If it’s hard to account for which films get booed in Venice, Jerzy Skolimowski‘s inexplicably well-received “11 Minutes” proves that it’s just as surprising what gets cheered. A vapid exercise in borderline kitschy style over substance that really only has its high-concept format to recommend it (and yet goes on to play fast and loose with even that internal logic) it’s a set of interlocking/overlapping stories set nominally around a particular town square in Warsaw, on a fateful day between 5 and 5.11pm.
Except the stories, each more cliche melodramatic than the last, don’t overlap in a way that feels anything but coincidental, many are left undeveloped, and actually it doesn’t all take place during those 11 minutes, so one is forced to wonder what the point of the whole thing is. It’s edited and shot with appropriate kicky dynamism, and an eye for a slick, occasionally surreal visual, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been done better or more efficiently elsewhere,for example in Tom Tykwer‘s “Run Lola Run” and the climactic sequence of Brian De Palma‘s “Femme Fatale.” All of which makes it a puzzling project from this widely lauded, frequently laureled filmmaker, feeling less like the work of an auteur than the experiment of a student who has nothing urgent to say but needs to turn in something — anything — in order to pass his course. So, you know, lusty applause and a standing ovation.
It starts with a kind of found-footage approach as, in a prologue composed of cameraphone images, computer webcam and CCTV imagery we are introduced to a few of our key players (all, tellingly, referred to not by name but by role in the press notes — Husband, Wife, Courier, Girl With Dog etc). A self-videoing aspiring actress (Paulina Chapko) has sex with her violently possessive new husband (Wojciech Mecwaldowski). A young man leaves a cryptic message for his mother via his computer camera. Another grabs at his laptop to try and film a strange something he’s seen in the sky, but it’s gone by the time he gets there. And then the film proper begins and we settle into more classical shooting mode, revisiting the stories of these and many other characters, whose lives will glance off each other in some way that we can’t yet discern.
If the film has a main strand, it’s that of the actress who, unaware she has ingested some drugged champagne (quite a few of the characters are in some sort of drug-induced altered state throughout), has left her marital bed to “audition” for a sleazy film director (Richard Dormer) in an upscale hotel penthouse suite. Elsewhere a coke-snorting courier (Dawid Ogrodnik) narrowly avoids being caught mid-coitus by his lover’s husband, and flees on his motorbike into town. A hot dog vendor (Andrzej Chyra) whom we later discover is the courier’s father gets spat at by a young girl suggesting a shameful secret in his past. A couple in bed discuss their mountain-climbing plans and a bird flies in through the window, smashing into a mirror. A team of paramedics tries to reach a woman in heavy labor in a grotty apartment block. A twitchy young man attempts to rob a pawn store.
The shattered-glass approach does have its fleeting pleasures as we attempt to piece the bigger picture together and to work out where each of the storylines lies in relation to the others. But the problem is that in the main, those relations turn out to be merely spatial or geographical, simple coincidences that reflect no deeper theme than “any seemingly random event has a lot of causal ingredients.” And the surreal, vaguely apocalyptic, foreboding elements that Skolimowski incorporates — a plane that roars past uncomfortably close, a drip of water that seems to flow upward, a face on a TV screen intoning a doomy phrase, a dead pixel on a monitor mirrored in an ink blotch on a painting and an odd glimmer in the sky — only serve to tease a more metaphysical angle that never pays off.
Much more often we’re involved in the thin soap operatics of the panicky, sweating husband trying to get into the director’s hotel room, or the drug-fuelled journey of the courier, who is having an extremely odd afternoon. In fact, everyone collected around the final incident appears to be having a most dramatic day: the film is full of break-ups, illnesses, affairs, suicides, robberies, drug taking and other nefarious activities, meaning we get to skitter nervously across the surface from one rather generic setpiece to another without ever locating any deeper meaning.
It’s undoubtedly to be admired that Skolimowski, at 77, is attempting something new and unprecedented within his filmography. And in its vague hints that he’s making some sort of statement about modern surveillance culture and our relationship to technology, especially the newly democratized, everyday technology of filmmaking, it certainly feels like an attempt to contend with modern life — a kind of “this is how we live now” vibe. But that impulse is continually undercut by the plasticky characters that populate these stock scenarios, and by the film’s thrust toward a climax that feels more Looney Tunes than “La Ronde.” For a movie that is all about accumulation, it adds up to very little, and for a story all about connectedness, “11 minutes,” intermittently enjoyable though it may be, never connects. [C]