Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Sundance is showing Michael Winterbottom's, increasingly most difficult film to see, I Want You this month. Winterbottom is a hard director to nail down, since his twisted 1995 road film Butterfly Kiss he has worked in several genres and released everything from the period film Jude to the improvised digitally shot 9 Songs.
His films, regardless of their stylistic differences, almost always feature characters engaged in an obsessive and dangerous love. Winterbottom's films share this obsessive nature with one of his idols, Fassbinder, and while his films might seem as different as night and day it's this obsessive interest in people relating to each other that sparks all of his work.
I Want You was released in 1998 to mixed reviews and apparently had distribution problems from the get go. It's history in the States has been very problematic, after being granted a surprising R Rating (more on that later) it had a brief theatrical run followed by a VHS release that quickly slipped out of print. It has become available in Europe on DVD but has never found it's way to that format here.
Used video copies fetch high prices on ebay, so Sundance is doing a service to people who have been hoping to see it.
The version currently running on Sundance is apparently uncut, with it's graphic sexuality intact. It is unfortunately full screen and Winterbottom's 2.35 compositions' suffer from this. The opening credits play widescreen before switching to the full-screen ratio, a frustrating occurrence that took me back in time to old VHS releases.
Winterbottom, and screenwriter Eoin McNamee, apparently got the idea for his film from Elvis Costello's classic obsessive track I Want You off his album with the Attractions Blood and Chocolate. The song is played throughout the film and plays an important role at one point to the plot. The song is rightly considered one of Costello's finest as well as darkest. It matches the film's dark worldview and increasingly oppressive nature perfectly. The film's bright opening expansive outdoor shots viewed from a train soon begin to sink into more foreboding and darker interiors as it progresses.
I Want You features the talented Rachel Weisz in one of her first starring roles. Her character Helen is the object of three obsessive characters. Helen is also hiding something which gives the film a final act twist that isn't entirely satisfying but work's due to Weisz's greatly nuanced performance.
The film also features a young Alessandro Nivola as the mysterious Martin whose character is revealed more fully as the film progresses. Much like the song it's based on, the film reveals more and more clues as it progresses. It short running time of 87 minutes is as deceptive as the main characters as this an exhausting, but rewarding, film to watch.
The strongest aspect of the film, along with Weisz, is the cinematography by Slawomir Idziak. Winterbottom was obviously inspired by Idziak's great work for Kieslowski and I Want You is visually a feast of color. This is especially evident in the earlier brighter scenes of yellow and gold that play such a crucial contrast with the later dark blues and greys of Martins and Helen's homes. Weisz's underwater swimming scenes throughout the film also clearly invoke Binoche swimming in Blue. Both films use the pool and Idziak's color scene to reflect internally what is happening with the characters. The pool, as in Blue, also becomes an invaded sanctuary. Kieslowskis extraordinary shot of Binoche surrounded by diving children as she is attempting to deal and escape from the death of her own family is mirrored here stylistically by the nude Helen attempting to sink to the bottom to forget her dangerous relationship to Martin.
Winterbottom, as evidenced by the controversial 9 Songs, has never been a director to shy away from sexuality. It's surprising that I Want You was granted an R Rating considering that it has two things the rating boards typically can't tolerate; explicit sexuality and explicitly adult ideas. The actors might all, at one point or another, be nude but it is ultimately a film of thought and the character's fulfillment of separate cycles of abuse that give it its strength.
Winterbottom has made better films than I Want You, Jude, Wonderland and 24 Hour Party People spring immediately to mind, but it's a very much a film worth seeking out. It's the last film that features this type of look by Idzaik, which isn't to take away from his great more mainstream subsequent work, and one of the first great performances by the now Oscar winning Weisz. Most importantly it's an authentically good adult film, one that exposes as much of the heart and mind as the flesh.