Pie in the Sky

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My Blueberry Nights
Directed by Wong Kar-wai

In My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-wai’s first American-set, English-
language film—and his first feature shot on video—the Hong Kong filmmaker has achieved a ravishing, triple triumph.

Following Elizabeth (Norah Jones), a New York single woman, as she travels across the continent to distract her broken heart, Wong uses the American context the same way he used Buenos Aires in Happy Together and the future in 2046: The setting reflects a state of dislocation. Strange as it is to see exoticism projected from an outsider, My Blueberry Nights actually takes place in that universal consciousness known as romanticism.

Before embarking upon uncharted territory, Elizabeth befriends an East Village café owner, Jeremy (Jude Law), and they bond sensitively. Jeremy holds apartment keys for customers who break up with their lovers (“or else those doors would be closed forever,” he sympathizes) and he consoles Elizabeth with blueberry pie—the way a Sinatra-era bartender would offer a drink. Inspired by Jeremy’s benevolence, Elizabeth humbles herself working as a waitress in the Southwest where she observes different love troubles: an alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) drowning his heartache over his still-enticing ex-wife (Rachel Weisz); then there’s a flirtatious young gambler (Natalie Portman) who can’t make up her mind about men. (She tells one competitor: “I can’t tell what’s worse, that cute smile or your shirt.”)

Each of these love stories is like a two-character playlet, but Wong blends them kaleidoscopically. He finds a symbol or image that conveys wonder, sensuality, ecstacy—whether the lava-like sludge of pie a la mode, or scenes of Edward Hopper–like ennui made iridescent. Wong’s intoxicating images have been called absurd because a vision this intense and unabashed risks offending the insecurities of some dull-witted people. But to ask for more is to misunderstand what Wong does.

Wong first won acclaim in the 1990s for highly formal exercises Chungking Express and Ashes of Time—philosophical abstracts that contained love stories (’60s Godard a la mode). But since then he has mastered his own poetry. My Blueberry Nights isn’t frivolous; it’s pure romantic sensibility. Wong was inspired to cast singer Norah Jones because her art is also serenely sensuous and authentic. Plus, she’s Texan, which fits Elizabeth’s travels; her sophisticated Southern twang seems the essence of American romance.

Jones’ placid, biracial beauty helps clarify Wong’s feeling for women. A close-up of Jones’ lips stretching into a smile as she sleeps—a dreaming smile—is one of the cinema’s great sensuous icons. This uncanny gift for erotic empathy isn’t just an example of Asian exoticism—it’s also the way Wong presents Weisz and Portman. Neither actress has been so convincing and alluring as they are here. Weisz’s Sue Lynne, tormented by her ex-husband’s neediness, recalls Marilyn Monroe’s sexual quandary in Bus Stop. Portman’s Leslie recklessly challenges fate like Jeanne Moreau’s gambler in Bay of Angels. Even Strathairn’s lovesick Arnie is a good ol’ boy version of Pierrot le Fou. It’s Strathairn’s most affecting characterization. If you don’t know anyone like his Arnie, it’s probably you.

Wong is sincere about these film-based myths; they help Elizabeth reflect on her own unsettled feelings. Cinematic archetypes give Wong the vocabulary to explore romance. In this, his one true peer is Alan Rudolph, whose masterpieces Choose Me (1984) and Equinox (1993) are the only movies comparable to My Blueberry Nights’ unique mix of pop music and lush cinema.

What possessed the Cannes Film Festival correspondents whose reports last year ridiculed My Blueberry Nights! (It’s a thousand times superior to Cannes prizewinner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.) Now we can see for ourselves that it’s a splendid movie—the essence of what makes Wong special. It’s Wong’s most tactile film—almost as if he's found a new medium. Working in video with cinematographer Darius Khondji, Wong sharpens his usual ideas and images and emotions. Sensations result.

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