Our rating: 2 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
I once read a novel by Linda Chaiken about a silk plantation, and ever since have been fascinated with the exotic art of making silk. Naturally, the movie's name caught my attention as well as the overall plot, and while the protagonists' lives do center around silk, it was a much different kind of film than I anticipated.
Just out of the military and looking forward to starting a life with the beautiful Hélène (Keira Knightley), Hervé Joncour (Michael Pitt) never anticipates the adventures he will set out on. Recruited into working for a local entrepreneur (Alfred Molina), he is sent on a mission to Japan to obtain the precious and rare eggs of silkworms and import them back to France. This private trade is outlawed by the Japanese government, and he risks his life in the journey, finding the people of Japan strange and beautiful, but distant and suspicious of newcomers. The one person who captivates him with her quiet presence is a geisha. He does not know her name or where she lives, only that she belongs to the tradesman who provides him with the eggs.
Miraculously, the eggs survive the many months it takes him to return to France, and the profit of the silk mills makes all of them wealthy. He is able to purchase Hélène the house and garden she so desires, but still his thoughts are with the geisha. Returning to Japan time and time again, Joncour is transfixed with her beauty and devastated when civil war tears the country apart. If there is one thing to be said about the film, it is that it is so beautifully photographed that it often looks like a painting. Shots of Hélène in the wood as she plans her garden are contrasted with the rugged beauty of Japan, and the stark, cold winters of Russia. Unfortunately, that is where my praise of the film must end for although Jancour does come to realize that his infatuation with this woman is inappropriate, it is long after he has already harmed his relationship with his wife. I could forgive that, as Hélène is amazingly understanding and forgiving, except that the film chooses to employ female nudity in ways that were unnecessary.
Some of it is discreet, such as Hélène and Joncour embracing after his long awaited return, but most of it is graphic and blatant. I do not mind seeing a married couple kiss and caress lovingly in bed, but she does not have to be topless while doing it. A scene where the geisha brings another woman to Jancour for sex is completely out of place and inappropriate. It literally leaves no part of her body to the imagination, and it made me angry with him that he did not even resist. There is also a brief but graphic sex scene between him and his wife that implies she is in pain. We also get to see the geisha topless as she bathes in a hot stream. Even with the distracting content there was something haunting about the film, mainly due to a twist in the second half that reveals something very poignant about Hélène. I cannot recommend it because of its faults, and also the fact that it is ultimately forgettable in its own obscurity -- I never quite knew what the filmmakers were attempting to tell us, and it moves at a measured but ultimately slow pace. I did like what a wonderful woman Hélène turned out to be, although it pained me to see him treat her with so much disrespect. In many ways, the film feels like a torn piece of silk -- smooth and beautiful, but damaged by sheer carelessness.