Title: My Blueberry Nights
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Kar-Wai Wong
Screenwriters: Kar-Wai Wong, Lawrence Block
Starring: Norah Jones, Jude Law, Natalie Portman
My Blueberry Nights is a movie for those of us who have wanted to see Wong Kar Wai’s talents applied to storytelling rather than abstraction. By surrendering just a little bit to narrative convention (maybe a consequence of teaming up with mystery writer Lawrence Block to write the screenplay), Wong comes up with one of his best films: an incredibly gorgeous, memorable, affecting tone poem about our lives as stories and journeys. Of course, it’s not “conventional” in the least, but it provides several entry points and is instantly appealing. Maybe that’s another way of saying that it’s the least demanding of Wong’s works — so be it. Few films in 2008 have offered as many sumptuous pleasures.
The meat of the story is a cross-country journey of self-discovery for Elizabeth (musician Norah Jones making her acting debut), a young woman unmoored by the cruel infidelity of her boyfriend, whom we never see except for a brief glimpse in a second-floor window. The trip is bookended by a connection Elizabeth makes with a New York City café owner named Jeremy (Jude Law). She barrels into the café in a moment of distress, desperate to know if her boyfriend had been inside; upon learning that he had been eating with another woman, she gives Jeremy a set of keys to pass to him. Jeremy calms her down and offers her some blueberry pie and ice cream, which then becomes a nightly ritual. He makes a curious observation: you can reliably predict that at the end of every night, most of the desserts in his restaurant will be gone, but the blueberry pie will remain untouched. But there’s nothing wrong with the blueberry pie; it’s delicious (and, in the hands of Wong, absolutely beautiful). You can’t blame the pie, Jeremy tells Elizabeth, for people’s decisions to pick other desserts.
Perhaps inspired by this rumination on the inexplicability of the choices people make, or perhaps just not knowing what to do with herself, Elizabeth wanders off to Memphis, with a vague plan to work until she can buy a car. There, she gets involved in the lives of some folks significantly more troubled than she is, including a kind policeman (David Strathairn), who shows up in uniform to buy breakfast from the diner where Elizabeth waitresses during the day, and then in plainclothes to drink himself into oblivion across the street where she tends bar at night. His estranged wife is played by Rachel Weisz, looking better than she ever has; the first time we see her, strolling sinuously along the bar wearing a long black dress, I immediately flashed back to Maggie Cheung unforgettable slow-motion gait in In the Mood for Love.
Before long, Elizabeth is off to Las Vegas with a down-and-out poker player (Natalie Portman), all the while writing Jeremy postcards that leave no hint of how he might reach her. Increasingly desperate, he had begun phoning every bar and grill in Memphis asking for an Elizabeth. He doesn’t know what to do with the leftover blueberry pie.
This all sounds, I know, like a slightly perverted version of a conventionally sappy Hollywood romance. It actually plays more like a dark fairy tale. Wong again achieves the alluring, otherworldly mood he created in In the Mood for Love and 2046, except this time it’s more refined somehow, more closely linked with the romanticism and melancholy of the characters. Like most people, I found 2046 to be hypnotic, but in sort of a literal, trance-inducing sense; Wong’s images here wormed their way into my soul. Like all of his films, My Blueberry Nights takes place in a universe of Wong’s own creation, but this was the first time I felt immersed in that universe, rather than passively admiring it from my seat.
If I haven’t made it clear yet, this is an incomparably beautiful film. Slinking through diners, bars and casinos, Wong creates a veritable symphony of lights and reflections. Every shot is a work of art, and each one links with the next. It’s the most impressive display of world-creation via cinematography that I’ve ever seen. At one point late in the movie, there’s a plot point involving an impressive-looking Jaguar automobile, and I promise you’ve never seen a director shoot a car quite like this — he virtually caresses it. Most movie sex scenes can’t muster half the sensuality of the way Wong depicts that car.
The movie keeps track of Elizabeth’s trip with occasional title cards telling us how far away she is from New York City in both time and distance. It’s a neat encapsulation of the way the film conceives of our lives. They’re journeys, and fellow travelers tell us who we are. Sometimes you have to go off on your own, disappear, before you can come home and know that you can stay there. Sometimes you have to fall apart to move forward.