A jumbled semiotics class on acid, the 3D anthology film "3X3D" is the second omnibus project produced by the European Capital of Culture (following last year's "Centro Historico"), but it stands alone as a uniquely strange experience. The concise feature, the closing night selection of Cannes' Critics Week section, gathers together disparate experimental works that explore historical memory, technology and the evolving state of current cinema.
An intentionally obtuse experiment, "3X3D" is a visual assault in three dimensions unlike any other 3D movie out there due in part to the envelope-pushing nature of the filmmakers involved: Britain art house great Peter Greenaway, Portugal's Edgar Péra, and a certain French New Wave legend named Jean Luc-Godard. While not exactly a consistent experience, "3X3D" presents a beguiling sensory overload that doesn't always work but certainly never drags.
Among the three installments, Pêra's concluding short is undoubtedly the weakest and probably belonged at the start. "Cinesapiens" delivers a collage of treatises on the value of spectatorship, presenting the persistent image of movie audiences wearing 3D glasses while deranged movie characters overtake the room. An esoteric voiceover describes radical notions of cinema's capacity to invade our world while Pêra layers one image over another to repeatedly exhausting degree. Presumably, Pêra aims to get at the essence of 3D technology's relationship to the primal nature of spectatorship, but "Cinesapiens" assaults the power of movies rather than celebrating it. In a nod to film theorist Tom Gunning, Pêra's narration wonders, "What precisely is the cinema of attractions?" It's a question that the short fails to answer with anything other than pure visual chaos.
Godard, on the other hand, get a little closer to exploring the essence of the medium. The sort of vivacious, interpretive mashup typical of late period Godard, "Three Disasters" combines archival footage of classic Hollywood films and avant garde achievements with contemporary studio product (most notably, a series of gory clips from the "Final Destination" franchise) to highlight the reduction of cinema to pure visceral manipulation. A whispered voiceover, recorded by the director himself (who appears briefly in extreme closeup), fleshes out his philosophical conceits.
"Reality lurks behind the illusion," he says, cutting to disorienting images of lenses and overlapping title cards that aggressively interrogate each audiovisual component of the movies, illustrating their ability to burrow into our minds -- for better or worse (and in Godard's anti-capitalist outlook, it's usually for the worst). Providing a sneak peek of how he might use 3D in his forthcoming feature "Goodbye to Language," Godard's short provides a stunningly intangible alternative to the sleek use of the medium in recent Hollywood productions like the Cannes opening night selection "The Great Gatsby," a box office hit of the sort that surely makes Godard foam at the mouth. Even at this baffling stage of his lengthy career, the director retains the acerbic ideology of an outspoken film critic, and makes the case that we need him today more than ever.
By contrast, Greenaway's contribution offers a far more subdued opportunity to consider 3D's ability to convey a specific place and time. While not radical in terms of its ideas, "Just in Time" works wonders with perspective. Exploring the millennium spanning history of the Portuguese city Guimaraes, Greenaway vividly probes the interiors of its stone structures with a roaming virtual camera aided by hovering 3D text that makes the period come alive on multiple levels at once. The most impressively realized of the bunch, Greenaway's work would do well on its own as a piece of installation art, its mixed media presentation simultaneously illustrating cinema's ability to extend beyond the limitations of the eye and turning history into a physical experience. Godard may think that movies are a lost cause, but Greenaway provides some hints at its under-explored possibilities. Together they present a paradox well worth the nauseous impact of viewing it.