For Slow Criticism 2012, Eugenio Renzi checked in from Rome to examine the American debut feature An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. "Writing this short note about the film has been one of the hardest (also most interesting) things that occurred in this critic’s life. The reader will understand why at the very end."
You are a film critic. She is a filmmaker. You have known each other since you’ve worked as an actor on one of her films, during the summer of 2011. Supposedly, you are mutually in love. You propose to her to spend a holiday in Rome. She accepts. You arrive before her, and stay a few days with your Italian family. She will come later.
So you are waiting. The days are long. You try to distract your mind by working a little. The Rotterdam film festival send you a link to a stream of a movie selected for the 2012 edition: An Oversimplification of Her Beauty directed by Terence Nance. You have to write a review of it. It is an idea of Dana. Dana has a lot of ideas. You like both, Dana and her ideas. So you will try to do the job. Are you supposed to write it in English, that you barely speak? You don’t now. You forget to ask.
At the beginning, you don’t like very much Nance’s film. You should say that you don’t like, in general, this kind of film. What kind? New York kind: intimist, analytical, arty kind of film. All your experience as a French critic says to you: do not trust this. Especially if it is good, if the voice-over is well written (it is), if the image is powerful (it is), if the graphic is intelligent (yes, it is): you should stay away. Hawks would never do such a thing.
But. First, you are no more in the Cahiers du Cinéma. Second, you are getting old. You don’t really believe in critical dogmas any more as much as you (fanatically) used to.
So, in fact, you like the film. The style, the characters, the story. You appreciate the way the same short story line stands up for 88 minutes in front of you like a simple and devastating anatomy of a relationship.
You could say that the story of the film is like a Hitchcock dream: a guy loves a girl. But this is not a Hollywood movie. This is a NYer kind movie. In NY cinema, feelings are straight actions. Actions that you can show in a theater. So, here is the action: the guy comes back home. He has a rendezvous with the girl he is in love with. He just settles down, he discovers that he has a missed call on his phone from her. Of course, he calls her back. She says that she has just arrived home and she will not able to come to his place as planned. At this point, a voice-over asks directly to you audience: if you were this guy, how would you feel?
You think that it’s a pretty good question. But also the kind of question the cinema you love does not ask. You remember an affair of Cary Grant that ends at the top of the Empire State Building. Leo MacCarey has taken you on a long trip across the ocean before bringing you up to this building, so you can finally feel like Cary Grant feels, waiting for his "her", who would not come to the appointment. But MacCarey does not ask you to feel this way. Nor tries to explain you how you should feel. But he knows you do. That’s why he is a genius.
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty does ask. Which is much more a literary then a cinematographic way of expressing things. Which is why you do not feel entirely comfortable with it. You will see the main scene, the telephone scene, many times during the movie. Each time, the director brings you there, to the question "how would you feel", from a different perspective. It reminds you of a Queneau book (based on a Kojève interpretation of Hegel’s Logic): Exercises in Style, a collection of 99 retellings of the same story, each in a different style. The point of Queneau is to transcend ordinary existence, and get some kind of totality, by an oversimplification of the existence itself (one atomic fact). Here we are talking about love. The big issue. You could not say if the film succeeds in surrounding this archetypal romance experience and look it over from all the possible points of view. For sure, you are impressed by a scene. It’s an animation. The hero is in front of the girl he loves. Suddenly, as Alice in Wonderland, he starts to get smaller. Soon the girl looks like a giant. Then another girl comes and starts to grow until she becomes as big as the first girl. You find this representation of how people feel each other very realistic. A is in love with B. So in A’s eyes B occupies a big space. Then A stops loving B and falls for C. B becomes very small. She doesn’t quite exist any more. C takes all the place. It’s exactly like that. And you know it. But you have never seen it on a screen before.
So, there are indeed some powerful scenes in the film. But you still feel that there is something artificial, intellectual at the core of it. You do not really know how you would feel if you were the guy, coming home, finding the missed call of the girl that has an appointment with him, calling her back, and discovering that finally she won’t come.
Then you stop thinking. You are in Rome. You are waiting for your girlfriend. She has a flight from Paris in the evening. You look at your phone. There is a missed call from her. Of course, you call her back. She said that she just arrived home. She will not come to Rome.