Whatever attracted Francois Girard to adapt Alessandro Baricco’s best-selling novel to the screen isn’t apparent in the result. His intention in making “Silk” was presumably to create a swooning epic of romance and exoticism, but his solemn approach instead makes for a ponderous, static and faintly ridiculous melodrama notable only for some splendid views of foreign locales. And the fact that he has his protagonist laboriously narrate the film virtually non-stop creates a positively deadening effect.
The plot is pretty simple. It’s 1862, the era of the Second Empire in France. Young Frenchman Herve Joncour (Michael Pitt) is directed by his imperious father (Kenneth Welsh), the mayor of their town of Lavilledieu, to enter the army to fight in an upcoming war against Austria-Hungary. But he’s yanked from the service after a brief span when his father invests in a silk-manufacturing operation inaugurated by super salesman Baldabiou (Alfred Molina), who wants the young man to become part of his team. And when an epidemic strikes their worms and the African eggs that Herve’s previously traveled to acquire prove to be infected too, he proposes sending the lad on an undercover mission to Japan, still insular in more ways than one, to secure replacements that would indubitably be free of taint, despite the fact that such a trip would mean a prolonged absence from his wife, the lovely schoolmistress Helene (Keira Knightley).
Girard follows the various stages of the young man’s journey to the fabled East with a practiced eye but the lumbering gait of a detailed-obsessed tour guide. The widescreen shots of the various locales through which Herve passes are sumptuous, but utterly enervating. What transpires when he gets to Japan is no more entrancing. Herve is conducted to a rural village ruled by an enigmatic nobleman (Koji Yashuko), who agrees to sell him the eggs he desires. But the young man also becomes obsessively infatuated with the man’s Chinese concubine (Sei Ashina).
This is, unhappily, only the first of Herve’s trips to Japan that Baricco’s story (and Girard’s film) record. There are others, all colored by his increasing passion for the nobleman’s mistress, culminating in a final journey when the country is wracked by turmoil and his host has turned surly and inhospitable. The eternally unconsummated love he feels for the concubine also involves a couple of letters in Japanese that Herve must travel to a prosperous madame (Miki Nakatani) in the city to have translated (the second of them providing a supposedly big narrative twist that falls quite flat).
Presumably all of this is intended to be a lushly exotic story of tragic love, but Girard’s ponderous treatment saps it of all vitality, leaving the film a succession of luscious-looking images (courtesy of production designer Francois Seguin and a small army of art directors, costume designers, set decorators and makeup artists, whose efforts are given the full gauzy-lens treatment by cinematographer Alain Dostie) that prove about as interesting as one of your neighbor’s vacation slide shows. Nor does he bother to try instilling a real feeling of period or place in the European scenes: despite the locations and costumes, none of the actors make the slightest effort to affect an accent, and they all seem like what they are–people playing dress-up, and rather uncomfortable at it.
But Girard doesn’t stop there: accents apart, he proves pretty much incapable of getting anything worthwhile out of his cast. Pitt, who has to carry the show, resembles a chubby version of Leonardo DiCaprio, but with a personality deficit. He’s bored-looking and charisma-free throughout, and his line readings are flat, which makes his wall-to-wall narration particularly dire. (At one point your heart leaps when he says, “I fell into silence,” only to sink again when he resumes his incessant droning.) Knightley is no better: she’s utterly anonymous here, and charmless too. And the two strike no sparks. Yakusho’s natural authority is apparent, even if Girard doesn’t makes much of it, and Molina at least shows some energy as the burly businessman, though it’s of a generalized sort that makes little impression. He does, however, get to show off his skill at billiards (or at least pretend to be skilled when the shots are accomplished for him), which happens to be one of the few moments in this would-be epic that might encourage you to smile.
And as if all that weren’t bad enough, Girard and his co-writer Michael Golding allow a few pointless shards of stray material to clog up their narrative still further. What to make of the thread involving local lad Ludovic, in whom the childless Herve and Helene take a special interest? Yes, there’s a revelation about him at the end, but it’s a twist without any genuine payoff. And why introduce a sleazy Dutch trader (Callum Keith Rennie) selling guns to the Japanese, when he merely disappears without explanation? Such digressions suggest an ambition to grandiosity that’s instead produced a picture that looks big but is puny at the core.
So with “Silk” Girard continues, and accelerates, his downward spiral. “Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould” was an extraordinary cinematic refraction of the many facets of that strange keyboard genius. But “The Red Violin” tried for a similar narrative complexity and stumbled. This film is much more linear and straightforward, but one gets the feeling that the director became so obsessed with pretty pictures and flawless compositions that he forgot that even the wooziest romantic melodrama needs some dramatic backbone and inner strength; the Kubrick of “Barry Lyndon” or “Eyes Wide Shut” could give this sort of dreamlike story the undercurrent of intensity that keeps it alive, but on the evidence here, that’s beyond Girard’s grasp. “Silk” is attractive to the eye, but beneath the lovely surface it’s dramatically threadbare.