The Cell

THE CELL. 2000

Director: Tarsem Singh

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Vincent D'Onofrio plays a serial killer in a coma, & Jennifer Lopez plays a psychologist who uses a new technology to enter the dreamworld of the monster to find out where he stashed his final captive. Because dreams don't require plots, the bulk of what proceeds is primarily imagist. It's often profoundly beautiful, but also somewhat like an ornate box built too shallow to put anything in it.

The CellI saw The Cell in the theater when new & since it was such a visual thing, it was great to see it on a big screen, & too bad that for all time to come it is going to be a small-screen item. When I noticed it was on free-tv, I didn't watch it again as if I ever do decide to see it a second time (and eventually I probably will), it will be on DVD, not on the telly with commercial interuptions & the grosser bits excised. But seeing that it was on & watching anew a couple five-minute fragments for the heck of it, I was quickly reminded how much I liked it on the big screen, & as I ponder it now, it's surprising how much of it can be drawn back to memory.

Jennifer was so beautiful in the amazing array of costumes designed by Eiko Ishioka that this film made me start watching everything she was in for a while. But I guess I was just impressed by the costumes cuz hooboy can she not act, so I soon enough stopped watching things just cuz she was in them.

But The Cell brings her across as America's #1 Odelisk. I could see Jennifer's appeal as I never could in the music videos wherein the music was over-produced & boring, & her dancing hard though she works at it is clumsy & second-rate. Even so, she's one of the most beautiful physical presences imaginable, & at no time in The Cell does she seem like the bad actor she usually is. She did a good job in this, perhaps because it required her primarily to be that physical presence rather than deliver convincing dialogue or convey emotional states. She just had to be fantastically pretty posing in a parade of supernaturally bizarre environments.

Vincent D'Onofrio of course is a brilliant actor. I watch every film he's in & he almost never fails to be appealing, whether a good buy or a bad guy, & if I had not loved him before he played Robert E. Howard so well in The Whole Wide World (1996), who could not love his work after that.

But The cell is all stylish design & didn't seriously give Vincent a chance to perform as super-psycho or otherwise prove his might as an actor. Not having to stretch as an actor helped Jennifer look better than usual, but it made Vincent comparatively faded, considering what an extreme monster he was playing, he had no chance to be either a hammy Anthony Hopkins a la Hannibal (2001) or a subtle Ralph Fienes a la Spider (2002). Just like Jen's character, he had to be merely a presence inside a series of art-images.

As such, he did swell. There are memorable shots of him as towering evil where with body language makes himself scary, then flashes of momentary squashed sensitivity that did require something more than merely the physical. So I didn't mind that it was not so much an actorly opportunity for him, as it was a chance for him to be part of the paintings-in-motion.

Another thing that stays in mind was a Ýseries of macabre tableaus in ill-lit boxes, reminiscent of the environments for the weird short films of the Brothers Quay, but much grosser. Those constructed tableaus were not in one of the dreamscapes; rather, the detective found them in the actual world. I was thinking that that was an art exhibition I'd love to go see.

The crew responsible for various elements of the design are the real geniuses behind this film, as it is entirely the art, not the actors: art direction by Michael Manson, set decorator Tessa Posnansky, an extensive art department, all unsung heroes. Quite a while back I read an interview with Eiko Ishioka, the Japanese woman who did the costumes; she was a little bit eccentric & a whole lot talented. I bet every artist involved in each aspect of the designs would have something interesting to say about the role of art in cinema.

Because "anything can happen" in dreams & the best bits of the film take place in dreams, it was not a good film due to the plot. It was carried along exclusively on the artistic power of the dreamscapes themselves. It worked & didn't seem to require more. The "real world" of the catatonic psychopath's last victim & the detetectiving attempt to find her while she was still alive was comparatively not interesting. The "real" mystery could've been a good psycho mystery tale in its own right, but that potential was totally overwhelmed by the hallucinatory adventures through mind-scapes.

The "psychology 101" bits which revealed about "what causes a psychopath" were by & large trivial; it remained always the imagery itself, not the story-content or pat psychological revelations, that made this a strong film.

When Jennifer's character moved Vincent's character into her dreamscapes & out of his own hallucinatory world of horror, I thought that was strong stuff, & again the artistic vision of the designers of this film worked to its great favor, as the self-image(s) & vistas of the healthy ego (Jen's) were so distinct from the violent horrors of the psychotic. And it isn't inherently as easy to make healthiness seem fabulous; even classical religious painters always made personifications of Vices sexy & interesting, with personifications of Virgues cookie-cutter dullards. But The Cell managed to find visual power in the Good & the Bad.

Overall this film exaggeratedly stretched the importance of the visuals of cinematic art to the nth degree so that story & dialogue & everything else that goes into a film became extremely unimportant. Ordinarily I wouldn't think that would work -- it'd be too much like those Philip Glass boring films of pretty images & putrid new age music, butt-achingly tedious crapola for wont of a thread of a story. But somehow The Cell manages to build a lot of tension & suspense by visuals primarily. It succeeded in making State of Mind (his unhealthy, hers healthy) actually suspenseful.

copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl

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