Re: 2x2 (avec mon mari)
Rating: **** (note: four stars is Premiere's highest rating)
Japanese cinema, it can be safely said, isn't known for talky sophisticated romantic dramas. French cinema is, however -- one name that comes to mind is Eric Rohmer. Thus the title of Kentaro Otani's feature debut, "2x2 (avec mon mari)," makes eminent sense.
This film about a sexual quadrangle that threatens two relationships displays an ironic intelligence and a dialogue-filled structure that is more Left Bank than East Shinjuku. It is a 95-minute illustration of the French proverb that, in any love affair, there is one who kisses -- and one who offers the cheek. Laboring five years to bring "2x2 (avec mon mari)" to the screen, Otani has injected a richness of observation and shapeliness of form into his script that rarely intrudes into the natural-seeming flow of the characters' talk.
This is a film that the audience watches with a smile of complicity and anticipation on its face, feeling as though it have been taken into the director's confidence and waiting to savor the next drolly understated comic bit. So many movies talk down -- "Avec" includes us in the conversation as equals. It's a nice feeling.
I may be giving the impression that the film is a sleek, polished entertainment. Not really. Shot in 16 mm on a zero budget with only the four principals in most of the scenes -- "Avec" has the look of a typical bare-bones indie production.
But working with cinematographer Kazuhiro Suzuki, Otani keeps the many long scenes from degenerating into static stage drama, without resorting to the flashy busyness that many younger directors consider proof of their cinematic cool. For long periods, I was hardly aware of the camera at all -- a sign that Otani has his priorities straight.
For the focus of the film is not on its sexy visuals, but its relationships, in all their farcical and familiar twists and turns, as they move toward a denouement that may hold surprises and contain implausibilities, but feels, in all its essentials, exactly right.
The story begins with the break up of the three-year marriage of Tamotsu (Hirofumi Kobayashi), a freelance photographer, and Mitsuko (Yuka Ihaya), an editor for a glossy women's magazine. Mitsuko is convinced that Tamotsu is cheating on her with Mayu (Kaori Tsuji) -- a pouty little minx who works as a model and happens to be the main squeeze of her boss, a middle-aged art director named Nakazaki (Ren Osugi).
Tamotsu, who has played the stay-at-home wife in this relationship - he is an enthusiastic cook and a deft hand with a needle and thread - pleads that Mayu is merely a friend and confidant. Mitsuko has been so busy with her work that he felt, well, lonely. This complaint cuts no ice with Mitsuko -- she gives him the heave-ho. Tamotsu moves into Mayu's place, but keeps their sleeping arrangements separate.
Though professing not to mind Mayu's new roommate, Nakazaki is worried that he may be getting more than a sympathetic ear. He decides to bring the separated couple back together by inviting them both to his villa in Kamakura. This attempt at re-matchmaking backfires, however, when Mayu makes an unexpected entrance. Suddenly, all bets are off, especially when Mayu declares that she likes Tamotsu -- and not only as a friend - and Mitsuko reveals similar feelings for Nakazaki.
The performances, polished in rehearsal before the start of shooting, are generally excellent. A fashion model making her first screen appearance, Yuka Itaya is particularly good as the acerbic Mitsuko. By the end she has convinced us that all of poor Tamotsu's trials and tribulations were worth it. Kaori Tsuji is also engaging as the sly, slinky, but disconcertingly honest Mayu. She supplies most of the erotic steam that drives the narrative forward. Playing the two hapless men, Hirofumi Kobayashi and Ren Osugi provide most of the comedy. The usually reliable Osugi clowns a bit too strenuously as the sexually insecure older man, but not enough to damage the film - the best and the truest examination of the power balance between the sexes that I have seen all year.