As the film itself happily tells you, The Seven Faces of Jane is an exquisite corpse omnibus movie — that is, following the Surrealists’ original parlor game, a feature comprised of eight segments written and directed by eight filmmakers, none of whom knew what the others were doing. The players were given a premise — a tense single mom (Gillian Jacobs) drops her daughter off at summer camp and, with her Mom identity left behind, drifts home on the Southern California highways. What would you do, with the radiant Jacobs, a certain budget, and one-eighth of a 90-minute feature?
This kind of thing isn’t entirely unprecedented, although producer Roman Coppola’s experiment (roping in, promisingly, his niece Gia and a Cassavetes scion) might be the first to play the game squarely, with eight separate, sequestered writer/directors. The underloved 1994 film Sleep With Me was written in six segments by six writers, though we don’t know if they cross-pollinated; a 2012 film, The Exquisite Corpse Project, had the five-member comedy troupe Olde English write the script in isolated chunks, with a little peeking and a devolution into a documentary about its own collapse into squabbling. Desiring to hatch a feature narrative in this way is, of course, counter-intuitive, and that’s why it’s a surrealistically seductive idea in the abstract, not to mention John Cage-ian, not dictating art but encouraging randomness and cross-purposes, to not merely influence the narrative but define it.
Randomness we get in Seven Faces, except, if you’re going to be picayune about it, Coppola’s lark isn’t really an exquisite corpse, which in its original 1920s formulation has the individual contributions (lines of poetry, pieces of a drawing, etc.) accumulate in sequence, so the end is ridiculously far from the beginning in a game-of-telephone kind of way. The new film instead posits seven alternate scenarios for Jacobs’s wandering beauty (the eighth shows the “real” drop-off and pick-up scenes), giving the film a frivolous, stop-and-start-again rhythm. Ultimately, all of this corpse talk — the idea, the experiment, the anarchic game-playing context — is far more interesting than the film that results from it, which plays like a series of inconclusive one-off skits.
Jacobs’s heroine has only her identity issues to worry about, so the stakes are low as she confronts doppelgangers, tries to help an irate Latina girl (Daniela Hernandez) on her way to her quinceañera, picks up a worrisomely irresponsible hitchhiker (Emanuela Postacchini), dances with her girlfriend’s ghost (Sybil Azur) on the night road, wrestles with the fallout of two separate old boyfriends, gets lured into a Lynch-like acting audition in a mortuary, and so on. Despite the Three Faces of Eve–suggestive title, Jane herself doesn’t change from sequence to sequence; what’s most striking is the basic paucity of ideas the filmmakers mustered, given the try-anything opportunity before them. To be fair, most are first-timers, including Jacobs, her Community co-star Jeong, and an array of music-video vets.
Some slices have the energy and polish of expertise and others feel clumsy and tepid, so in aggregate, it’s something of a wash, because virtually no risks are taken. What would you do? Frankly, exquisite corpse texts and narratives are often destined to be unsatisfying — but the collision of sensibilities and imaginative flights can be fun, like a lab experiment that explodes and melts the beaker and produces nothing. But to get the fireworks, you needed original ideas to start with.
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