Guillaume LeConquérant’s review published on Letterboxd:
On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate... on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection..." - Mark Fisher
This film is about the mechanics of memory and the tantalizing and totalizing immediacy of sensuality. Obviously the 60s setting and aesthetic are awash in nostalgia and the film begins and ends with intertitles about memory. Wong Kar Wai deploys slow motion, repetition, and mise en scene in order to focalize the object of desire and the sensation of desiring in memory.
In terms of precise beauty, no other film comes close. The camera is a voyeur, looking in at this relationship from without, perhaps from around the corner of a wall, through a window, from another booth in a restaurant, or through a mirror.
The flower dresses also do a lot of work in Wong Kar Wai's focalizing exercise. Every day flows into the next in monotonous drudgery, but the object of desire changes fabulously each day and stays wonderfully fresh and desirable. They stick out on the drab sets and then fit right in during the scenes of heightened intimacy in room 2046 among the flowing red curtains.
His postmodern proclivities are on full blast here as we have metafiction with an affair within an affair. The narrative itself is unreliable often coming to the brink of breaking down. Without warning, and only made clear after the fact, our participants are suddenly transformed into the participants of the other affair or they are suddenly breaking up with one another only for it to be revealed that it was a rehearsal.
And yet it is only at the point where the narrative seems to break apart that any real emotions surface. When the performativity is at its most extreme the characters come into contact with their most intimate selves.
"...identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results." - Judith Butler
Everything is ambiguous. Is the passion consummated at any point or is it controlled/restrained? Do they exchange knowing glances in the stairway or are they simply running into one another coincidentally? Slow motion in these moments gives us time to really rest in the sexual tension. Is the entire affair a performance designed to either get back at their spouses or to try and feel what they feel? One never sees the spouses, and yet our participants wear the same ties and use the same handbags. Have they become their spouses by what they wear and how they act? Mr. Chow worries about this repeatedly.
This almost constant obfuscation is captured beautifully in Isabel Sandoval's recent Letterboxd newsletter:
The monster is scarier under the bed. So it is with desire in cinema. What’s sexy is not the sex, but the suggestion, followed by the expectation and anticipation of that desire being satiated. Desire, in effect, becomes a looming, ominous presence in the best of these films, suffusing each intoxicating frame and sound cue, ultimately possessing us. The more exquisitely and grandly this desire is courted and then thwarted, the more transcendent the film appears.
The film ends in one of the most awesome locations on Earth, Angkor Wat, with a session of simulated cunnilingus with centuries old rock and yet this is the supposed ANTI-climax of the love story. Can one ask for more when one goes to the cinema than to be turned on by a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
For me, this is the most sensual movie of all time.