It’s early September 2001 in Chicago, and psychologist Walker (Christian Castro) is in couple’s therapy with his wife Hyla (Jessica DuPlessis). While they can’t seem to agree on much, they don’t have much problem continuing to sleep with one another, despite their separation. That is, until Walker meets his neighbor Michel (Malina Phetchanpheng), who is coming off a bad relationship of her own.
Kindred spirits, they fall into each other’s arms and beds, and all seems fine (if sex-centric), until Michel announces she has to go to New York for work, and becomes one of the numerous victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Except perhaps her death wasn’t an accident, as Walker slowly discovers after finding Michel’s cell phone, which she forgot at his apartment, and after meeting Michel’s friend Lorri (Danielle Doetsch).
Steven Payne’s Palimpsest is like a tale of two films, which is actually apropos if you know what “palimpsest” means (“a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain”). For the first half, we’ve got Walker’s marital problems, and his blossoming relationship (and obsession) with Michel. It moves along like a romantic drama as the two relate to each other, turning tragic when she dies.
But then we start down a different track, and the film becomes a conspiracy-friendly thriller revolving around Michel’s past and her activism. Suddenly we’ve got an evil businessman, Michel’s potential murder and a plot involving ethnic cleansing. It’s a gear shift, and I think the film is convinced that it comes across smoother than the transition actually is. If anything, we have a film that was moderately enjoyable turned into a somewhat absurd experience by trying to elevate itself with a greater meaning via political and corporate conspiracy.
In case it’s not coming across, the tale of two tones doesn’t work, and the entire film suffers for it. And those are just the broad narrative strokes, the film is laced with little technical moments that disappoint. For example, there is at least one scene where Walker and Lorri are talking and the edit crosses the 180° line in egregious fashion, with both close-up heads conversing from the same side of the screen, even though they are supposed to be talking across from one another. The audio mix also has a buzz that comes in and out depending on what shots are being used, which is intermittent throughout the entire film, though not consistent enough for me to think the issue was originating with my equipment or speakers.
So you’ve got this tone-switch that doesn’t quite work, and the technical aspects that deliver a less-than-polished experience. This is coupled with other elements that seem more annoying than they should be considering. For example, when a woman visiting Lorri remarks that she drove from New York to Chicago and she’s exhausted because it took her 48 hours, I can’t help but wonder what type of vehicle would take 48 hours to go from New York to Chicago. A horse and buggy? It’s a trivial thing to find fault with, and most wouldn’t even second guess it, but when a film starts losing you, as it did me when it turned conspiracy thriller, every flaw is amplified.
Which is disappointing, because I was actually enjoying the film up until it tried to complicate itself. As a romantic drama and tragedy, sure it wasn’t a breakthrough or all that exceptional, but it wasn’t awful. A little obvious and predictable, but still enjoyable. But when things turn all evil businessman giving away the whole plot like a Bond villain, it’s just too silly to accept.
And thus the title becomes appropriate again, as the second half over-writes the first half, with the better aspects of the piece now hidden under the broad strokes of the less accomplished. Unfortunate, but Palimpsest is what it is, and it ultimately wasn’t for me.
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