by Nina Menkes
Stanley Kubrick's confident statement -- "If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed" -- receives stunning confirmation in Nina Menkes' "Phantom Love." While the helmer's four previous features similarly function in a state of dream logic and concern female states of being, the current pic strikingly puts a woman's subconscious thoughts and dreams onscreen in ways more radical and beautiful than in her past visually stunning semi-narrative pics. "Phantom Love" may be too rich for most U.S. distribs, but sophisticated foreign buyers and fests will lust after this piece of pure cinema.
First seen in sweaty coitus with her lover (Bobby Naderi), Lulu (Marina Shoif) appears distanced and expressionless, her face suggesting that her mind is elsewhere. "Phantom Love" is intentionally designed and structured in an open manner, welcoming the viewer to various interpretations. One of them -- implied by the title -- is that much of the rest of the film's images and sounds are the wandering thoughts Lulu experiences during sex.
These images are in black-and-white, and not since Bela Tarr's "Werckmeister Harmonies" has black-and-white looked so stunning and mesmerizing -- thanks crucially, to cinematographer Chris Soos' masterful use of high contrasts, shadows and depth-of-field in the film's majestic interior locales. Though she has handed over lensing chores this time, Menkes functions as usual as her own camera operator, displaying again her gift for framing and nimbly following spontaneous action.
This includes several extended scenes in a Koreatown casino, where Lulu works (akin to Menkes' Vegas heroine in "Queen of Diamonds") at a roulette table. Although the scenes seem at first repetitive, they are actually staged and shot with great variety, including some amazing close-ups of the excited players' faces and hands.
Like dreams often do, images repeat themselves as Lulu tries to work her way through her erotically triggered troubles. One of these involves her dressed in a classic little black dress and heels, carefully walking down a long hallway around an enormous snake. Animals abound in the film, including a fantastically viewed squid in an aquarium and scenes in which Lulu's mother (Yelena Apartseva) is surrounded by bees.
Menkes is not so dreamy a scripter that she fails to link these otherwise showy and random images to Lulu's real-life problems, some of which involve struggling with her mother who's overstayed her welcome in Lulu's home, and her emotionally troubled sister Nitzan (a fine Juliette Marquis), whose momentary disappearance marks the only point in the film where a fixed psychological reality takes the place of subconscious fears and desires.
A repeated view of Lulu crossing a bridge (ravishingly filmed in Rishikesh, India) suggests a passage to another sort of life, and, in a film intently focused on material objects and bodies, the sight of Lulu being drowned in light offers a striking spiritual note.
Actors' perfs matter far less here than their place in the overall staging, but Shoif and Marquis are allowed considerable freedom to express themselves along the lines of silent cinema (the first real line of dialogue occurs well past the 30-minute mark).
Pic triggers memories of movie images from Jacques Demy's "Lola" to Jean Cocteau's "Orpheus," and an amazing shot of a sleeping woman rising off her bed sends the viewer back to the medium's earliest days. Soundtrack, mixing sound effects and Rich Ragsdale's music, creates an audio dream state of its own.