Don’t Believe the French Jeers and the Sex-Scene Hype—The Brown Bunny is a Tour de Force
Sometimes people react with laughter when confronted with something they don’t understand. How else to explain the derision directed at Vincent Gallo’s new film, The Brown Bunny, after its 2003 Cannes premiere? Gallo’s film, moving and daring in ways few American films ever are, has finally begun to trickle onto American art-house screens. And while hostile, threatened reviews have reduced screenings of The Brown Bunny to verbal brawls between perverts, die-hard cineastes, and rowdy revelers intent on treating the movie as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, it is not, as its detractors claim, boring, inept, or pornographic. On the contrary, its eventual status as a watershed moment in American film already feels assured.
The narrative admittedly offers little in the way of action, dialogue, or conventional character development for its first 75 minutes. Indeed, a good three quarters of the film submerges us in little else but grainy footage of motorcycle racer Bud (Gallo) driving cross-country in his van on his way to his next race, with occasional interruptions as Bud pumps gas or chats about rabbits with a pet-shop employee.
While the monotony of these sequences will elicit uncomfortable laughter from some viewers, others will instead notice how carefully Gallo has mounted an unconventionally ascetic character study. Bud’s interactions are so few that each one takes on a new significance. When he stops in a convenience store and begs the teenage girl working the counter to accompany him to California, our surprise that she acquiesces is only matched by our surprise when he then promptly drives away without her.
This caprice initially seems like simple evidence of a cruel streak, but instead it becomes the first clue illuminating a complex, wounded sadness. This mysterious inner turmoil finds its most poetic expression when Bud pulls in at a rest stop and wordlessly locks eyes with the world-weary Lilly (Cheryl Tiegs), who’s seated, morose and alone, at a picnic bench. Bud hesitates, and then sits down next to her. The two hug and moan for nearly five minutes—and then Bud abruptly leaves, still wearing a dire need for spiritual healing on his intense, bloodshot eyes.
Upon finally reaching California, Bud gets a motel visit from ex-girlfriend Daisy (Chloe Sevigny), whereupon an already notorious graphic sex scene transpires. But far from the gratuitous act that early reports made this scene out to be, in context it not only makes sense, but it becomes essential. Here, we finally learn all about Bud’s backstory, but we simultaneously realize that, thanks to Gallo’s craftsmanship, we’ve already absorbed much of the troubling emotional content of Bud and Daisy’s history together.
Far from inept, The Brown Bunny’s evocative Super 16 mm (blown up to 35 mm) visuals capture more heart and soul than nearly any digital-video feature thus far. Directors sometimes intercut 16 mm scenes into their films to suggest dreamlike memory—Gallo exploits this technique to create an entire film defiantly filled with shimmeringly beautiful dreams of the present. Visually, The Brown Bunny gives you the disorienting sense that you’ve stumbled upon found footage recalling how the American highway—and its motor vehicles, rest stops, and motels—looked back in 2004.
To suggest that this film’s lensing—often handheld, slightly under- or overexposed, and unconventionally framed—betrays any lack of professionalism is to profoundly underestimate Gallo, a notorious control freak who not only served as writer, director, and star of his impeccable debut feature, Buffalo ’66 (1998), but also designed its set and costumes, wrote and performed its music, and edited both the film and its trailer. The aesthetic choices in The Brown Bunny, while drastically different, are clearly just as detailed, calculated, and successful.
As for the charges that The Brown Bunny is somehow pornographic: In an age where anyone old enough to operate a mouse and lie about their age can view images depicting innumerable sexual pairings, positions, and acts, what incentive does society have in keeping frankly sexual acts out of feature films—particularly when, as in The Brown Bunny, it proves pivotal to a story? With this film, Gallo joins the company of French auteurs such as Catherine Breillat (Romance, Fat Girl) and Bruno Dumont (Life of Jesus, Humanité), whose films argue that no aspect of human life should be taboo in art.
It’s not inconceivable that film textbooks 10 years hence may compare the Bronx cheers that greeted Gallo (granted, presenting a substantially longer rough cut of this film) at Cannes with the initial pannings of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. At the risk of gratifying Gallo’s notoriously overstroked ego, this critical vindication would be both justified and overdue.