Silk demonstrates a growingly frequent conundrum of modern moviemaking -- namely, what do you do when the departures from the formulaic, repetitive, predictable mainstream are, in their way, just as formulaic, repetitive and predictable? Based on Allesandro Barrico's novel, Silk tells the story of a 19th-Century man who leaves France, and the woman he loves, to travel into the heart of Japan -- where few Westerners have been -- to bring back silkworm eggs to help stop a devastating plague that's wiping out the European industry. On his journeys to Japan, he becomes obsessed by the concubine of the local warlord -- so much that he returns again and again, despite the risk and expense, in the hopes of one more glimpse of her.
Silk is also, in less specific language, another in an endless series of pretty, vapid period pieces where the exquisitely tailored costumes hide racing hearts -- a by-now standard tale of passion under petticoats, strong connections under starched collars. It is also another period piece where a distant land and a distant love supposedly inflame our protagonist, but the ponderous, lumbering slow chill restraint in the staging sucks any connection and passion and heated risk out of the film. Finally, even with the stage set for globe-trotting clichés and reheated concepts, the film's dealt a mortal blow by the casting of actors who are, bluntly, out of their depth -- and not thrown a rope by director Francois Girard. Our hero Hérve is played by Michael Pitt (Last Days, The Dreamers), and the flat, bland tone of Hérve's narration hangs over the film like a shroud. It's not as if Hérve lacks elements in his character that could be used to create excitement; he's an ex-soldier, married to the loving Hélène (played by Keira Knightley), encouraged by the local silk baron Baldabiou (Alfred Molina) to embark on fantastic voyages unlike anything imaginable. But Pitt, whose leaden, dead passivity leaks out of his soul like toxic waste from a cracked drum to poison almost every film he touches, is so flat and feckless that we literally don't care. Hérve is going on journeys so incomprehensible and immense that they may as well be the modern equivalent of the Apollo missions; he approaches these with the same degree of effort and energy I bring to emptying the cat box. Pitt's work is such that the only time he has ever piqued my interest on-screen is when he plays a killer; this is not an endorsement of a segment of Pitt's performances so much as it is an observation that there are some primal emotional states so strong that even the worst actor can't scrape up some energy to depict them.
And the film barely conveys the appeal and sensuality of its title subject. Early on, Baldabiou hurls a swatch of silk at Hérve's father, the mayor: "Do you know what this is?" "Woman stuff." "No; it's money -- man stuff." Molina may be a huge, rank piece of ham in this film -- playing intricate trick billiards shots in almost every scene, a French merchant given to out-of-place exclamations like "That's rubbish!" -- but at least he gives some flavor to an otherwise tedious film. Knightley is given thin, cliché stuff to work with -- loving, caring, helping, dying -- and even that seems to tax her capacities as an actress. As for the object of Hérve's obsession, nameless and almost totally voiceless, Sei Ashina is a pretty face and nothing more, presented to us as "erotic" and "exotic" but in reality empty and exploited.
As Pitt goes to and fro between France and Japan, you might hope that the film's central relationship will build in some way. I assure you, those hopes will be dashed. Pitt's cow-eyed longing and Ashina's silence build to nothing more than a high school romance carried out at intercontinental distances -- glances and notes, yearnings and silence. And while this sort of thing can be, and has been, depicted in a dramatically compelling way, director Girard (best known for the far superior globe-trotting tale The Red Violin) can't find a way to get any life or juice in his film, just set design and snowy vistas, gorgeous costumes and retro-Euro visions.
Near the end, Silk breaks out two final cliché's; first, Hélène succumbs to one of those movie-illnesses that leave the victim weak but gorgeous, rendering them luminous in their dying. Next, there's a sudden twist that does not re-cast the prior moments of the film in a clear new light but, rather, turns what's gone before into a baroque, confusing muddle, offering us a riddle we're inclined to abandon in frustration more than we're compelled to tease apart.
I'm almost curious if Barrico's novel works better on the page than on the screen; longing and restraint always work better in print than in film. In a novel, hidden yearnings and passions can create tension; in film, they can simply fall flat and inert. I don't know who, exactly, to blame for Silk's failure -- there's certainly plenty of it to go around -- but it does serve as a necessary lesson. When the art house becomes as formula-driven, as predictable, as familiar as the multiplex, it's like being offered Coca-Cola in a crystal glass, and all the pretty presentation and classy pretensions in the world can't mask the metallic, sugary, artificially effervescent and mass-produced nature of what's inside. Silk -- rich, soft and sensual -- is what motivates Hérve's journeys. But the movie's as coarse, clumsy and plain as burlap.