I remember reading the very dismissive reviews of this when it came out, and didn’t think much more about it, until I came across something recently saying it was a conscious Hitchcock homage and as such was pretty interesting. I can see that, but I think that it’s really a Brian De Palma homage, and maybe among the first [that I’ve seen] that seems to take his work as its primary influence.
This is an American remake of a 1996 French film called L’Appartement. It opens with a very music video-style credits sequence that finds images fracturing and moving across each other, which sets up a visual and thematic motif of doubling and reflecting images against each other. Josh Hartnett plays a Chicago guy who is engaged to marry Jessica Paré, which would virtually assure him high placement in this company her family is involved with. He is at a business dinner with his fiancé, and she gives him some sleeping pills “for the flight.” He is supposed to go to Hong Kong the next day for a meeting that will be very important to the company and for him. He goes down this long hallway to a phone both, where a woman is making a call. He can’t see her, but her thinks he recognizes her voice. He goes into the bathroom and takes the sleeping pills. When he comes out, the woman is gone, but he smells her perfume and is sure it his Lisa, his girlfriend from 2 years prior who vanished without explanation.
When Hartnett entered the phone booth, we have a slight doubling of his image for a second, then it merges back into one, and I thought; “A-ha! He has crossed over into another personality, and that’s what we’ll see now!” It was totally wrong, but it’s in the spirit of the movie. We then flash back two years to how he met Lisa [very rom-com meet-cute, which I found very off-putting], which was that he stalked her for a few days until she finally called him on it and they met. In here are tons of split screens and repeated images. In here one also notices that Hartnett’s character is a bit on the obsessive side; he thinks nothing of following this woman he’s never met, leaves his job to meet her, impersonates employees in order to talk to her, etc. Then in the present day he is also very obsessive, blowing off his important business trip to chase this elusive woman and find out if she is Lisa. In here we also notice that Josh Hartnett is very good at conveying these very quick flashes of almost painfully sincere emotion. He has little flickers of pain or love go over his face, and they’re very subtle and effective. Go Josh!
So for the next hour or so we follow the obsessed Hartnett as he tries to meet Lisa and avoid telling his fiancé that he’s not actually in Hong Kong and in fact blew off the entire thing [and is continuing to]. We also meet his friend, Matthew Lillard, who is very restrained in this role, and is thus pretty good and will not inspire the wish to bludgeon him that he usually does. He has a girlfriend named Alex, who is an aspiring actress.
We also notice that the instrumental music is very good. It is done by Cliff Martinez, who has done most of the soundtracks for Steven Soderbergh’s films, including the dreamy percussion music for Solaris, which this score seems to be closest to. By this time we have also noticed that the film has no problem stopping the dialogue and plot for relatively long and hypnotic musical sequences, which I always enjoy. One also noticed that the film also stops for musical sequences set to the crap-pop soundtrack, which annoys, and also makes the entire thing more like an MTV-style entertainment and brings down the level of seriousness of the whole film.
Now there’s going to be some big-time spoilers, so if you’re interested in watching you should definitely stop now or skip to below the spoiler mark. It’s an intriguing, well-made and hypnotic movie that is worth a watch, although for me it ultimately lost a great deal of interest once you figure out what’s going on.
SPOILERS > > >
Anyway, so Hartnett breaks into Lisa’s apartment and comes up behind her… only it’s not her, it’s this brunette. So she, after a few minutes of “what are you doing in my apartment?” is all like “why don’t you stay the night?” He does [it’s so amusing how he is totally blowing off his important meetings and all of work for days on end]. I think we’re supposed to think that he’s thinking that he never actually saw Lisa, and that it was this woman all along. The Brunette takes off the next day, and we discover that she is Alex, Hartnett’s friend Lillard’s girlfriend!
So it turns out that what we have is a case of double obsession. While Hartnett was obsessing over Lisa, Alex was obsessing over HIM. It was Alex who prevented the two lovers from a decisive meeting two years prior [which resulted in her leaving the country for that time] and is still trying to keep them apart. All of this also makes you go back and review the first half, as now it seems that Hartnett was less obsessed than we thought [but still plenty obsessed and impulsive]. It all comes crashing down, during which time one has to endure a horrid Shakespeare reading which we are supposed to believe is sublime [although it's from Othello, so it makes thematic sense].
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My first thought afterwards was “I bet it all really worked in the French version.” And while this version has many fine qualities [and many, many more than most mainstream films], that MTV soundtrack and ALL THE MEET-CUTES really start to drag the entire thing down, and drain interest even from the interesting scenes. The abundance of mind-blowing surprises every few minutes also got to me and started to alienate me from the film as well. It got to feel like a certified M. Night Shyamalan “Ha-HA!” gotcha twist every five minutes. And for me, once I knew what was really happening, I started to feel a little jerked around and manipulated. This is especially because this thing is two hours long, and as one looks back, one starts to think “Okay, so I didn’t need to watch that scene… or that scene… or THAT scene…”
At the climax there is some whiny song by some lame Coldplay-imitator that really made me want to, well, vomit. Come on guy, you build up all this sincere and heartfelt emotion throughout the movie, and the most concentrated expression of that is this crappy whine-pop song? This stuff pulls the film into the realm of The Butterfly Effect when it should be in the realm of The Double Life of Veronique.
The trailer gives away what’s really going on in the movie, which you wouldn’t know until over an hour in if you didn’t watch it. I know I sounded pretty harsh on this movie, but that’s mostly because it had such potential and there was so much genuine goodness in it that it’s a shame to see sacrificed to the perceived teen audience who cannot be asked to go more than 10 minutes without hearing a shitty pop song. There is a lot of very interesting stuff going on, and it’s definitely not a waste of time, though it had the potential to be considerably better than it is. I bet it all really, really worked in the French version.
ON SECOND VIEWING:
So I finally hauled off and bought the French version, and was surprised not to love it, as I had expected. I was also surprised to see that a lot of the things I thought “would really work in the French version” did NOT actually work, and that Wicker Park added a lot of its own touches that added a great deal to the movie. You can read my whole essay comparing the two of them here. Anyway, after seeing the French version, I became obsessed to see Wicker Park again.
The main thing this movie has that the French one doesn’t is a intelligent visual sense that expresses the main themes of the movie: seeing the same act from a different perspective, and whether we fall in love with am image or with reality. A nifty credits sequence expresses this first, with split screens and fractured images, and this motif is carried all the way to the end of the movie.
Surprisingly, a lot of elements of the French film that I had assumed were dropped from the American version were in fact there, but their significance had been diminished to the extent that while they stood out in the French film, I had completely forgotten them in Wicker Park. Two examples of this would be the sequence in which Matthew just misses Lisa because he is bent down looking for a key, and a later sequence in which Alex is called a ‘psycho’ repeatedly. Both of these scenes had a much greater impact in the French film, and I couldn’t even recall them from my first viewing of this.
SPOILERS > > >
Naturally the ending is not the same here as in the French version [you’ll have to read the review of L’Appartement to find out the different ending], and although my prejudice was to assume that the French ending was probably much better. In the end I preferred the American happy ending. After dragging the audience through two hours of yearning and near-misses, I have no problem with satisfying them in the last two minutes. And since the visual style here is continued right through to the final frame, I’m happy with that. So, the big surprise was that although I think neither of them are as good as they could be, ultimately I prefer the American remake.
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If you like mysterious psychological thrillers and are willing to put up with a little teen-baiting crud, and / or are a fan of Brian De Palma.
L’APPARTEMENT is the original French film that this one was remade from.
L'APPARTEMENT ON WICKER PARK is my ludicrously detailed analysis of the differences between the French original and the American remake.
OBSESSION is a Brain De Palma movie about… you guessed it, and also features fancy camerawork and thematic doubling, though it’s a little less romantic.
LOVERS OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE is one of my favorite movies of all time and also features a very romantic story and scenes revisited from the perspectives of different characters.
HE LOVES ME… HE LOVES ME NOT is another French film of obsession in which we revisit the events of the first half in the second half, but from a very different perspective.