While Ogawa’s fiction, too, explores diverse subjects, some basic patterns are discernible. She prefers first-person female narrators with simple, almost naïve voices that balance a sense of intimacy with a paradoxical emotional reserve. These narrators are often … going through some kind of life change that leaves them in between things, disconnected from familiar routines and people. Often, these women come into contact with mysterious men who are wounded in some way, but who nevertheless serve as teachers for a time, before being taken from them. The result is usually bittersweet: a sense of loss mixing with a renewed awareness of the self and its possibilities in the world. (Robert Anthony Siegel, “The Question Floating Between Us: The Lovely Indeterminacies of Yoko Ogawa”)
Last year I went on a mini-binge of Olga Kurylenko movies after I saw Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. She had previously caught my attention in Centurion (2010) as the fierce and absurdly beautiful Pictish warrior, Etain, so I watched that one again, and then I checked out two earlier movies, the offbeat Israeli La-femme-Nikita-meets-Thelma-and-Louise film The Assassin Next Door (Kirot, 2009) and the even more offbeat French film, The Ring Finger, which was Kurylenko’s feature film debut. All of these movies are well worth watching, but The Ring Finger is the one that has continued to haunt me, tugging at my human desire to find meaning where meaning is deftly eluded.
What a way to start a career! The Ring Finger, called L’annulaire in French, is an adaptation of a novella by the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa. Ogawa’s story hasn’t been translated into English yet, so I haven’t read it, but it has been translated into French, which is how it drew the attention of French director Diane Bertrand. Bertrand added one subplot to the story and shifted it from Japan to Europe, but she says she tried to remain faithful otherwise. In Kurylenko — an unknown quantity that therefore made it hard to secure financing for the film — Bertrand found a muse that inspired her to depths of poetic mystery. If you Google Image this movie, you’ll find copious screencaps of Kurylenko’s naked body, but these are highly misleading. To be sure, it’s a sensually-charged film that dwells on the physicality of the world, but it turns corporeality into a symbol, then leaves us to decipher the symbols according to our own difficult desires.
The film opens with a adolescent woman asking a man in a labcoat to preserve some mushrooms that were growing on the ashes of her family home, which has burned down. Images of mushrooms suspended in fluid in a test tube are abstracted and transformed into images of bottles moving down a conveyor belt in some kind of factory. We spot Iris (Kurylenko) for the first time, just as she distractedly reaches for a bottle that she doesn’t notice is broken. It cuts off the tip of her ring finger, and she clutches her bloody hand. After this trauma, the film follows her to a port city (unnamed, but filmed in Hamburg and looking a lot like the Le Havre of Kaurismaki’s eponymous film). Iris moves into a residential hotel, where she’s told she’ll have to share a room with a sailor — one will sleep there during the day, the other at night. She then finds her way by chance to an institute where we meet the nameless man in the labcoat again. We learn that his work is to preserve and archive items that people bring to him after traumatic experiences. Iris becomes his assistant.
While there’s a narrative of sorts that develops around Iris’ sado-masochistic sexual relationship with the nameless director of the institute, this is more of a lyrical film than a narrative one. The story details are evocative but evasive. For example, Iris’ male roommate, whom she never meets but whom we see staring longingly at her dress hanging in the room, becomes an image of forlorn desire. They share the same room and get closer and closer in the outside world, but they never connect. When he’s about to head back to sea, he leaves a note asking her to meet him in a bar. She goes to the bar and spots him through the window just as he’s kissed by another woman. Iris turns to leave before she can see him irritably shoo the woman away. If he represents the possibility of a traditional romantic relationship, Iris is apparently unable to meet him halfway.
Is that the significance of the damage to her ring finger? Has she become unfit for traditional marriage? Iris longs for connection to another, but she seems to be looking in the wrong places. In one sequence she walks through a red light district, staring at the hookers in the windows even as she herself is stared at by the johns standing nearby, until one of the prostitutes meets her gaze. They lock eyes, but the result is ambiguous. Is Iris looking for sex? Is she seeing herself in the prostitutes? It’s also noteworthy that Iris finds the institute when she notices a man staring at her on a passenger ferry and follows him off the boat. She comes to a fork in the path and has to guess which one he took. She ends up at the institute instead.
What the institute is, exactly, is also ambiguous. It’s a repository of pain and loss and longing, amongst other things. There are a number of clues that it isn’t real, at least not in any normal sense. Early on Iris sees a boy and an old woman in the hallway playing a game of hide and seek, but they both vanish like ghosts. Later she meets and talks to the old woman, who is played by Edith Scob. When she first meets her, in the room of another old woman, she sees a photo in which the women are much younger and are posed in a group that includes the director, who is the same age in the photo as he is now. The little boy is seen by us (but not Iris) watching her at various times over the course of the film. Is he the director as a young man? Is everybody else in the building a ghost or a memory? Are they preservations of past traumas? This aspect of the movie is slightly reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Shining.
The director makes Iris wear a pair of shoes that he buys for her, and the shoes become symbolic of his fetishistic control over her. Iris is aware that the shoes are a trap, but she passively accepts them. Perhaps the damage to her ring finger is damage to her will as well? Or perhaps this is what she wants. Perhaps she is running away from herself. Perhaps she is living out some kind of cycle of fate that she has no control over. There’s evidence that she’s just the latest in a long series of young women who have fallen under the sway of the director and then disappeared, perhaps to become ghosts haunting the hallways of the institute. The final scenes in which Iris chooses to have something of herself preserved, perhaps only so she can finally enter the secret heart of the institute, are deeply mysterious. Is she choosing death, or transfiguration? There doesn’t seem to be any right answer, only questions.
The lyric mode circles around feelings and moods, relationships and situations, never resolving or reaching closure. The Ring Finger circles around docks, bridges, corridors, beds, doorways, windows, showers, desks, fingers, clocks, sweat, skin, lips, shoes, labcoats, loss, longing, sensuality, voyeurism, observation, collection, separation, nostalgia, trauma, dreams, fantasies, isolation, disconnection, obsession, and possession. Iris is a lost soul who isn’t looking to be found but rather to be abandoned. The film is a kind of labyrinth into which she winds her way, deeper and deeper, until she is lost to view. We who follow her are given no thread to help us find our way back out. We’re on our own there.