Thursday 27 September 2012

On TV: "Paprika"

Paprika, the Japanese animator Satoshi Kon's final film, is a fusion of many of the best ideas of millennial sci-fi - from Strange Days to The Matrix - that clearly worked its way deep inside Christopher Nolan's subconscious in the run-up to making Inception. Once again, the subject is dreams: how they might be explored on celluloid, their relationship to our waking life. The heroine is an executive trying to retrieve a prototype that's been stolen from company headquarters; this device, the DC (presumably short for DreamCatcher) Mini, allows users' dreams to be recorded electronically. Developed as a boon for the psychiatric profession, permitting its practitioners clearer analysis of their patients' neuroses, the device becomes a weapon in the hands of a sociopath, who's been using it to get into his victims' heads and thence to fry their brains.

The advantage Kon understands, and enjoys, here is that - unlike all those films he's building upon - he's working in animation, which allows him to do things live-action directors would struggle to pull off. Paprika keeps up an often astonishing flow of ideas and images, from the big-top opening that cues a vertiginous plummet through several layers of reality: a lift will grant the characters more detailed access to these layers and levels of the subconscious, including a personal screening room (where matters get perilously meta, as everyone starts to project themselves into the movies) and a wobbly hotel corridor that Nolan all too evidently lifted and made concrete. It's not just the walls here that prove permeable; as in Kon's mid-90s masterwork Perfect Blue, identity starts to become fluid, too. The film's title refers to the heroine's other, fantasy self: the kind of doe-eyed waif traditional of Japanese animation, seen in the prologue as an undercover agent testing the device and thereafter glimpsed in mirrors and other reflections as an impossibly sexy ideal - a literal "dream woman" the heroine finds it almost impossible keep up with, and has eventually to defeat. 

In the gap between these personae - and the worlds they inhabit - there is inserted some editorial on asserting responsibility for the gadgets we wield. The film's recurring nightmare is an ever-swelling carnival procession of playthings and consumer goods, operating a reign of terror beneath the illusion of offering rolling fun and games. The risk - as Nolan was to discover, and play with - is that the viewer, like our heroine's morbidly obese male colleague, gets stuck in the lift doors and struggles to keep up with the nimble imagination on display. Precision character and background design, giving everything on screen a weight and physicality specific to itself, helps in this respect; and Kon maintains a tighter grip on his material than Nolan, bringing it in at ninety rather than 150 minutes. Still, there's so much remarkable, dazzling dreamweaving on display that you may simply not care whether these rabbits lead you down a narrative black hole. Key line: "The pain is real."

Paprika screens on Film4 tonight at 12.35am.

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