Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is famous for its portrayal of an inscrutable facial expression, that indelible half-smirk-half-smile that serves as a kind of Rorschach test for the viewing public. It’s appropriate, then, that the name is bestowed upon the main character in Ana Lily Amirpour’s new film Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, a young woman who’s escaped from a psychiatric institution and enters the neon-soaked streets of New Orleans as a blank slate (or a holy innocent). Oh, and she has telekinetic powers which allow her to control the movements of anyone who gets too close to her. It’s an absurd premise, purposefully so, but ultimately an empty one.
The film begins with the at-first-nameless young woman, played by Jeon Jong-seo, writhing in a padded room and clad in a straight jacket. As a nurse callously assaults her, Jeon fixes her with a steady gaze, forcing the woman to repeatedly stab herself with a pair of shears. After making her escape, Jeon first meets Fuzz (a goofy but earnest Ed Skrein, trying very hard to imitate James Franco’s Alien), and then later Bonnie (Kate Hudson doing poor white trash cosplay), a stripper who witnesses Jeon’s unique power and decides she can use the young woman for her own purposes. The relationship between Mona Lisa, so dubbed by Bonnie, and Bonnie’s neglected, heavy-metal obsessed son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), makes up the meat of the film’s narrative, in which Bonnie uses Mona Lisa to help her rob unsuspecting men. There’s also a bumbling cop (a miscast Craig Robinson) who’s tracking the women down after falling victim to Mona Lisa’s powers himself. It’s all certainly of a piece with Amirpour’s other films, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Bad Batch, both of which feature women navigating dangerous nocturnal worlds and who are not as helpless as they first appear. But whereas those previous films evoked tried and true genre tropes as a kind of narrative scaffolding (vampiric horror and post-apocalyptic western respectively) with which to hang Amirpour’s more eccentric flights of fancy, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is a more free-form bit of fairy tale inflected pseudo-realism, chock full of grotesque stereotypes and bad accents but largely taking place in our recognizable world. Nothing much really happens, at least not of consequence. Mona Lisa learns that humanity is flawed, desires escape, and endures mildly mad-cap adventures, like Milla Jovovich’s engineered humanoid in The Fifth Element (one of the film’s many bizarre antecedents).
Credit where it’s due, Amirpour does have a few things on her mind; at one point the police mistake a random Chinese woman for the Korean Mona Lisa, and there’s an emphasis on the particular socio-economic factors behind stripping for a living. But it’s all jumbled together in a mess of clichés and empty symbols in search of deeper meaning. Nicely photographed by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon nonetheless resembles many current indie movies in its over-reliance on neon highlights and colored filters, and Amirpour’s spastic, roving camera grows wearisome after a while. The filmmaker doesn’t so much deploy technique as slather it on, so that every scene features frantic dolly movements or a wide-angle lens that distorts the frame to no discernible end. The wall-to-wall needle drops grate, too, an aural assault that becomes as exhausting as the film’s ostentatious style (kudos for the High on Fire jams, at least). An English born Iranian-American, and one of too few women working in genre films, Amirpour has a unique perspective on American culture. It’s too bad that here it seems to manifest mostly as a second-hand imitation of Spring Breakers, with a menagerie of colorful freaks that take our tabula rasa protagonist down a boring rabbit hole. There’s no enlightenment to be found, just familiar affectations.
Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 1.