CANNES – If “masterpiece” is a word that critics should use with extreme caution — never more so than at film festivals, where snap judgments are unavoidable but inflexible — the same should probably go for the filmmakers under scrutiny. Naomi Kawase, the Japanese auteur arguably revered more by Cannes programmers than by anyone else, became a target of derision last week when she announced in an interview that her new film “Still the Water” is her “masterpiece,” and that her eyes are firmly fixed on the Palme d'Or.
Defenders pointed out the possessive qualifier she attached to the word: declaring a film one's own best work is different from branding it one for the ages. Either way, however, it was something probably best left unsaid — and with the turgidly precious “Still the Water” now out in the open, it's harder still to believe. Perhaps enough of Kawase's pet concerns — the tension between man and nature, the endurance of cultural ritual, the spiritual ties that bind drifting communities — are gathered here to mark the new film as typical, but not especially advanced; from its murky digital veneer to its half-formed character network, “Still the Water” is more naïve than it is imperious.
Which isn't entirely a bad thing. At its most beguiling, “Still the Water” conjures brief, witchy spells, as Kawase's ecstatic world view crystallizes into vivid imagery: nude young lovers inspecting the ocean's undergrowth like mermaids, sagely tangled expanses of mangrove, or an aerial view of the Amami Oshima island, its verdant broccoli surface shimmering and pulsing in the dawn light like a single organism. This may only be half a compliment, but Kawase's filmmaking is richest when it's most woozily idealistic. It's when she strains for meaning, for circle-of-life conflict, that the film palls: including two extended scenes of a goat having its throat slit and drained is over-generous at best, and sadistic at worst.
At either extreme, the film's engagement with the natural world is more arresting than its opaque human narrative. Near the beginning, the discovery of an unknown man's yakuza-tattooed corpse in the surf promises a mystic existential thriller of sorts, but that's a red (or perhaps an azure-blue) herring for the mild, youth-centered story of self-discovery and self-healing to follow.
Centering on the uncertain romance between teenagers Kaito (Nijiri Murikama) and Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga) — who roam the isle's deserted wilds with the porousness of Adam and Eve — the film treats the young lovers as little more than vessels of impermanent purity. Corruption is already afoot, since Kyoko's mother (Miyuka Matsuda) is dying; she doesn't fear death, she says, because “as a shaman, I'm on the threshold between the gods and the humans.” (Kawase's people are fond of speaking in such formal homilies.) In her position, I might fear death more, pre-empted as it is here by alarmingly discordant folk singalongs intended to guide the spirit on its way. “Shall we dance all six verses?” Kyoko asks; We are given no time to refuse.
There's soapier, more secondary human business afoot, too, much of it hard to disentangle from the flat tonal mesas of Kawase's storytelling and direction, the shapelessness of the film's substantial improv work and the washed-out consistency of the image — “Still the Water” frequently serves us lovely things to look at, but rarely in the best light. At a push, you could say the regularity of the film's visual and emotional rhythms — even the coastal hum of its sound design — are in line with the persistence of time and mortality, but that'd be one of several self-evident banalities that “Still the Water” goes to po-faced lengths to prove. Still waters, it needs to be said, don't always run deep.