Another day, another James Franco art project.
On Wednesday, Vice Media posted the multi-hyphenate renaissance man’s impressionistic 15-minute film “La Passione” to its website (see below). Presented by Gucci -- the global luxury conglomerate for which Franco hawks fragrances and clothing -- to inaugurate a new store in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the experimental Fleurette depicts beautiful people doing odd and provocative things amid a pervading atmosphere of exquisite melancholy, backdropped by swells of violin and trip-hop beats.
In short, nothing too unexpected from Hollywood’s favorite grad student, a provocateur whose growing list of performance art pieces and extracurricular film projects amounts to a kind of social experiment -- Francophrenia -- that serves to test boundaries of cultural ubiquity and modern movie stardom.
Riffing on Danish filmmaker Carl Theodore Dreyer’s landmark 1928 silent movie “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “La Passione” could hardly be more different from Franco’s most recent film appearance in the stoner comedy hit “This Is the End" -- even though both movies find the actor-director-writer playing a heightened version of himself.
In “This Is the End,” Franco’s an indulgent Artiste partying in his Pablo Escobar-esque modernist mansion when the apocalypse arrives. In “La Passione,” he portrays a Gucci ad version of himself -- albeit getting seemingly whipped by a freaky dude wearing bondage gear and butt-less chaps.
Intended as a meta-narrative meditation on physical transcendence, “La Passione” spotlights how “the ideal can only exist on the higher planes of digital construction -- within videos, photographs, or online, in general,” as Franco explains in another Vice posting on the short.
Which only goes not very far toward explaining the film’s offbeat, non-narrative action.
“La Passione” begins with star Natalia Bonifacci (cloaked in a plunging Gucci gown) receiving a kind of benefaction at a weird cocktail party full of Euro model hipsters and shirtless men with ink squiggles on their pecs. Franco shows up, looking suave in a black tux, and is shown bro-ing down with Sidney and Thurman Sewell -- a.k.a. the ATL Twins from Franco’s artsploitation hit “Spring Breakers” -- before going on to shake his groove thang with a bevy of beauties to the total exclusion and apparent aggravation of Bonifacci’s character.
But things come to a head when she starts canoodling with another tuxedoed Euro mack; the ATL Twins swoop in at Franco’s behest to issue the unsuspecting man a beatdown. And with that sudden act of violence, the film’s imagery becomes even more baroque -- something like the orgy scene from Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” on LSD.
Franco closes in on Bonifacci for a parting kiss. Then out come the trip-hop beats and the butt-less chaps man. Franco is filmed playing torreador, parrying a red cape at a guy dressed only in a pair of spandex shorts and a bull mask, while a topless woman looks on in mock horror.
Then chaps guys is shown whipping people -- Franco? Bonifacci? -- the two grimace and writhe on the floor in accordance to some unspecified trauma -- and an attractive blond model-type in a diaphanous negligee appears as if in a dream. After a ceremonial bathing in rose bouquet water, Bonifacci (now wearing a Gucci mono-kini) is tied to a stake by a bunch of skinny shirtless men and burned a la France’s favorite vision-receiving teenage folk heroine.
“Joan can’t last on Earth, but she can escape and live forever in her martyrdom because it is captured on video,” Franco explained to Vice.
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