A filmmaker who’s plowed the same narrow, distinctive furrow all his career, Hal Hartley seems to have dug himself into a hole. While his last two efforts— the neat structuralist stunt, Flirt, and the overreaching mock-epic, Henry Fool— were certainly venturesome, Book of Life, Hartley’s digital-video contribution to the “2000 Seen by . . .” series of millennium movies, relies heavily on his constricting trademark of flat, freeze-dried dialogue and deadpan physical comedy. Imagining Judgment Day as a face-off between Jesus and Satan in swanky Manhattan locales, Hartley strikes an archly philosophical pose that may be his most vacant yet.
It’s December 31, 1999, and Jesus (played by Martin Donovan, and hence a stone-faced fellow in a business suit), flies into JFK with a vampish Mary Magdalene (PJ Harvey) in tow. The Book of Life is, in this hipster version of the Apocalypse, a Mac PowerBook (“Do you want to open the fifth seal?”; Jesus clicks “OK”). As Jesus— a world-weary, moody, thoughtful type, not to mention a softy at heart— agonizes over the fate of mankind, Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan, none other than Henry Fool) is amusing himself a few blocks away by convincing a compulsive gambler (Dave Simonds) to surrender his girlfriend’s soul in exchange for a winning lottery ticket. Further simplifying this already crude parable, the woman in question (Miho Nikaido) is “terminally good”— she decides to spend her newfound millions dispensing soup to the homeless.
Book of Life has a sporadic charm (although she doesn’t exactly act, Harvey is great fun to watch), but it’s too maddeningly flip to work as theological satire, let alone millennial allegory. Though the film was shot by the talented Jim Denault, it doesn’t employ digital video as resourcefully or expressively as The Celebration, the other high-profile digital film of the moment. Denault’s m.o. here is the inebriated-madman style perfected by Chris Doyle, all smears and shakes and funny angles— it can’t help seeming like an overcompensatory ploy for what is in the end a stubbornly dispassionate passion play.
For this one-week Cinema Village engagement, Book of Life is being paired with Laurent Cantet’s The “Sanguinaires,” in which François (Frederic Pierrot), a Parisian travel agent, invites his friends to a Corsican island to see in the year 2000— in isolation and without fanfare. Tensions simmer between the increasingly grouchy François and the insolent caretaker (Djallil Lespert), but never quite boil over. Cantet takes the uneasy way out, capping all this understated existential brooding with several unapologetic question marks; a queasy sense of mystery lingers well beyond the final frame.
The second double bill is worth catching for Life on Earth, a luminous portrait by the Mauritanian-born, Moscow-trained, Paris-based director Abderrahmane Sissako of his father’s village in Mali. Plotless but never dull, the film combines scenes of daily life (languid and drowsily unaffected by the approaching 21st century) with a poetic voice-over that, in locating this elemental existence within a postcolonial context, is at once reflective and pointed.
The Hungarian entry, Ildiko Enyedi’s Tamás et Juli, is by far the blandest on show. The buildup to a fateful New Year’s Eve date between a miner and a schoolteacher is intercut with flashbacks from the young sweethearts’ tiresome start-stop summer courtship. For a less orthodox, more moving fin de siècle romance, try Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole instead, still playing at Cinema Village through Thursday.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 16, 1999