2000 // Japan // Takashi Miike // May 24, 2011 // Netflix Instant
Audition cries out for a "cold screening": I would love to find a friend who has never even heard of Takashi Miike and sit them down for a viewing without revealing a thing about the film they were about to watch. Of course, depending on the disposition of the person in question, our friendship might not survive the evening intact. Despite the film's reputation for a sudden, third-act U-turn into wrenching horror, Miike actually tips his hand quite early, revealing in cutaway scenes that the former ballerina and aspiring actress Asami (Eihi Shiina) is more than a little touched, as they say. When she finally pulls out the needles and wire saw, it doesn't elicit stupefying shock, but squirming revulsion at what is plainly about to unfold: a vivid lesson in the depths of this woman's fractured and sadistic psyche. The gore that follows is unsettling, to say the least, but not half as disturbing as Asami's expression of utter glee as she slices into her lover's flesh and bone. She enthuses over her gruesome work the way a schoolgirl might over a new Hello Kitty sticker book.
Audition is in part a scathing riff on the treatment of sex and gender in Japanese culture, although, not being Japanese, I'm fairly confident that some of the film's nuances sail over my head. However, it's abundantly clear that what Miike is attempting is far more ambitious than merely carrying the psycho girlfriend thriller epitomized by Fatal Attraction to its nihilistic endpoint. The film's style signals as much, as Miike frequently interrupts the main narrative with unhurried flashbacks that expand on previously presented scenes, and with fever-dreams that reveal back story and off-screen events. It's surprisingly elliptical and unsettled, especially in its final forty minutes or so, which has apparently led to wildly differing interpretations as to what "actually" happens. My reaction is the same sense of awed revulsion I experienced when I first encountered the film years ago, enhanced with a bit more admiration for Miike's approach. Remarkably, the majority of the film consists of just pairs of characters in conversation, which is a gratifyingly lean way to advance the story in an ostensible horror film. Much of the dialog seems anodyne at first, but it artfully reveals the witch's brew of suffering, entitlement, contempt, and self-deception that runs through the story and, by extension, through all manner of real-world romantic and sexual kabuki.