Conspirators of Pleasure

Lien lives with her brother, an actor, and works as a waitress in her eldest sister's café. The ambience is vaguely artistic. The oldest sibling is married to a photographer, the middle one to a writer. Vertical Ray has scarcely any narrative, at least on screen—it mainly feasts on the succulent spectacle of three sisters hanging out, telling each other their secrets or not. Elusive as a breeze, the action transpires during the month between the anniversaries of their mother's and father's deaths, events that prompt the sisters to muse upon and protect the memory of their parents' idealized lives.

Filled with bird sounds, Vertical Ray is almost surreal in its paradise imagery—the movie is a sultry, harmoniously expressionistic riot of pale greens and deep yellows. As in Tran's earlier films, lavish attention is paid to the preparation of food. Beneath the movie's calm surface, the married sisters have problems with their husbands. One is newly pregnant, the other carrying on a mysterious love affair. The men go to Saigon and return. Nothing is exactly resolved.

Vertical Ray is the opposite of Tran's roiling Cyclo, a movie of nightmarish depths. Here, the lustrous opaque surface placidly deflects the turbulence of the characters' inner lives. Throughout, Tran redirects our attention elsewhere. His gently inquisitive camera repeatedly pans away from the action toward the thin, billowing curtains that mask the light.

Mistress of ennui: Bach in Baise-Moi
photo: Remstar/FilmFixx
Mistress of ennui: Bach in Baise-Moi


Written and directed by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, from the novel by Despentes
Cinema Village
Opens July 6

The Vertical Ray of the Sun
Written and directed by Tran Anh Hung
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens July 6

Film Forum
July 6 through 12

Film Forum is devoting a week to the films of the Czech puppet animator Jan Svankmajer. The last card-carrying Surrealist, the maestro of dank whimsy and morbid tactility, the poet of mildew and autumnal rot, Svankmajer is an alchemist whose formula (per countryman Milos Forman) is "Buñuel + Disney." In his very first film, the marionettes dismember each other.

The screenings match Svankmajer's three features—Alice, Faust, and Conspirators of Pleasure—with his earlier shorts. Alice is overwhelmingly textural, featuring a real child in a wonderland populated by an army of homemade creepy crawlies. Organic and inorganic mix it up in surprising ways—among other things, Svankmajer has an endless appetite for the inappropriate use of food. Faust, less disturbing and more detached, sometimes suggests an uninflected remake of Un Chien Andalou—with a similar emphasis on dismemberment, slapstick, and street theater, and a kindred use of a shifting invented geography.

Conspirators of Pleasure, Svankmajer's masterpiece, is a radical mix of de Sade, Freud, and Rube Goldberg, in which a sextet of Prague kinkmeisters play out their elaborate, ultimately interlocking, autoerotic fantasies. There's no dialogue (albeit lots of sound) and the homemade special effects are wondrous. To end the show, Film Forum is previewing Svankmajer's most recent feature—Little Otik, a suitably visceral version of a Czech folktale, set to open in the winter.

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