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why is l’Annulaire so charming, enfin?

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Pardonnez-moi, mademoiselle, voulez-vous regarder mes specimens?

Here, for a change, is a film review. Though I’m a wannabe science nerd, I can’t help now and then returning to my roots, as an uberkool arts dude. Fact is, though I’m a regular listener to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcasts, I can’t even pretend to be interested in their sci-fi movie and tv-series passions and references (pace Doctor Who), with rarely a mention of classical or even modern literature or cool art-house movies.  C’est pitoyable!

So I’m going to treat myself here to something that comes much more easily to me than science writing.

I first saw the so-Frenchy-so-chic film l’Annulaire (The Ring Finger) a few years ago, and was gripped, though I must admit I was barely able to see past the absorbingly delightful presence and performance of Olga Kurylenko. Not that I’m beating myself up over this – Kurylenko’s beauty and aloneness and vulnerable little glances and smiles and moments of languor would provide plentiful fuel for any sensualist’s fire, be she male, female or otherwise. She’s perfection in this role.

But seeing the film for the second time the other day, and via SBS on demand, so that I could treat it as I would treat a good book, rereading certain passages, going over things I didn’t quite catch, luxuriating in the best moments and effects, I gained a richer experience, while also noting a few flaws. In fact some of the clunkier elements of the film only serve to enhance the authenticity of Kurylenko’s performance.

Kurylenko plays twenty-one year-old Iris, about whom we know nothing except that she’s working in a lemonade bottling factory in the beginning of the film, where she has an accident, badly cutting her ring finger. We next find her wandering though a port city, nursing her bandaged finger, looking for work. And also looking for love or sex or some kind of romantic adventure. For example, while wandering along the docks, she sees a ferry filling up with people and decides impulsively to board it. On the trip across the water she finds herself watching a young man who finds himself watching her. She looks away awkwardly but when the ferry arrives at its destination – an island or maybe just the other side of the harbour, it’s all a bit vague – she follows the young man, in a sort of irresolute stalking manoeuvre, into a park or garden, where she loses track of him at a set of forking paths. She’s about to retreat completely, but finally takes one of the paths which leads her to an austere old building. On the door is a note advertising a job as a clerk to help with specimens – no experience required, apparently. She decides to apply. Ans so the real fantasy begins.

Now the film’s opening scene, before the credits roll, takes place inside this ‘lab’, with the white-coated ‘doctor’ discussing the preservation of a specimen of fungus – mushrooms in fact – with a serious-looking young woman. It doesn’t make much sense, but this is the weird world the solitary Iris is about to enter. She’s already rented accommodation in the port town, time-sharing a motel room with a sailor who works on the docks. She wanders about the room, staring at the docks and the water, wondering about the man’s clothing in the wardrobe and on a hanger by the glass doors facing the sea. Features are emerging – water, solitude, longing. And also, the heat – or, to use the much more evocative French word, chaleur. Iris drips with sweat in the hospital where her finger is treated, and half-faints with the heat in the reception area of the hostel where she applies for a room. The heat promotes a languor, a slowing of pace, a slightly hallucinatory, unreal effect.

So Iris is invited into this ‘lab’ by the ‘doctor’. He’s a walking cliché, you might say, but a very deliberate one. He’s never without his white coat, he’s quite a bit older than Iris, he’s silent, austere, masterful, and apparently entirely focused on his thoroughly enigmatic vocation. After a brief interview, she becomes his employee, his dependent, even more unsure of her role and her tasks after his explanation of them than before. But she enters into the arrangement willingly enough, in keeping with her driftily adventurous spirit.

So after securing this employment she removes the bandage from her ring finger, as if it has gained strength, or the security it symbolizes has been reinforced. Before starting work the next day, she drifts through the port’s red light district, and ponders in the room she shares with the sailor, with its twin beds – brief, elliptical sexual signs.  At work, her boss, who seems the sole occupant of the old building, is at turns forbidding and benevolent, unpredictable, a bit like that Judeo-Christian god, keeping her alert and a little on edge. Mostly, though, he’s friendly and reassuring, so she’s happy to stay with the adventure. On her second day, she sleeps in and has to rush, but not before noting and fondling the sailor’s coat hanging in the wardrobe. She has left one of her dresses on the hanger, billowing beside the open glass door, for him to contemplate in her absence.

Iris’s nameless boss shows her the mushroom specimen he’s prepared in a test tube, and they contemplate it together, in a moment of low-key, tentative intimacy – with more than a touch of the predatory on his part. It’s a bit of a Q and A session, with the doc explaining the meaning and significance of the specimens. They’re symbols of loss – the mushrooms grew on the property of someone – the girl – whose house burned down. The specimens aren’t given to the clients, they’re kept at the lab. Clients can come to see them, but usually don’t. They’re simply symbols of closure, not for nostalgia but for preservation and separation of the past. It’s an odd and not entirely convincing conceit, but it has a certain romantic asceticism to it. At the end of this session Iris brings to mind her ring finger, which she sucks, lost to emotion. The faces here are in extreme close-up, and Iris/Olga is becoming painfully irresistible.

derriere chaque bonne femme, un homme de mystere

derriere chaque bonne femme, un homme de mystere

Back at her rented digs, Iris passes the sailor in the hall, and learns that this is the young man she time-shares with, and her curiosity is clearly piqued, as is his. All without a word. At work, while noting that the ‘doc’ sometimes disappears through an apparently forbidden door, she meets a new client who wants a piece of music preserved. Not the sheet music but the notes themselves. Written for her by an ex-beau. The woman, of middle age, is plainly still in love and suffering. Iris is kind and slightly overwhelmed. After the client’s departure, she hums the notes of the music to herself. In one of the old building’s interminable corridors, she’s pulled out of reverie by a little boy’s musical tapping, and the response of a woman further down the hall, who almost supernaturally disappear as suddenly as they appear. So there are other residents, occupants, denizens of this place…. Iris smiles deliciously.

The doc makes one of his sudden appearances, and silently peruses the musical manuscript, comments on the intense heat, promises air-conditioning…. then he invites her for a word, down to his inner sanctum, behind the forbidden door. It appears to be an old municipal baths, a cool retreat from the chaleur. They’ve now become more intimate, closer. Intensity is captured in close up, and In Iris’s shifting expressions, the playful smile, the flicker of fear, the innocent uncertainty. The doctor announces that her shoes are of too poor quality for her role and her person. He has bought her a beautiful new pair, blood red. She unwraps them with astonishment, with wonder, with pleasure, with some concern. ‘How did you know my size?’ she asks, the laughter dying on her face. She doesn’t know what to make of this man, who has saved her, after a fashion, and given her some adventure, after a fashion. She half-heartedly refuses the shoes but he insists, and he puts them on her himself. Foot fetishists will love this scene, and Iris/Olga’s expressions here are priceless. She near faints away when her foot slips into the shoe. The doctor explains that he knows her shoe size just by looking at her. He’s a naturalist after all. He gets her to walk before him with the new shoes, telling her she must wear them at all times, whether he can see her or not. Another god-type demand, and she don’t look too happy about it. Nevertheless, and inevitably, we next see her wearing her new shoes around the docks.

In her motel room, she finds a vase of little purple flowers – a gift from her young room-mate? She’s delighted, and she investigates a book he appears to be reading, and his passport…

One day she arrives at work soaked from the rain. The doctor, as always, distant, controlling, but benevolent, makes her a hot toddy, and helps her out of her wet clothes, in the underground baths. All perfectly normal behaviour from a caring employer. She submits like a slave, and yet she always shows spirit, her eyes widen in wonder as he explains that he’ll take her wet things to be dried and ironed ‘by the woman in room 233’. ‘Is she the one who plays the piano?’ she asks. ‘No, that’s the woman in 209’, he replies, providing, like a rare morsel of food, some information about these ageing lingerers in the old building.

The doc doesn’t take advantage of Iris’s near nakedness, but leaves, with her garments, while she awaits him, wrapped in a towel and an air of confusion. Clearly, another barrier has been breached. And next we follow Iris, fully clothed again, as she trots behind her master to visit the piano lady, to ask her (and in fact demand of her, with the doc’s usual cordial firmness) to play and so preserve the musical ‘specimen’. While in the lady’s room, Iris sees a photo of a lot of young women standing in front of the ‘laboratory’, which was then, perhaps, a nursing school, or maybe a home for fallen women, we don’t know. To one side stands our doctor, white-coated of course, and apparently ageless, as if he’s struck some Faustian or Dorian Gray-style deal. On examining this photograph, Iris exchanges a meaning gaze with the doctor, who remains as inscrutable as ever. It’s actually a key scene – the doc has also invited the other lady, the ‘clothing lady’ we might call her, into this room to hear the music, perhaps as a witness to the ‘specimen’, and glances are exchanged also between Iris and the clothing lady, who smiles knowingly, and between the clothing lady and the doc, who smile to each other in apparent collusion. The mind leaps to the idea, or the knowledge, that this woman is one of the young lasses in the photo, and that some kind of strange, sexual, harem-like happenings are being referred to, in the most civilized, tea-and-scones kind of way. The clothing lady also shows an unwonted, but silent, interest in Iris’s shoes, as if she’s well aware of what’s what in regard to them, much to Iris’s embarrassment. But as we see in another lingering scene on the docks, Iris is fascinated, almost obsessed, with these shoes of hers.

The next scene is also key. Iris receives a new client, a softly-spoken, impoverished-looking elderly black man, who wants a specimen made of the bones of a sparrow who’d been sharing his flat for years, before dying of old age. While they discuss this, the man comments admiringly on her beautiful shoes. Turns out he’s been a shoe-shiner at La Gare Centrale (another vague designation) for the past 50 years. He points out how perfectly the shoes fit. ‘Let me give you advice. Even if they’re very comfortable, don’t wear them too often. Or, young lady, you’ll risk losing your feet. Can’t you see there’s hardly any room between your feet and the shoes? That proves the shoes are taking possession of your feet?’ ‘Possession?’ asks Iris. ‘Exactly,’ says the man (it all sounds so much more intime in French). He offers to shine her shoes if she will visit him at his work station.

The film continues with inexplicable moments and incidents – she hears piano music, and tries to investigate, then the phone rings, someone wants a specimen of a shadow, she thinks not, but as she responds, the clothing woman creeps about in the corridor behind her bearing flowers…  She works late, pondering over the sparrow bones, and is discovered by the doc, who makes small talk about her new hairstyle.

Back in her motel room she massages her feet thoughtfully, dreamily… Then, back on the ferry, on her way to work, she sees the young sailor, on a bridge, watching. She stands up, faces him and smiles, youth and hope, sensuality at a safe distance. Then he’s in the motel room, sniffing at one of her dresses – as you do – and hanging it up to blow in the sea breeze.

Meanwhile, the chaleur oppresses. Iris, at work, opens up her blouse for relief, without realizing that the doc has made one of his sudden appearances at her door. He complains of the heat driving away the clients. She has buttoned up and is discomfited by his presence, especially when he asks after her shoes…  He asks that she help him put his specimens in order during this quiet period, and so she follows him, but they end up in the basement, in the cool spaciousness of the old baths… And here the doc becomes an old charmer, after his fashion. He reminisces about the young women showering there, the running water, the soap and froth and chatter, and all that nakedness. Iris asks about those women, and the women from rooms 223 and 209. Yes, he says, they were there, and just about your age, then. But now, all is dry. No water, no soap… Those women have now aged, there’s only you and me (or ‘I’m not ageist, but…’)

So now the moment of seduction has arrived. He leads her to the centre of the baths, undresses her slowly, and we hear her breath and see her desire. She lies on the floor, naked, and he, still in his lab coat of course, enters her, at once brutal and slightly ridiculous. He pulls her on top of him, and urgently asks, as you do at such moments, ‘Is there anything you’d like preserved? We all need specimens.’ ‘Me too? Even you?’ she wonders. ‘Yes. Think, there must be something you’d like as a specimen. Let’s look at it from a different angle. What’s your most painful memory? Something awful.’ ‘I lost the tip of my ring finger.’ ‘What happened?’ ‘I lost it, in lemonade, in the factory. I fainted.’ ‘So your ring finger will never be the same?’

Back in the motel room, Iris is contemplative but happy. She swings gaily from an old tyre in the docklands, watched, unbeknown, by the young sailor. Then back at work she falls asleep on the job, dreaming of the shower and the young girls, watched by their white-coated doc, and meanwhile the young sailor is in the motel, apparently dreaming of Iris.

When she arrives back at the motel she finds a note. The sailor, Costa, is leaving and would like to meet her. He asks for a rendezvous at a local bar. As it turns out, the bar’s pretty wild – sailors, girls, every port and all. Iris turns up to see Costa being accosted by a likely lady. She takes flight and Costa pursues her – in the languid and tentative manner that’s the signature of this film. He stares up at the motel room; she emerges, stares briefly at him, then retreats, shuts the door, extinguishes the light. Hope’s deferred, making the heart sick.

She showers in sensual water. At work, the doc asks her for help with his specimens again. She’s uncertain – what about the clients? They won’t come in this uncertain weather, he assures her. He offers her an apron, as if to say, ‘this time, no hanky-panky’.  Among the burgeoning specimens, she asks him where they might be put, as they accumulate.  ‘Perhaps we may have to use the baths’, he suggests. This alarms her. ‘When the bathroom is turned into a preservation room, what will we do then?’ she asks, with delicious innocence.

That’s enough for the doc, and we’re back in the underground baths, and this time the sex is uninhibited, symbolized by the horrifying fact that the doc has taken off his lab coat. But who is Iris thinking of, the doc or the sailor?

Afterwards, she returns to the motel. Costa has left her what appears to be a box of chocolates. She lies on his rumpled bed…

Back at work, the young woman of the mushrooms, who has a burn on her cheek, returns. She asks Iris if she can have another specimen. She, too, is beautiful. The doctor is called for, assures her he can help, and leads her off to the lab. Iris is  upset, jealous, and tries to raise questions, but the doc, authoritarian as ever, orders her to get on with preparing the paperwork. So – power, authority, invested in maleness. Iris feels insecure, humiliated. Through the day she serves other clients, but is ever-watchful for her ‘rival’. She goes to the door of the lab and tries to open it, to no avail. She wanders the docks again, thinking, dreaming of the red shoes, his hands on her feet, her legs… Back in the motel room, a storm rages, and she’s alone. At work again, she searches desperately for traces of the girl, and her specimen. She’s beside herself. She encounters one of the elderly ladies, who talks to her about her work. ‘Most of those who’ve worked here didn’t last long. They would just vanish.’ ‘What about the previous girl?’ ‘Yes, she was about your age. I remember particularly the sound of her shoes. Neat, regular. I’m very sensitive to sound. No I don’t remember the colour of her shoes.. Where did she go? Who knows? I hope you don’t leave so suddenly…’ Discomfited by the older woman’s slightly mocking tone, Iris cuts short the conversation, and continues in search of her rival’s specimen. She finds a photo of a girl, of her age, wearing striking shoes. As she stares at it, it begins to fade, disappear. Will Iris disappear so suddenly? She hurries off, disturbed, harried. Covered in sweat, she’s drying herself off when she encounters a new client, a silent Chinese man, who leaves in her possession a mahjong set. While she’s examining it, the doc makes another of his sudden appearances… He asks her to put it on a shelf, but the set opens as she picks it up, and all the pieces scatter over the floor.

The masterful doctor tells her that every piece must be put back where it belongs, if it takes all night. So, watched over by the master, she languidly, interspersed with periods of sleep or catatonia, picks up each far-flung piece and puts it back in its place. Heavy symbolism no doubt lost on me. When she finishes, the master takes her in his arms. ‘We’ve seen the morning in together,’ she says, as though this is a sign of love rather than power. ‘Take me to the lab,’ she adds. ‘I’m the only one who can go there’, he says. ‘But what about the girl with the burn?’  ‘That was about a specimen. They have priority.’ ‘So I’ll be able to go there if I ask for a specimen I can keep forever?’ He doesn’t respond, but sucks her ring finger tenderly. She seems content…

She visits the shoe-shining man, who is very pleased to see her. She assures him about his specimen, and he applies his special cream to her shoes. ‘Were the shoes given to you by someone?’ he asks. ‘Are you in love with him?’ ‘I sometimes wonder,’ she says. ‘I don’t know, but I can’t easily leave him.’ ‘It’s because of your shoes. If you don’t take them off, you’ll never get away. Get a specimen, so that your feet will be free.’ ‘I don’t want that.’ ‘Do you want to go back there?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Well, I will say goodbye then’, says the shoeshine man. ‘I won’t see you again.’ She looks at her finger, and makes her return, via a long tunnel. I don’t pretend to know what all this means.

La belle Iris reve de son annulaire

La belle Iris reve de son annulaire

Back at work, Iris writes a specimen label or ticket – ‘Iris, ring finger.’ She takes this ticket down to the lab. Outside the door, she takes off her shoes. With her shoes in one hand, her ticket in the other, she knocks on the door. It opens, and all we see is bright light. She drops the shoes, and disappears into the light.

Make of this what you will, it’s a beautiful film exploring love, desire, security, connection, power and vulnerability – and not just that of Iris – all in a deceptively simple, unadorned package. Clearly I’ve been self-indulgent in my descriptions here, using them as an excuse to linger over the film’s most memorable scenes, which for me aren’t the overtly sexual scenes but the covertly sexual ones – characters in isolation, loving and longing, hungering and recalling.

I’ve mentioned clunkiness – the occasional continuity error, and scenes and characters that added little, apart from more mystery. For example, a little boy often appears in the scenes at the lab – an impish spirit who watches over Iris. Is he the product of one of the doc’s dalliances with his employees? Is he a prisoner or a free spirit? I suspect he’s a more integrated character in the book on which this film was based – a ‘cult erotic novel’, so the blurb goes, by Yoko Ogawa, and the director, Diane Bertrand, didn’t quite know what to do with him. Some of the clients, too, seemed superfluous to requirements, though I’m quite prepared to accept that I may have missed a few nuances.

But in spite of this the film succeeds, not least because of the central actor’s performance. Olga Kurylenko is now quite a big name, but I suspect I’ll always associate her, first and foremost, with this very demanding, make or break role. In writing this piece, I very willingly researched the captivating Kurylenko, and frankly it moved me beyond bearing to uncover this delightful interview, apparently set up in her own home, maybe in about 2010, in which among other things she talked of The Ring Finger, her movie debut, as one of those rare experiences in which she fell in love with the character… Olga, in this rough-as-guts video, as far from media hype as you can get, reveals herself to be as delightful, warm and genuine as Iris, a woman who recognises her good fortune, but who has genuine talent, and an emotional depth that shines though on and off screen. I feel strangely proud of her after having learned so much about her, as if she were a close relative who has realised her dream. I cannot recommend this film, and its star, highly enough.

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Written by stewart henderson

September 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm

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