Wednesday, September 26, 2007

You, Robot

Nestled in the midst of yet another summer where cinemas were buckling under the weight of bloated effects-heavy spectacles choked by a surfeit of plot strands and character arcs all struggling to extricate themselves from unnecessary narrative complexity (I’m looking at you Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean At World’s End!), along comes the small and perfectly formed Electroma from Parisian bleep-sculptors Daft Punk.

Whereas the summer’s standard issue eye candy is just passive entertainment, a relentless barrage of noise and nonsense requiring absolutely no contribution on the part of the audience, Electroma is the opposite. It leaves plenty of room for the viewer as an integral part of the experience, allowing them to project their own feelings, interpretations and responses on to the film.

Those wacky Daft Punks may disagree with me. Co-director and imaginaut Thomas Bangalter describes Electroma as “…experimental and inaccessible; however, it's a movie that does not require your brain to function.” He couldn’t be more wrong. It is a far richer experience when both your brain and your emotions are receptive to the sounds and images skittering across the screen.

Heavily indebted to 70s American cinema, in particular nihilistic road movies and sterile sci-fi dystopias like Electra Glide in Blue and THX 1138 (with a dash of the suburban weirdness of David Lynch thrown in as seasoning), Electroma is the story of two leather-clad robots cruising the American highways, flanked on either side by a craggy burnished orange backdrop familiar from old westerns, saddled up in their black 1987 Ferrari 412 with its license plate displaying “HUMAN”.

And that’s all they want – to be human. To be different in a world full of robots. And that’s basically the whole story.

With the slow and hypnotic accretion of meticulously selected and stunningly beautiful imagery, Electroma is an entirely wordless meditation on the meaning of humanity, belonging, assimilation and conformity.

Every single miniscule element of Electroma is seemingly crafted with painstaking precision, from the grotesque human masks that the robots wear, melting in the sun and running down their faces like rubbery pink tears, to the immaculate location shots, in particular one striking shot of the desert laid out like the curves of a reclining woman, with a serendipitous pile of scrub brush appearing tantalisingly like a pubic mound.

Even better than the visuals is the fantastic sound design – the repetitive scuffing of boots on gravel; the crackling of flames; the unwavering drone of the Ferrari. Even the silence is perfect.

Music also plays a part in the whole tapestry (although, wisely, nothing by Daft Punk themselves). My personal favourite use of music is the sound of Curtis Mayfield’s Billy Jack as the two robots walk through a suburban town centre proudly wearing their new faces, in a twisted parody of Richard Roundtree or John Travolta strutting defiantly in the opening sequences of Shaft or Saturday Night Fever.

In a film without words, subtle physical performance and use of body language is vital, and Peter Hurteau and Michael Reich acquit themselves admirably. But I’ve said enough. A film that’s a blend of impressions and imagery is not a film that can be sold on the strength of words. And it’s now available on DVD.

Tempted yet? Here’s a teaser trailer.

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