Vincent Gallo recently brought Promises Written in Water to Venice for the 67th Mostra del Cinema di Venezia. Perhaps anticipating outbursts of emotion in the press conference after it’s screening, as done at Cannes in 2003 for Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, the film was completely sold out. That did not prevent a couple hundred spectators from leaving once getting the coveted ticket at “Palabiennale”, the huge makeshift theater behind the main festival area. Perhaps as a gesture of defiance, smugness or devil may care, the restless filed out. At another screening at “Sala Grande” they stayed put and applauded lead actress Delphine Balfort for over five minutes. Vincent Gallo was conspicuously absent. But if Promises Written in Water extends the Gallo repertoire beyond the realm of The Brown Bunny road movie, maybe it is worth it to revisit the Cannes enfant terrible from 2003. The film won the FIPRESCI prize at the 2003 Viennale. It is a fascinating specimen of cinema language and worthy of reappraisal.
The scene that got the most attention was the fodder of a major scandal. Yet it was not the entire film, and other parts were never addressed.
The Formula motorcycle racer Bud Clay (Vincent Gallo) gyrates round and round the track, finally coming to a halt. This gyration is experienced as excessive as it is the opening scene. As Bud takes off his helmet he prepares for a trip to another race – a race to keep him going to forget something unforgettable as we later discover.
Bud’s road trip is observed through a dirty windshield. This is appreciated for its grittiness in contrast to the silence of the vehicle as the van makes its way west. The trip could have been noisy. There was some thought put into this. How gritty and how silent should these scenes be?
Bud asks a girl named Violet at a gas station to come with him “Please? Please?” implores blue-eyed Bud. And she does. And later he drives off leaving her behind. He passes up young prostitutes on the way but comes back for one of them. Then lets her off farther up the road. He even makes out with former supermodel Cheryl Tiegs. But he can’t forget or remember what is unforgettable and we understand later why.
It looks like this Bud is a total loser or a serial murderer or both. He visits some neighbors who have a bunny that don’t remember him. He also wants to buy a bunny. “They only live a few years, no way around it”, says the shopkeeper.
On arriving at a lime green house he calls for Daisy and there is no answer. He checks into a hotel and Daisy (Chloë Sevigny) arrives. She keeps on ducking into the bathroom to pop pills or smoke crack.
Daisy and Bud have been friends since childhood, are married and are expecting a child. In a raw and graphic sex scene Daisy has oral sex with Bud. “That’s enough”, he says at one point. Strange scene for long lost lovers being reunited. Suddenly Daisy says she’s dead. And you realize she is. Bud let her die, chocking on her own vomit, gang raped by two men at a party where she does drugs with them. Bud flees, only to return to Daisy who is on an ambulance gurney, a sheet covering her face. She died. This road trip is Bud’s return to the unforgettable, which he finally remembers and we will always remember.
It seems like a tough role for Sevigny to play: explicit sex, drugs, gang rape and death. The kind of role that always seems to involve some kind of award afterward. And Bud gets to travel across country and pick up women and stay in hotels, taking his bike out for a drive in salt flats along the way. Women shouldn’t have to endure so much on screen.
The Brown Bunny is an atonement film. Probably the sex scene was chosen to crudely illustrate Bud’s loss, for death and sex are always intimately connected. In the Japanese film Departures, and in the HBO series Six Feet Under, we see sex is the life force that helps us transcend death. Gallo continues with this theme in Promises Written in Water. Exceptionally toned down, but the connection is there.
Bud’s memory lapse exceptionally conveyed cinematically is why The Brown Bunny has an impact. Maybe Roger Ebert who hated the film and expressed this to Gallo at Cannes and was told he had the physique of a slave owner by Gallo may never get thin. And maybe Vincent Gallo should always be remembered for making The Brown Bunny. Maybe Vincent Gallo should be remembered period for how he makes films, iconic, laconic and indifferent to dialogue and continuity editing. And for his tweets.