Film / Reviews

‘Still Life of Memories’: An erotic drama that perpetuates the male gaze

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Beginning in the early 1960s, pinku eiga (literally, “pink films,” a tag for softcore pornography) challenged film industry taboos by showing simulated sex and bare female breasts. To avoid the censors’ scissors, filmmakers had to hide forbidden areas by using creative camera angles and discreetly placed vases.

The censors loosened up a bit in the ’90s. Jacques Rivette’s erotic-themed drama “La Belle Noiseuse” (1991) screened here without pixelating any part of Emmanuelle Beart, who played a nude model to Michel Piccoli’s obsessed artist.

With “Still Life of Memories,” the latest film by indie veteran Hitoshi Yazaki, the censors have seemingly tossed the scissors aside. Inspired by the work of French artist Henri Maccheroni, the film celebrates female genitalia in both dreamy images and explicit photos.

But this film, which zooms in far closer than the middle-distance shots of Ms. Beart’s pubic hair in “La Belle Noiseuse,” is open to criticism from another front: It privileges the heterosexual male gaze.

Still Life of Memories
Rating
Run Time 107 mins.
Language JAPANESE

Between 1969 and 1974 Maccheroni took photographs of one woman’s vagina for an exhibition titled “2,000 Photos of the Sex of a Woman” that, if done today, would likely receive social media backlash. Yazaki’s film, with its similar subject matter, thus defies contemporary currents, though it turns the usual artist-model power dynamic on its patriarchal head.

Rei (Natsuko Haru), a photography museum curator, becomes fascinated with the black-and-white nature photos of the moody Haruma Suzuki (Masanobu Ando) at a gallery exhibition. She commissions him for a private project on two conditions: He asks no questions and gives her the negatives. Though puzzled by the secrecy, he agrees.

In a lonely villa up in the mountains, Rei reveals his subject: Her (unseen by the audience) vagina. As she sits on a chair, legs parted, Haruma silently goes to work.

Rei, with her strict-librarian air, keeps her distance from Haruma, while the film reveals her motives more in enigmatic hints than obvious explanations. Watching her mother dying in a hospital, Rei realizes that human life is finite, and the photographs, she tells Haruma, “capture my time.” But why the specific focus on her privates?

Then Haruma’s lover, Natsuki (Rima Matsuda), becomes pregnant — and suspicious of his frequent absences. Haruma is taking a deeper professional interest in the project, but as Rei’s inhibitions fall away, passion rears its head.

Throughout this story Yakazi interweaves images suggesting the feminine in nature, architecture and art. Circular ripples spread out on a still pond, characters walk down spiral staircases. Alone in the woods, Natsuki executes perfectly circular back walkovers with a dancer’s grace.

And Haruma’s photos of Rei, we finally see, have their origins in his gallery photos of flowers and other natural phenomena. In the film’s grand scheme, they express the female principle: Woman as nature and life force. Titillation is nil.

But similar to Maccheroni’s long-ago exhibition, “Still Life of Memories” illuminates nature’s infinity of expression while obliterating its subject’s individual humanity (if by her own design). Call it enlightening, disturbing and, like all unshared manias, exhausting.

Sigmund Freud once reportedly told a symbol-seeking questioner that “Sometimes, a pipe is just a pipe.” And sometimes, I’d like to add to Yazaki, a flower is just a flower.