Watching your absolute favorite film is never a really comfortable experience. There's always that lingering fear that time may have taken away from the initial experience you loved so much. You watch the film knowing it can't really get any better and a status quo is truly the best you can hope for. So you can imagine it was quite a relief when I discovered Mamoru Oshii's Avalon had lost none of its former glory, it is still by far my favorite film ever made.
When Avalon was first released it was widely believed to be Mamoru Oshii's first live action film. Back then Talking Head, Stray Dog and The Red Spectacles were virtually unknown in the West, then again the mastery that Oshii put on display here could hardly be mistaken for a first-timer's attempt. Oshii clearly learned a lot from his earlier trio of live action films, knowledge he put to good use when finally settling down to make Avalon.
Back in the day every other reviewer compared this film to The Matrix. Ten years later the connection seems incredibly fickle, but back then the fake reality theme was so ever-present (and inevitably linked to that green cyber beast) that it seemed to make sense for some people. If anything, it attracted an audience that entered the film with some very distorted expectations. While there are some similarities between both film, the lack of action, dialogue and rapid plot progression puts Avalon in arthouse territory rather than making it a loud blockbuster rival.
The film follows Ash, a lone gamer making her way through Avalon. The game is her escape from a grim reality where only her dog gives her some kind of comfort. While most gamers are tackling Avalon as a team, Ash is a lone ranger that takes help from no one. Until she runs into a bishop player, who slowly starts feeding her information about a Special Class hidden deep inside the game. The only way to get there is by killing a ghost, and for that you need a bishop in your party.
Oshii is an animator by nature, which becomes very clear when you see the amount of detail and (maybe even more telling) the amount of control that went into sculpting the film's visuals. Most of the film is dominated by washed-out, sepia colors, but it's not just some simple filter superposed on the original shots. Oshii locked himself up with his film to get every color variation just right. If you compare the shots of several scenes you'll start to notice the difference in color effects, something that further highlights the film's attention to detail.
Apart from the sepia look the camera work is also painstakingly accurate. There are some very nifty and complex shots in here, but everything is tailored to perfection. The film relies heavily on special effects and while that may be a problem as the film ages, most of them have enough artistic merit to avoid the kitschy pitfall that most similar films fall into as time passes by. The sepia filters also help, as the monochrome look effectively hides lesser textures. Even by modern standards, Avalon looks absolutely stunning,
Leaving nothing to chance, Oshii employed Kenji Kawai once more to make a fitting soundtrack. It's difficult picking a favorite Kawai/Oshii collaboration but I think it's safe to say that the Avalon score is one of Kawai's masterpieces. A unique combination of opera and ambient that lingers long after the credits have faded from view. Oshii was clearly aware of this and even dedicated a full sequence to the main theme. There is no film out there that does a better job combining audio and visuals to create such an intense and mesmerizing experience.
The acting is a different story though. Oshii worked with an all-Polish cast (as the film was shot in Poland) and there's clearly a cultural gap there. Malgorzata Foremniak does a good enough job, though she is somewhat helped by her uncanny resemblance to Matoko Kusanagi (the wig is an obvious giveaway). Bishop and some of the secondary cast members aren't too bad either, but the two guys playing Stunner and Murphy are in dire need of some acting lessons. It's not something that bothered me a lot, but I'd be lying if I said they were doing just fine.
Do make sure you watch the film in its original dub though. The Polish language works a lot better with the film's setting. Even though it's kinda nifty to recognize the voice actors for Batou and Togusa in the Japanese dub, it doesn't feel as authentic as the original dub.
Avalon is a film that questions the need for an answer on some of life's most lingering and unanswerable questions. To do that it makes a pretty big u-turn right before the grand finale. It's a very daring decision that works well within the story and concept of the film, but it does force you out of the trance that the first hour built up so delicately. After multiple viewings I'm still not sure whether I would've preferred the ending to be different, but I do know that I'm quite pleased with how it turned out in the final version of the film.
Avalon also features my all-time favorite scene, though it's a bit hard to explain exactly why it's such a stand-out moment. It's the scene when Ash makes dinner for her dog, only to find that suddenly the animal is gone. While it sounds like simple filler, it's one of the only moments in the film when some color seeps through the sepia layers, underlining Ash's feelings for the one creature in the world she cares about. Add the superb score of Kawai and what you have is a very warm and emotional scene that resonates through the rest of the film.
Avalon is a single series of impressive scenes. There's no dip or boring moment to be found anywhere in the film, while enjoying one scene I'm already looking forward to the next, and the next, and the one after that ... It's the ultimate live action film, made by a seasoned animator, a director who fully understands and exploits the power and appeal of an all-enveloping atmosphere. Avalon is a modern arthouse classic, a film with plenty of geek-affirming material, but presented in a much more stylish and classy way than usually the case. Sure enough, it's not entirely without faults, but it's as close to perfection as anyone has ever come. My absolute favorite.