In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love ★★★★★

A movie about memory, and about clothes and food and cigarettes and Nat King Cole records, all of which play their part in a story not only of lost love, but of an ancient empire in which love collapsed in on itself in a quiet apocalypse. In his attention to minutiae, Wong realizes the aesthetic ambitions of the 1920s film theorist and filmmaker Jean Epstein, the prophet of photogénie, the fetishistic obsession with photographic detail and arrested gesture. In its attempt to seize and caress a slice of time, photogénie was a deeply nostalgic idea, and it was a very modern nostalgia for the cataclysmic events of last Sunday morning. Epstein fantasized about a kind of movie where all forward momentum ceased, leaving us with the rapturous stillness of majestic movie mysteries like Louise Brooks laying about in her black peignoir, with a cigarette holder dangling from her right hand, on a hot summer evening that plays out in an endless loop. In In the Mood for Love, Wong gives us the image of Maggie Cheung gliding through the neverending Hong Kong nights in a gorgeous flower print dress that hugs tightly around her hips as she sashays across a frame in a duration of movement that fills out a reel of film. The resulting tension between stasis and movement evokes the poignancy of people moving back and forth across space and memory without ever being able to get to where their desires direct them.

In the Mood for Love tells a familiar story of infidelity and regret, the stuff of Douglas Sirk movies and Arthur Schnitzler dramas, as a married man and a married woman embark on a brief near-affair that goes nowhere and everywhere. Of course, a mere catalog of the film's events reveals less than nothing. Wong has a pop artist's fetishistic eye for the fashions and ephemera of a lost age, and more than anything else his movie is an act of mourning for the last moment in the history of the world when beautiful men wore designer suits while standing on rainy urban streets in the middle of the night.

The extensive use of slow motion and discontinuity editing arrest the sexual energy between Leung and Cheung, so that everything unfolds in the past tense. The love affair and the world that contains it is an advanced state of erotic decay. The movie swoons over a kingdom of spirits. Wong captures a world characterized by a sense of formality and moral rigidity that is attractive only because it is deeply dead. After all, despair suffuses the movie, since the rituals it eulogizes constrain the possibilities of desire, and like the late Victorian world that so moved and horrified Edith Wharton, the world Wong memorializes is dangerous. It's only as a phantom flickering out of living memory that it becomes beautiful.