Promises Written In Water
“Arthouse” has always proven a sticky term. Its use immediately suggests a mostly bogus divide between film-as-art and movies-as-commercial-entertainment, eliding the reality that many art films are entertaining and many commercial movies are artful. But sometimes “arthouse” is handy. Like when you’re forced to describe Vincent Gallo’s Promises Written In Water, a film so thoroughly, self-consciously, and at times wonderfully capital-a Arty that it feels like precisely the kind of film “arthouse” was cooked up to describe. Hell, if we didn’t have arthouse cinemas, we’d have to build them just to screen it.
Gallo’s third feature is “arthouse” to the bone: shot in black-and-white 35mm, independently produced, and possessive of a self-confident aesthetic that recalls in different places the differently configured New Waves of French, German, and American cinema. Gallo writes, produces, directs, scores, and stars in Promises Written In Water, demonstrating a near-maniacal authorial autonomy that puts him somewhere between Orson Welles and Tommy Wiseau. Gallo plays a photographer who is asked by a disarmingly beautiful and terminally ill woman (Delfine Bafort) to oversee her post-mortem, leading him to take a job as an apprentice undertaker.
As ever, Gallo is wildly entertaining to watch. It’s hard to imagine anyone not blessed with his forlorn lupine looks working through one of the film’s brilliant (read: brilliant) bits of line-reading, in which he chronically recounts a recent phone conversation with an ex-girlfriend, calling attention less to his performance nuances than to the recursive monotony of the filmmaking process itself.
In interviews, it’s evident that Gallo already has ripostes poised for anyone who would dare try to pigeonhole his film (sorry about the whole “arthouse” thing, Vincent Gallo). But his intransigent posture is premature (if entirely characteristic). Anyone looking past Gallo’s reactionary trickster persona is certain to be moved by Promises‘ beauty and melancholy.
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