By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 23, 2009 at 3:30AM
From the very first minutes of "Visage" ("Face"), director Tsai Ming-liang stakes out familiar territory. But familiarity in a Tsai Ming-liang movie is an elusive thing. Working in abstract mode, Tsai depicts strange and cryptic moods, regardless of his intentions. The immediate thematic parallel to his earlier work arrives when a Taiwanese filmmaker (Lee Kang-Sheng) copes with a late night kitchen leak that ultimately floods his entire apartment. The progression from slice-of-life detail to slapstick comedy and ultimately lyricism happens swiftly, echoing a scene in Tsai's first feature, "Rebels of the Neon God." In "Visage," water symbolizes any number of psychological issues plaguing the character, particularly unfiltered thoughts, or frustration over the inability to control his life. Despite the ambiguity, this amusingly provocative sequence turns out to be one of the more lucid moments in the movie.
Essentially a meditation on the cinematic process, "Visage" was commissioned by the Louvre, and shot inside of it. The vaguely defined plot finds the filmmaker traveling to Paris and shooting a story based on the myth of Salome set in the museum. It's hardly the only meta aspect of the narrative. The filmmakers - both Tsai and his onscreen persona - cast Jean-Pierre Leaud as King Herod, the stepfather of Salome. The presence of Leaud, whose first big screen appearance arrived when he played the young star of Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," functions as a prop to underscore the movie's aesthetic dedication to Truffaut. Although not borrowing the director's style, it constantly references him. The theme song from "Jules and Jim" plays lightly in the background of one scene, while various other regular Truffaut actors show up resembling characters from his films.
The plot finds the filmmaker struggling to make his movie and coping with the loss of his mother, although that hardly describes its trajectory. Filled with gorgeous and inexplicable events, "Visage" tears apart any semblance of coherence in favor of imagery. Leaud sits in a snow-covered forest staring at a series of mirrors, when suddenly a group of women appear and sing to him. Quite randomly, a buck strolls into the frame. This will not be its last appearance. Later, the filmmaker gets his own dance number, sans music. He's wrapped in plastic and covered in tomato sauce. Go figure.
Like other Tsai movies, "Visage" deals with incredibly alienated people. It also reflects the director's sense of wonder about the contents of his art-filled set. "I felt quite lost when I looked at the paintings in the Louvre," he said earlier today at the press conference for the film. "At the same time, they deal with important themes." The themes come through well enough, although this often makes the so-called story a bit difficult to follow (I had to consult press notes afterwards to sort it all out, and I'm still a bit puzzled). On a visual level, however, it's undoubtedly the prettiest movie in the festival's main competition. As a project commissioned by a safe haven for art and based around its creation, you couldn't ask for much else.