To call Daft Punk’s Electroma one-dimensional would be a misnomer. Fans of any artist love to crow when their beloved creative spirits makes strides outside of their chosen medium; rappers trying to act, actors attempting to rap, nonfiction writers doing fiction, politicians (artists of bullshit) writing novels, etc. It’s a defense mechanism, really. The fans want to make sure that they’re not losing their favorite talents to untested and likely tumultous, ham-handed, or challenging fare. It not only threatens the artist’s overall reputation, but our perception of them as well.
Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, God-kings of house music, shouldn’t have been surprised then by the calvacade of jeers and walkouts that escorted them to the Cannes premiere of Electroma back in May of 2006. The previous year, the band were hot off the heels of what was by critical and commercial standards their least successeful album to date.
Up to that point, Daft Punk could do no wrong. Not only were they the hyper-magickal amulets of hipsterati culture (notably adored by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Kanye West), but they were also crossover artists with commercial appeal whose street cred hadn’t suffered one dint after pimping for the evil, conformity-manufacturing, child-labor-employing Gap corporation, among others. Across the pond, the frères dans les circuits had been coronated messiahs of French House music, qualifying a sprouting onslaught of Francophilia in the electronic music community.
Disappointed by their latest album, many offered up its title, Human After All, as an apology, Daft Punk’s own slice of humble pie to excuse themselves for releasing an inferior product. Human, hence prone to lapses.
In the midst of all this, Daft Punk oddly and quite unexpectedly opted to expand the film reels of their proposed music video for Human After All‘s title track and turn it into a full-length feature film. Their last album had already yielded the dazzlingly colorful Interstella 5555: The 5tory of The 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, a nostalgia-fueled anime about a heroic band who fight the evils of the music industry. And though their musical future at this point was considered by some to be seriously in doubt, few denied the band’s acute power to merge their sounds with arresting visuals (and Human After All had already yielded three dark, brilliant paranoid music videos).
So how do you get an army of raving admirers to turn against you and vomit forth message board bile proclaiming Electroma a “totally self indulgent[sic] meditation on how cool Daft Punk think they are,” and that “you’ll hate Daft Punk for producing such garbage”? Perhaps by making a film that features no dancing, no laser light shows, no action, no interaction, no fight sequences, no dog-men, no firemen, no suicidal young girls, no psychedelic animation, no cheeky gimmicks, no dialogue, no subplots, no fast editing, and absolutely no music by Daft Punk.
Inevitably, Electroma will eternally be defined in music and film history by what it lacks. Hence, to call the film one-dimensional would be understandable. Yet, it would be simplifying a complex moebius strip whose surface, if lethargic, is engorged with plenty of narrative pabulum to engage the screen for 70 minutes, even if the same story could have been told in a quarter of that time. Though it’s far from a great picture, Electroma is film stripped down to pure essence; a linear framework of mobile pictures moving from point A (wherein the protoganists, “hero robots” as they’re credited, cruise through the desert searching for civilization) to point B (wherein the hero robots abandon a society that has rejected them and reenter the desert). As Bangalter put it, everything inbetween is “music for the eyes”.
The plot concerns two robots (interestingly enough not played by Daft Punk themselves, but instead by actors Peter Hurteau and Michael Reich) who enter a suburban town via a nearby desert to undergo reconstructive surgery in order to make their permanently-adorned helmets resemble human faces. The locals of the town, all robots themselves, instantly reject them for their experimental new looks and chase the hero robots through the streets as a blistering sun begins to melt the latex of their facial gear off. They retreat to the desert and expire, alone, rejected, and defeated. That’s pretty much the entire film.
Some might mistake the film’s open spaces—its sustained landscape shots, mid-range portraits, close-ups on the frozen metal of expressionless robot faces, sillhouetted surgical technicans, and long periods of silence—as myopic vapidity rather than a purposefully simplified template. Yet, there’s a glaringly apparent existential crisis at the film’s core concerning the true nature of identity and its conflict with social regulations. For all the detractors’ cries of pretension, it’s a pretty distilled and universal narrative. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo have cited Surrealist René Magritte as an influence on the film in interviews. Magritte knew that appealing to mass indignation did not require traipsing off into fantasy worlds. Rather, Magritte and the Surrealists preferred to slightly distort, manipulate, and pervert the mundane, to turn the recognizable iconography and motifs of everyday life on their collective heads.
Like Daft Punk’s music videos, Electroma is stunning to watch. Its vivid visions are well-composed, pristine, and electrifiying, They are so compelling that they make the lack of dialogue a non-issue for filmgoers patient enough to suffer the film’s snail-paced crawl. The anthropomorphic human masks are a grotesque caricature of our own refections as interpreted through Svanmajer and the Garbage Pail Kids. The suburban robot town is lucid and familiar, a mirror of locales many of us grew up in. The film’s final image, sustained for over five minutes of screen time, will haunt you long after the credits roll. It’s hardly essential viewing, and the suspension of the visual from the tactical may come at the expense of the film as a whole, but Electroma does, at its least, provide adequate sustenance for the eyes.
If there is an emptiness present in Electroma, it’s a hollow at the core of the suburban life, which takes something truly magnificent, like transformation of the hero robots, and disavows it upon first judgement. The robotic masses are staid, complacent, and stuck, even by the camera movement, which presents them like technicolor Diane Arbus stills. They’re unwilling to look beyond themselves. As you resent them for judging the hero robots in their news skins, you also feel bad for them. They too are tragic figures.
Curtis Mayfield’s “Billy Jack”, which appears in the film, is about the desolation of urban struggle. Mayfield was perhaps transferring energy from the film of the same name. That Billy Jack meditated on the continued oppression of Native Americans in modern-day America. While these forms of discrimination are actively debilitating, the strain which greets the Daft Punk hero robots is passive, domestic, intimate, and social. It is a peer limitation set on identity, viewing aberration as treason. The politics of the staredown.
It’s not impossible to imagine the return of “humanity” to robot culture as a return of an aboriginal culture to its home land, a reclamation of human emotion in the age of complacency. Eager to prevent miscegenation, the locals intimidate the people-faced hero robots into exile. Somewhere along our present journey into a streamlined and constrictive framework of permissible behavior, the public became robots. Rather than fight their metallic bondage, they learned to stop worrying, love being robots, and spite all things animalistic and uncontrolled (hence the lack of those things anywhere in the film, until perhaps the finale).
Sad to say, Electroma‘s real burden is also the crux of most of the criticism levied against it. The film’s pacing is practically hypnogogic. Imagine David Lynch and Sunn O))) talking to each other underwater on Dramamine. Daft Punk’s spirited and throbbing music would never work in such a context. Though the film’s languid speed is often gratuitous, the stripped narrative is occasionally empowered by it. By playing at 33 RPM (rather than 78), the directors allow us more time to weigh these images, unobstructed by a dearth of elements competing for frame time. Yet, even as enjoyable as pure cinematic essence can be, Electroma becomes laborious far too many times. And as uncomplicated and ecumenical as the plot can be, it just doesn’t warrant two intensive desert treks by car and foot. Emotional and geographical sparseness can be communicated far more succinctly.
Laudably, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo have created a work with a less-is-more aesthetic that also runs the reel all the way through. It’s a simple film dealing with complex issues in a sophisticated manner. It is neither a fun nor important work, but represents a singular slice of cinematic minimalism destined to drift out in the audio-visual badlands, like its lamented heroes. It’s hard not to see the story of Daft Punk themselves hidden in the outline of this plot. “Another universe cries for your memory”, Sebastian Tellier sings as the robots tear their respective faces off in a bathroom to a flickering flourescent light overhead. Dehumanized by those lights, be they of flashing photographers or discotheque strobes, Daft Punk decided to cry out. Electroma is their extended, wordless wail, take it or leave it.