"The moon may be in the gutter, but the film is in the toilet," noted Gerard Depardieu, seeming to go along with the tidal wave of critical derision that met Jean-Jacques Beineix's The Moon in the Gutter on its disastrous premiere at Cannes. Up until that fateful night it was the hottest property in European cinema: Depardieu at the height of his cool, Nastassja Kinski at the height of her fame, a supporting cast including Victoria Abril, Dominique Pinon and Bertice Reading, Beineix fresh off the success of Diva with a novel by pulp poet David Goodis to play with... If ever there were a picture too cool for school and just riding for a fall, it was this one, and it fell hard.
As you'd expect from one of the creators of the cinema du look, it's a striking looking film, shot at Cinecitta on lovingly crafted not quite naturalistic sets in neon reds, greens and more muted orange and teals before the latter became a visual cliché, and the heightened stylisation extends to almost every aspect of the film. Thus Kinski's entrance is played at length to the accompaniment of a vivid piano concerto as she slowly walks into a bar, the camera slowly caressing her from a respectful distance as the director creates a bit of cinematic grand opera out of a character not actually doing very much, which sums up a lot of the film. It's a mood piece that's more about the filmmaking than the story or characterisation, the former anorexic, the latter striving for the iconic but settling for archetypes, and if you're not in the right mood it'll try your patience to the limit. Everything happens very slowly, very deliberately, allowing you to either wallow in the visuals or beat your head against the wall as you wait for something to happen. Very little does and even less is resolved. Sometimes you'll get a sequence where the studio setting allows Beineix such complete control of the elements that you'll get a virtuoso display of filmmaking, such as a fight in a banana warehouse, a rapid tracking shot along a gutter or a last kiss in an alley, but what's missing in a film about the way pain paralyses the heart and soul is an emotional connection with the characters. They're part of the scenery, seemingly chosen for how they look rather than what they make you feel.
There is a plot, of sorts, or at least an excuse. Still haunted by the rape and death of his sister that destroyed his family, Depardieu hangs around the docks where she was killed, constantly drawn to the still bloodstained gutter where she died, perhaps looking for her killer but more probably just looking for something to come into his life. That something is Kinski's rich girl, who he meets when she tries to bring her drunken and existentially empty brother home from the aforementioned bar (the film is big on existential emptiness and the ennui of humid nights in seedy neighbourhoods). But is she enough to drag him away from his corrosive obsession? And does Beineix really care?
Maybe once upon a time there was something that anchored these setpieces in enough of a character-driven plot to make us care about these people as much as the director cares about the images, but it has trouble sustaining its 138-minute running time, so it's hard to believe that the director's intended four-hour director's cut (which will never see the light of day since all the deleted footage was destroyed in the wake of the film's failure) would have been a lost masterpiece. If anything it feels like the ideal double-bill companion for Coppola's equally garish One From the Heart, another film that loses sight of the emotions with all the visual overkill. Although he doesn't mention that film in the 16-minute interview on the US DVD, Beineix does admit to making the film in a state somewhere between a reverie and an obsessive belief in his own invincibility much like that Coppola displayed before the box-office brought him back to earth.
Unfortunately the US DVD is marred by an easily avoidable subtitling problem: despite being a 2.35:1 widescreen film and there being ample room in the black bar below the image area, the non-removeable subtitles are presented over the picture, which is particularly disastrous in the first half hour here as they often hide important visual information in the lower part of the frame: a shot of blood red water in a gutter turning black is lost behind subtitles while long dialogue scenes almost look like characters have white tape over their mouths. It's rare for subtitling to be this conspicuous or damaging, but this DVD certainly manages it.