Michael Pitt as Herve Joncour
Keira Knightley as Helene Joncour
Alfred Molina as Baldabiou
Sei Ashina as The Mistress
Koji Yakusho as Hara Jubei
Miki Nakatani as Madam Blanche
Directed by François Girard
There is a great difference between films with actual depth and those that simply ape the attributes of sincere filmmaking. Sadly, “Silk” falls into the latter category. Adapted from Alessandro Baricco’s novel of the same name, “Silk” tells the story of a military officer named Herve (Michael Pitt) who, under orders from a wealthy French merchant (Alfred Molina), makes the arduous journey to Japan to trade for silk eggs suitable for replacing the incurably diseased French supply of silkworms. Once he reaches Japan, he becomes intoxicated with its many attractions, most notably one particular young concubine (Sei Ashina) who threatens to topple his blissful marriage to Helene (Keira Knightley).
If there is any joy to this film it is certainly in its visual splendor. Baricco’s work provides elegant period details and multiple international settings which are perfectly suited to be captured in stunning tableaus. From the lush lives of French aristocrats to the more barren side of Japanese tradesmen, the film creates beautiful, portrait-like scenes of extreme beauty. Director François Girard (“The Red Violin”) has a dramatic flair for filming landscapes and intricately dressed sets with atmospheric grace. This is, no doubt, a pretty film to look at.
This, of course, makes it especially sad to note that despite its loveliness, the film is an outright snoozer. There is not even the faintest trace of believable emotion in any of these characters. It rings false from start to finish with disappointingly flat performances from the talented cast. Pitt and Knightley could easily rank in anyone’s top 10 picks for the best of young Hollywood, but here they both deliver their lines with a dullness akin to a bad high school production of a classic text. Herve’s love for Helene is grounded in nothing more than a narration by Herve telling us he loves her. We see them smile and we see them making small talk together. What we never see is a scene in which the connection between the two is illuminated to a satisfying extent, something to make us feel the pangs of disappointment when Herve betrays his beloved wife while lingering in Japan with his concubine. Though, that’s not to say that this second relationship is made to seem any more sensible. For someone so in love with his wife, Herve seems to have no remorse in almost instantaneously bedding his new female obsession. And it’s not a particularly scintillating love affair either. The film is, in every respect, passionless, a vacantly beautiful mess that makes no coherent sense. It feels often like a mixed up jumble of crisscrossing plots and emotions, sort of like reading the Cliffs Notes to a novel that’s too grand and complex to be reduced to a barebones storytelling vessel. Somewhere buried beneath the interminable monotony is the kernel of an idea for a much more impressive film but what exists here is merely a lovely exterior with absolutely no soul, the cinematic equivalent of fine china, pleasing to the eyes but not at all functional or remarkable beyond its general suggestion of sophisticated taste.