guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 7 September 2010
Anticipation is mounting ahead of the premiere of Promises Written in Water, Vincent Gallo’s tale of a beautiful girl who is dying and the jittery undertaker who says he loves her. It is Gallo’s first film as director and star since 2003’s The Brown Bunny, an unbridled vanity project that was booed at Cannes and climaxed, notoriously, with our hero receiving oral sex from a tearful Chloë Sevigny. The crowds have gathered to see just how further up himself one man can travel.
Good news on this front. Promises Written in Water is a “Vincent Gallo Films” production, with music by Vincent Gallo. It is “written, directed and produced by Vincent Gallo” and opens with a 10-minute shot of none other than Vincent Gallo, who pads about a hotel room, chainsmoking like a bastard and pausing occasionally to eyeball himself in the mirror. After that it’s down to business. Mallory (Delfine Bafort) asks Kevin (Vincent Gallo) if he has called his ex-girlfriend Colette and it transpires that he has. “Yeah, I did,” he says. “I did ... I did call her ... I did .... I did call her. I called her ... I called her up, yeah ... I’m going to say it again ... I did call her.” This goes on for a further few minutes and never once does the camera stray from the face of Vincent Gallo. He peers out of the screen with his Punch-like face and basilisk stare.
True to form, Gallo’s drama puts the i in solipsism (and then dots it with a scowly face). It is a film in thrall to the micro-budget monochrome art movies of the 1960s and 70s; a picture that loves the cinema of Andy Warhol and John Cassavetes almost (though not quite) as much as it loves the cinema of Vincent Gallo.
The tragedy, though, is that large sections do not appear to share this ardour, and the film’s fumbling miscommunications are accompanied by the constant flap of seats. About 200 spectators bale out before the closing credits and many that remain do so in a spirit of mockery. They hoot and barrack the screen, like school bullies congregating around the nerdy kid whose trousers have fallen down in the playground. And this, I feel is hardly fair. Yes, Promises Written in Water is purely exasperating and abstracted to the nth degree. It’s only 74 minutes but it feels like forever; a film to make the time stand still. But it cannot by rights be regarded as a failure, or even as a joke, because one never has the sense that Gallo has lost control of his material. His film is what it is: an unvarnished, unapologetic chunk of black-and-white vérité about a pair of inarticulate souls living life on the margins. As such, it comes with a distinct whiff of danger. There is no telling just where it will go, or what it will do next. In the straitjacketed world of narrative film-making, that has to count for something.
How sad to report, then, that it all ends so inconclusively. At least The Brown Bunny’s Cannes debut was followed by an entertaining spat between its maker and the US critic Roger Ebert (Gallo called Ebert “a fat pig”; Ebert retorted that he would one day be thin, whereas Gallo would always be the director of The Brown Bunny). But there will be no such fireworks this time round. A press conference was scheduled for lunchtime, only for Gallo to cancel it at the eleventh hour. Rumours suggest that he is holed up at his suite in the Excelsior, where he is ignoring emails and refusing all interview requests. I picture him padding back and forth, peering into the mirror and smoking his fags. The artist in exile, with no one to speak to but his beloved Colette.