Having essayed a near-future operating system (Her) and an intergalactic man harvester (Under the Skin), Scarlett Johansson capped her unofficial post-human trilogy in style as a hot-pants-wearing drug mule turned…pure, transcendent consciousness? If Under the Skin saw Johansson’s E.T. unraveling to the grisly reality of the human condition, her transformation in Lucy happens almost in reverse, as Lucy races from the corporeal to the cosmic while effectively shedding all that is human. That director Luc Besson—who hasn’t been this much fun since his halcyon days of Leon and The Fifth Element—walks a tightrope between the absurd and the sublime is all the more impressive, mirroring Lucy’s metamorphosis by moving, with elastic formality, from low-rent gangster thriller to goofy nature documentary to riffs on Malick and Kubrick. The most amazing thing about Lucy, though, is Johansson herself: If there’s a more affecting performance all year than the scene where she recalls the sensations of infancy to her mother—over the phone, while on the operating table—then I didn’t see it. It just goes to prove something that Besson has hinted at in his films all along: the future is female.
Call it slow cinema at your peril. Over 138 minutes, Tsai Ming-liang turns a homeless father’s existence on the streets of Taipei into an odyssey of exhilarating despair, wielding the kind of pulse-quickening formal vigor of which movies half as long—and twice as fast—can only dream. The downward spiral of an unstable alcoholic (Kang-sheng Lee), estranged from his wife and fending for two children, isn’t exactly for the frail of spirit, yet Tsai’s mastery of melancholy is matched by his exquisite humanism—best evidenced in one of modern cinema’s most memorable long takes, a moment of emotional watershed not easily forgotten. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s some of the year’s greatest comedy here, too: a scene in which Lee’s character dismantles and devours a cabbage fashioned in the likeness of his wife is the kind of deranged physical mirth you’d expect from Monsieur Merde, made all the more hysterical for the grim context in which it occurs. And to think: Stray Dogs is a warm-up for Tsai’s Journey to the West, where things really go next-level.
Originally published at Movie Mezzanine