Silk is a beautiful movie. So very, very beautiful. It is achingly beautiful, excruciatingly beautiful, tear-inducingly beautiful. The lushly shot landscapes—from the gardens of rural France, to the haunting steppes of Russia, to the snow shrouded, mountain villages of Japan—are so effulgent, so depthless, that you nearly lose yourself in the picture. It is all so exquisite, so meticulously and artfully photographed, I almost had to shut it off at times, it so threatened to overwhelm my senses. Would that I had…
But this is a smart strategy, lulling you with scenery, hypnotizing you with the exotic. There’s perhaps the hope that overloading your senses will render you insensate to the tedium of what passes for narrative. Adapted from a best-selling novella that (presumably) a lot of people read, Silk unspools its story at a wormlike pace, moving with a glacial deliberateness that would make actual glaciers seem like roiling avalanches.
It’s all something to do with a French silk trader, Herve Joncour (a dispassionate Michael Pitt, whose whispered narration would be high camp if it weren’t so frightfully dull), who, during the 1860s, makes several trading missions to Japan to acquire rare silkworm eggs, which due to a plague, are unavailable in the West. With each trip, which takes months and months, he leaves behind his beloved wife (Keira Knightley, lost in a thankless role), whom he professes to have missed deeply upon every return.
Well, except that, with each trip, he is further and further seduced by the exotic enticements of the then remote and mostly closed Japan – the overwhelming landscape, the customs and the food, and of course, a beautiful young woman, who also happens to be the concubine of the local warlord.
With each trip, Joncour falls further and further under the seductive sway of this exquisite beauty, though they never speak, never touch, never spend more than a few moments together, exchanging glances over tea. His alleged passionate desperation leads him back again and again, recklessly, the eggs an afterthought, ever into personal danger (which we never see) amid war (also, which we never see), and he is doomed never to see her again. He returns to France, presumably with a deep, aching hole in his soul, forever and irrevocably changed by this immortal love.
Or that’s the idea—I think. I lost the (ahem) thread at some point. Yes, it’s critically irresponsible, but I trust, forgivable in this instance. It’s not that I don’t appreciate subtly – and I generally enjoy opacity over explicitness. But I need something – some thing – to invest in, and Silk offers nothing. It’s not that it’s playing hard to get, obfuscating its core, demanding that the viewer go to it – it’s that there’s nothing to go to, and nothing there to hide.
But see, it could have all worked. It could have been some grand tale of futile passion, of longing and regret, of love forever lost, or unfound, of betrayal and despair. I’ve no doubt that may have been the plan – or not. Whatever the intention, none of this ever makes it to the screen. As in love with the scenery as the film is, it hates its characters just the same way. It hates its story. It hates its audience. It is cold, remote, as distant from us as the concubine from the silk trader – we feel not a lick of passion in these characters, not one hint of genuine human emotion.
We can recognize passion, we know it when we see it on film – the screen will burst out brilliantly, drip with sweat, crackle with electricity, melt with burning of molten love. That never happens here, not once – one would despair to live in such an anemic world
Silk is frozen, an alien planet, remote and lost. It is as inhuman a film as I’ve ever seen. But also, like its titular fabric, it is flimsy and fleeting, sliding through your hands and out of them to disappear into irrelevance. This is likely for the best. Directed with assured pretension by Francois Girard (who’s made a career out of hollowly beautiful films), Silk is so ephemeral you become convinced that it must be deliberately so, that everyone involved realized they had an insufferable stinker on their hands and worked their damnedest to make sure the film was as forgettable as possible (the paltry box-office, usually something I don’t care about, bears me out.
Even the arthouse crowd couldn’t be suckered into this faux highbrow hokum). It’s really the only explanation, unless you assume that it was funded by some pharmaceutical company looking to compete with the Ambiens and Lunestas of the world. As the two pots of coffee I plowed through just to keep me alert during the one hour and 50 minute runtime attest, the soporific Silk is one of the great insomnia cures ever created.
The entirely barren DVD release – no commentary, no extras, no deleted, just a few trailers – assumes that the studio has just as little faith in the prospects of Silk at home as they did in the theater. It’s the kind of film you might find one copy of at your video store, in the hope that some unlucky soul will spy Keira Knightley on the cover and will be fooled into thinking it’s the proper choice for a night of costume drama fun. Some films, failed in theaters, find their proper audience in the home market. Some, stillborn, such as Silk, die a second death collecting dust on shelves.