As striking and insubstantial as its titular fabric, Silk recounts the story of Herve Joncour (Michael Pitt), a young Frenchman whose life is forever complicated by his expeditions to Japan to purchase valuable, disease-free silk eggs. Extricated from military service by his employer Baldabiou (Alfred Molina), a reprieve that allows him to marry beloved Ellen (Keira Knightley), Herve journeys to a remote, snowy Japanese village, where he becomes entranced with the alluring daughter (Sei Ashina) of trade partner Hara Jubei (Kōji Yakusho). Herve and the girl never share a word throughout these visits, but as with virtually every other scene, director François Girard shoots their encounters in weighty stillness meant to convey tension. Girard’s preference for deliberate, delicate imagery, however, is so pronounced that the film’s air feels less charged with romantic electricity than beset by stagnation, a condition not aided by Pitt, whose minimalist performance amounts to vacant gazes from beneath his stylish locks and, ultimately, a grey-speckled beard.
Silk has superficial beauty but no soul, its story (adapted from Alessandro Baricco’s novel) so languorous—to the point of pretentiousness—that it never manages to eloquently express obsessive passion, painful longing, or the potential danger of chasing far-off dreams. All the while, a radiant Knightley is reduced to mere background decoration, left to embrace her co-star in severely slow love scenes and meander through lush gardens holding an illuminated lamp while Pitt stares on blankly from a bedroom window. During Pitt and Ashina’s brief moments together, Girard’s dedication to concentrated visual storytelling recalls the rigorously silent second segment of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s triptych Three Times. Yet even this admirable desire to show rather than tell proves frustratingly sporadic at best, since Pitt’s literary narration—which, after being omnipresent at the start, slowly vanishes—is the type that inelegantly hammers home emotions, attitudes, and observations already clearly discernable through nonverbal means. Meticulously composed, it’s a film that, like Ellen’s womb, remains perpetually lifeless.