they believe can’t act, and Jones has never really tried. But the acting seems to add to the sense of aesthetic dissonance, to the sense of a film trying to find its own meaning in its refusal to play by the rules of the romantic comedy. This may be because the romantic comedy is a social form, whilst the mellifluous romance is a private mode (and here the ‘genre’ is far removed from the conventions of the musical). Wong’s ‘bad’ dialogue and Law and Jones’ stilted acting give to the film an emotional hesitancy that the conventionally well-acted romantic comedy doesn’t possess. Hugh Grant may not be seen as much of an actor (like Law), but this is for very different reasons. Grant’s usually accused of playing himself. He is the posh bumbler who faux pas, or the sleek womanizer with a callous or selfish side. There isn’t much range to Grant in Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones and About a Boy, but he is proficient. But that type of proficiency would be useless in My Blueberry Nights, as if ‘bad acting’ is consistent with an emotional uncertainty Wong searches out. If in In The Mood For Love Wong wanted fine actors often playing mannequins that he clothed emotionally with the music and camera movements, here he wants ‘bad’ actors to suggest the hesitancy of emotion to be reflected in the dialogue that Jones and Law deliver without the usual thespian rigour.
There is certainly plenty wrong with My Blueberry Nights if we insist on seeing the film as about our ready expectations rather than our sub-conscious hopes. Sometimes what we expect and what we hope for are so very different, and the former so very present and the latter barely apparent, that a film’s ready failings are more available than its searching possibilities. Thus what we’re suggesting is a suspension of disbelief for the possibilities in belief. It requires a certain sensibility caught in the right mood, in the mood for love. As the Otis Redding song here suggests: try a little tenderness. Is it not, after all, taking into account Amis’s earlier comment, worthy tenderness?