Lips. The one thing I kept thinking about while watching Mathew Parkhill's debut comedy-cum-thriller Dot the I, was lips. The reasons were quite obvious. The stars of the film, Gael García Bernal (Bad Education) and sultry Natalia Verbeke (Life: A User's Manual), both have extraordinary ones. Bernal in particular has lips that can only be described as Kinski-ian in their curl. And that's fitting because he has mentioned in interviews that the oft times rabidly deranged Klaus Kinski, who's autobiography I Need Love was an outrageously raw memoir of out-and-out insanity, as an inspiration. Verbeke's lips aren't as weirdly fascinating as Bernal's, though they are sexy, out J. Lo-ing J. Lo.
My focus on the lips wasn't by chance, Parkhill actually opens and practically closes the film with zoomed shots of the lead's puckers. In Dot the I, the camera follows lips and eyes almost reverentially. It's as though Parkhill believes he can capture the soul of his actors in close-up shots of their faces. It's telling because despite the pretension of depth, the film is quite superficial, with an odd, almost off, affectation. Parkhill wants to tell us an engaging, deliriously snappy story but he loses us with half-baked dialogue and patchwork style.
The plot is your traditional love triangle. Carmen (Natalia Verbeke) is to marry dapper Barnaby (the crisp James D'Arcy, Master and Commander) when she meets, and kisses, Kit (Gael García Bernal) at her bachelorette party. Apparently, it's a French tradition for the bride to be to kiss a man on her "hen's night." Things turn from awkward to downright uncomfortable when their kiss goes on far too long. Soon, Kit is pursuing Carmen - with his ever-ready video camera - and Carmen is as confused as she can be. Does she want to marry rich but stuffy Barnaby, or does she want to run off with the wild and sexy Kit?
This sounds like the film is heading down that old trump path of romantic comedy but it's not. Things really aren't what they seem. First of all, every move both Carmen and Kit make is being filmed by some heavy-breathing stalker. Then there's Carmen's mysterious past and the long, ghastly scar on her arm.
I don't think it's unfair to tell you that there is a twist. And it's a doozy, one of the top four or five most outlandish and spectacular twists I've seen. Up until the twist the film seems an odd mishmash of romantic comedy clichés and menacing stalking shots. When the twist comes it's novel, novel enough that you forgive the first half's clumsy structure. But then Parkhill, who also wrote the screenplay, decides to throw on another twist, and then another and another until we simply give up caring. In fact, the film becomes entirely meta-fictional (a post-modern technique that involves bringing the audience into the work) and I simply gave up caring.
Bernal is good, though he doesn't display any of the charm and passion that garnered him such fantastic press for The Motorcycle Diaries. Verbeke is believable, she's sexy and she plays a fine "Betty Blue" to Bernal's simple character. (Parkhill references Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1986 film -- Betty Blue in the U.K. and the states, 37°2 le matin elsewhere -- throughout the film. Verbeke has the pouty, crazy look that made Béatrice Dalle, star of Betty Blue, a sensation.)
Parkhill knows what he wants to achieve with Dot the I: He wants to make a clever, hip thriller/cult film, and in some ways he succeeds. His script is inventive, and he's got a good eye for colors. But Parkhill suffers significantly from Ritchieitis - a malady that seems to have infected every young British filmmaker since the release of Guy Ritchie's kinetic Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. Parkhill throws in out-of-place sped-up black-and-white sequences detailing the history of his characters that not only feel forced but are also badly done. And let's not even get into the embarrassing sequence when Kit and Carmen go to a hotel and start whipping up a storm of mayhem, in a painfully Macaulay Culkin sort of way, to the piercing sounds of teenybopper punk. Who did Parkhill think was coming to see this film?
Dot the I may have an unexpected and ridiculous twist but it quickly squanders any delight it may have brought its mildly amused audience. While the film's young and engaging cast will go on to bigger and better things, Dot the I will remain a diverting and stylish curiosity piece for the video store trolls browsing for a tantalizing Saturday night fix.