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Daft Punk's wordless ode to robot 'heroes.'

By Dorothy Woodend 11 Jan 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend reviews films regularly for The Tyee.

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Do they turn you on?

What do robots really want? To be human it seems, according to Daft Punk's Electroma, a new film from the French electro music pioneers.

The story of Electroma is simplicity itself. Two robots (called heroes #1 and #2) dressed in black leather biker boy ensembles (designed by Hedi Slimane for Dior Homme) get in a black 1987 Ferrari 412 and drive to a nearby town. Their license plate says human, and that's apparently what they're after. But on every street only robots exist. Everywhere the townspeople are going about their daily lives -- getting married, eating ice cream cones, and mowing their lawns, each with a sleek silver helmet where their faces should be.

It's the American dream with a metal twist. At a nondescript building on the edge of town, the duo pulls over and enters a white laboratory where invisible technicians sculpt each a giant latex face. These faces look suspiciously French, however, which may explain why the locals hound our heroes out of town. Like so many musicians before them (Jim Morrison et al), they take to the desert, trudging off into the endless empty wasteland.

"What the hell?" you might well ask. But despite the clichés, the overblown music, the sweeping cinematography, and a number of very identifiable film references, the film succeeds in making an impression. It is strangely affecting, all the more so, for the very overt-ness of its techniques. So, yes "What the hell, indeed?" How did they do it? Really, it ought to have been a big wank, but instead it comes damn close to art.

Masked men

It probably helps that the men behind the masks, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, had some impressive friends to call about including directors Spike Jonze and Michael Gondry, both of whom directed videos for the band. If you don't know anything about Daft Punk, that's okay, I don't know much about them either, other than the fact that they perform in robot costumes, and create music videos of startling originality.

While Electroma is the first film from Daft Punk's production company Daft Arts, the band has been working its way up to a feature film for a while. Their music video Technologic, directed by Bangalter and de Homem-Christo themselves, captured an MVPA nomination for Best Electronic Music Video. They were also featured, in animated form in Leiji Matsumoto's anime film Interstella 5555, as well as writing and producing the film's soundtrack. So the Daft Punks had dipped their toes into the cinematic waters even before Electroma's premiere at Cannes last spring. Despite the fact that critics supposedly fled in droves, the film has gone on to garner something of a cult following, touring the world, and screening at one theatre in Paris every Saturday night.

It's probably better if you don't know that much about Electroma before seeing it, but the one thing you should do is see it in the theatre. This is a film that needs the big screen, not only for the scope and clarity of its imagery, but because so much of the story is told entirely through film language.

Silent film

There is not a single spoken line of dialogue in the film, rather, the exposition such as it is, is communicated through the shot structure. Each shot, whether it's a wide-angle of an enormous desert vista or an extreme close up of melting latex, carries meaning. In its own way Electroma is rather classical in its construction and this type of purity reads beautifully on the big screen. But the film is more than the sum of its parts -- shots, music and story. From the opening images of sandstone cliffs worn into the semblance of human shapes to a bravura moment in a gas station bathroom, the film manages to pack in emotion where you least expect it -- the tilt of a robot's head, the slow trudge of booted heels into an unending desert landscape. It is often startlingly beautiful. Keep your eyes peeled for an especially ravishing shot of sand dunes, sculpted and smooth as human flesh that suddenly melts into the shape of an enormous pudendum. It sounds corny, and indeed it is, but in spite of that, or maybe because of that, it succeeds.

The other thing that is most striking about Electroma is how much film can say without speaking a word. Band member Thomas Bangalter, who functioned as the cinematographer for Electroma, supposedly read over 200 back issues of American Cinematographer prior to shooting. (The film might find a future home in film making seminars about how to develop a story entirely through shot structure). This level of obsessiveness shows in the attention to detail, as well as certain underlying boyish enthusiasm. One gets the sense that the pair has wanted to make something akin to their earliest movie-going experiences for quite some time.

The film references are obvious -- Gus Van Sant, '70s highway fatalism films like Vanishing Point, Antonioni's multiple-angled explosions in Zabriskie Point, even, according to an interview Daft Punk gave to the Guardian, The Phantom of Paradise, Brian De Palma's 1974 insane opus starring Paul Williams. Electroma wears its influences on its black leather sleeve, but such naked movie fandom somehow adds to the film's appeal.

Robots that turn you on?

It's perhaps more than a little ironic that Daft Punk, who make electronic music and dress up as robots, would make a film so deeply concerned with humanism. But in this Electroma follows the long established tradition of robots seeking humanity. Although, if David Levy, author of Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships is to be believed, the opposite may soon be true. Mr. Levy, recently interviewed on CBC radio, proposed a new sexual future with the advent of robot sex dolls that respond to their owners' every desire. Technology does strange things to us, and even stranger things to how we see the world.

It's fitting that David Lynch's pronouncement about watching movies on your iPhone had the Internet buzzing this week. The medium is still occasionally part of the message and nowhere is this more evident than in a film like Electroma. After watching a multitude of You Tube videos of Daft Punk in concert (most of them taken by cell phone), Lynch's words hit home. Music can't be experienced through the pinprick of a cell phone screen, all you get is the shadow of the thing, a concert must be heard, seen and felt live. So too, sex with a robot doll isn't quite the same thing as real live squishy human. Film also needs to be experienced, witnessed in cavernous space, with enormous images and sound that fills your head and your guts.

If you feel a rant about kids these days with their iPhones, their Internet, their solipsism, their isolation, etcetera coming on, don't worry. It's been said so many times, it's lost all meaning, and I won't reiterate what Mr. Lynch says so succinctly. Still, it must be stated that slicing up films into tiny bits and bytes takes away something integral and profound and replaces it with smallness. The relationship of scale can't help but affect the way you see a film. On a handheld device, you the human have the power, you can turn it off and stick it in your pocket if you so desire. But when the film is 50 feet high, the power shifts, the film can have its way with you, your only escape is out the exit door.

One of the most charming things about Electroma is that in some ways it is a throwback to an earlier era of film making and film going, hence its cult status, which is really a form of loyalty. So take crazy Dave Lynch's advice and go see the film in the f-cking theatre. Electroma screens at the Vancity Theatre, Jan. 11-12th, 9:30 p.m and 11 p.m.

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