Alessandro Baricco's slim, lovely novel "Silk" works through structure and language (and structural and linguistic repetition) rather than character or plot. Sure, there is a plot: Herve, its nominal protagonist, travels to Japan a number of times in search of silkworms and returns to his native France, each journey bringing greater material reward, until violence in Japan makes the journey impossible. But there are women at both ends of the world--a French wife and a mysterious young girl whose "eyes did not have an oriental slant" (in Baricco's words)--and Herve's relationship to these two women, related obliquely, occupies the real center of Baricco's meditation on love, femininity, and otherness. It's a novel in which the form is the content, which makes the prospect of a film adaptation particularly dubious. With the movie "Silk," writer-director Francois Girard, whose previous credits include "The Red Violin," and his co-screenwriter Michael Golding make the transition from page to screen rather bumpily, fashioning a far too conventional and dramatically inert romantic epic out of such beautiful, mysterious raw material.
The first major misstep comes in the screenwriters' literal-minded decision to replace the elliptical narrative voice of the book with a more straightforward point-of-view: as if to compensate for the novel's sparseness, Girard and Golding have grafted on a voiceover for Herve (Michael Pitt), who recounts his transformation from young soldier to silkworm trader. But whatever clarity the voiceover lends, it also hobbles the film by placing emphasis on plot. Herve has a sweet romance with Helene (Keira Knightley), who later becomes his wife. He then embarks upon his sojourn and finds himself obsessed with a mysterious young woman in Japan (Sei Ashina). He goes there; he comes back. He goes there; he comes back. He goes there; he comes back. Eventually, people die. It's not a terribly interesting story in itself; nor is Herve a terribly interesting character.
These shortcomings are compounded by the film's two leads. Pitt's charming naivete has served him well in other films, but he seems miscast here as the worldly but oblivious world traveler. Helene, meanwhile, is an even trickier creation: in the film as in the novel, she's intentionally underwritten, known to the viewer only through Herve's apprehension of her. But as Herve spends more time apart from her, Helene subtly becomes the lynchpin of the story, its structuring absence. Knightley has the task of somehow rendering this deceptively complex woman in vignettes and snapshots--a task for which she is woefully undersuited. As a result, on almost any standard by which we could measure a romantic epic, "Silk" is mostly a failure--dull, plodding, and uninvolving.
Thankfully, there is admirable craftsmanship here. Cinematographer Alain Dostie's vivid location photography has an appropriate grandeur, yet this also gives the movie the feel of a travelogue, emphasizing the very exoticism and orientalism the book deconstructs. Meanwhile, the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto's (Oscar winner for "The Last Emperor"), though obtrusive, is pretty enough. Indeed, the whole movie is pretty enough. What end do its technical accomplishments serve, though? "Silk" is handsomely austere, to be certain, but it is austere for austerity's sake, consumed and eventually undone by its own prestige, picture conventions and pretensions. At the end of the film, as Pitt sits in aging makeup, playing an older man reflecting on decades of love and loss, weathered after expeditions across continents, it's hard to shake the impression--for the character or for the viewer--that the destination wasn't worth the journey in the first place.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and education coordinator at the Museum of the Moving Image.]