Promises Written in Water ★★★½

FlashbHACK -- review originally published here.


Similar to Peter Tscherkassky's Coming Attractions, actually*, in its refusal to hang together but miles apart in overall mood and trajectory, Promises is without a doubt the most experimental feature film I’ve seen at TIFF 2010, and that includes Uncle Boonmee. Where Joe is operating within a sublime spiritual realm that is nevertheless recognizable in its oneiric pull, caressing us with a gentle imagism and sly wit that never invites mockery, Gallo’s film, like Gallo himself, is always too sincere, threatening to topple over into sheer risibility. He simply risks more, and as such he will always have as many enemies as champions.

He truly "brings it on himself," but this is a component of a masochistic art of paper-light surfaces and fragile textures. It wouldn’t work quite as well if half the world weren’t ready to watch Gallo fail. Promises is a black and white para-narrative about Kevin (Gallo), a mysterious man -- Drifter? Former gangster? Out of work actor? -- who answers a want-ad and becomes a mortuary assistant. The funeral parlor is run by Mallory (Delfine Bafort), a young, beautiful woman who is dying and wants Kevin to fulfill her last wish – to be cremated and scattered in the river. However Gallo uses this admittedly slight narrative thread as a kind of clothesline for a number of experiments in diegetic permeability, sound / image / silence relationships, and the metaphysics of film performance.

In one key scene at a diner, "Kevin" and "Mallory" discuss a phonecall to Kevin’s girlfriend. "Yeah, a called her. She’s going to Thailand, with a guy who’s 55 years old, but she told me not to worry, that no one compares to me…" But soon, Gallo is repeating the lines over and over, even going so far as to ask Bafort if he can start again. Later in the scene, the characters argue about Mallory’s promiscuity, but soon it’s clearly the actors themselves, debating the value of money.

This and other scenes recall Andy Warhol’s film work, especially The Chelsea Girls, Vinyl, and Kiss. But Gallo also has room for a raucous dance number (set to Polygon Window’s "Quoth"); a tense hotel room-pacing scene; and a beautiful nude portrait of Bafort reminiscent of Willard Maas’s early experimental short Geography of the Body.

Think what you will of him personally, but Gallo is a major artist whose work has left commercial cinema far behind. He deserves to share audiences with James Benning and Thom Andersen, but at this point he seems stuck in a ghetto all his own.

[NOTE: It has been suggested to me that I have incorrectly parsed the basic narrative of Promises, mistaking multiple women in the film for each other. I.e., that the dead woman at the beginning of the film is not Mallory the mortician. However, I am still fairly certain that much of the film occurs in flashback, or just that we see the ending moments first. I can't be sure, though. Hopefully one day, you'll get the chance to judge for yourself.]

*Comparisons to Tscherkassky and Apichatpong are not necessarily the most apposite ones I could have made here. But I was attempting to contextualize Promises in terms of other experimental work I saw at TIFF 2010.