I’m not sure how George Miller’s new fantasy anthology fits into the modern world, but I’m also not sure that it’s trying to. Three Thousand Years of Longing feels like a relic from the 1990s at the very latest, recalling a specific fantasy era ruled by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Terry Gilliam, and likeminded Brits. It conjures its magic through uncanny CGI that definitively pins it to the 2020s, but its story of a lonely white woman finding love with a Black djinn while shopping for knick-knacks in Istanbul feels out of step with modern politics, daring the audience to decry “Orientalism” or “magical negro” at every turn. It’s worth keeping in mind that George Miller is an old man. He’s been working long enough to have contributed to this exact brand of matter-of-fact magic before it was vintage in both The Witches of Eastwick and Babe: Pig in the City. It also helps that the story he tells here directly questions its place in modernity, ultimately deciding that it belongs in another time & realm.
Tilda Swinton stars as a professor of “narratology” who travels to Istanbul to perform an academic lecture on the power of storytelling. While antique shopping in her off-time, she unwittingly unleashes a gigantic puff of smoke shaped like Idris Elba, who demands that she make three wishes so that he can be freed from his tiny, glass prison. You would expect an anthology with that wraparound to include one cautionary-tale vignette per wish, but Three Thousand Years has many more stories to tell. Because Swinton’s professor studies storytelling as an artform & cultural tradition, she’s very reluctant to make any of her three wishes, fully informed on the usual “monkey’s paw” irony of these scenarios. Elba’s djinn recounts magical stories from his thousands of years in captivity to convince her that he is not a trickster set out to teach her morality lessons about selfishness or greed. In hearing his lived-experience fairy tales, she realizes that the true reason she cannot make a wish is because she does not have a true “heart’s desire,” at least nothing that can compare to the passionate yearnings suffered by her new, eternally lovesick companion.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is at once George Miller’s Tale of Tales, Guillermo del Toro’s The Fall and, least convincingly, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Good Luck to You Leo Grande. The vivid colors & eerie moods of the fantasy flashbacks are unimpeachable, even if their politics are questionable. All that’s left to puzzle over, really, is the effectiveness of the wraparound, which is mostly an excuse for two talented actors to take turns narrating short stories in an illustrated audio book. As a two-hander character study, Three Thousand Years is cute but frothy. The djinn struggles to adapt to the electromagnetic cacophony of modern living, where magic and science clash in a constant, furious roar. His new storytelling companion struggles with breaking out of her shell, with making herself vulnerable to desire, and with the ethics of conjuring magical powers in the realm of love. There isn’t much room for that dynamic to deepen, though, since Miller understandably spends more time on the romance & fantasy of centuries past. Maybe the power of storytelling isn’t so timeless after all; maybe our hearts & minds are too cluttered to fully incorporate the magic of the old world into the electronic buzzing of the new one. Still, it’s a nice feeling to visit from time to time, a wonderful momentary escape.
I often hear cinephile intellectuals on podcasts like Film Comment & The Important Cinema Club evangelize for the merits of #slowcinema, which is typified by long, lingering shots where little to nothing happens onscreen for minutes on end. I don’t know that I’ve ever fully bought their galaxy-brain explanations of how the medium artfully explores the textures of boredom or how the absence of action makes even the tiniest of movement or change mean everything. At least, I haven’t yet reached the point in my amateur cinephilia where I’m actively seeking out these experiments in artful boredom myself. However, this critical exaltation of #slowcinema was very much on my mind throughout the recent New Orleans Film Fest screening of The World is Full of Secrets, despite the film being too dialogue-heavy & eventful to fully qualify for the distinction. This is very much a writer’s movie, composed largely of single-take performances of monologues in intense close-up, deliberately boring its audience and luring us into a trance so that any minor action or change onscreen feels vitally significant. I genuinely can’t believe how much it worked for me as pop entertainment.
Set during a slumber party in 1996 suburbia, The World is Full of Secrets is structured like a horror anthology wherein teen girls take turns answering the prompt “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard?” They encourage each other to be as disgusting, terrifying, and brutal as possible. The stories they tell are almost universally about young women who’ve been cruelly battered & torn down by a society that’s been misogynist since the dawn of time. Meanwhile, an offscreen narrator warns that the night will conclude with an act of violence in that very house. This clash between innocence & violence and this eerie undermining of the assumed invincibility of privileged, suburban life aren’t especially novel in a thematic sense, but the way they’re couched in lengthy, meandering monologues instead of proper anthology vignettes feels like a major stylistic gamble (as well as a blatant budgetary choice). The film plays like Are You Afraid of the Dark? reimagined as a traumatizing stage play or audio book – with long takes of sub-professional teen actors struggling to conquer unnecessarily complex monologues. What’s amazing about this set-up is that the film not only finds room to establish a genuinely creepy mood, but it’s often prankishly hilarious and light on its feet despite its potential for academic pretention.
There’s a wry sense of humor on display throughout this chatty horror anthology. It opens with an old-fashioned intro to a 1950s sci-fi horror, as if it were hosted by an Elvira-type TV ghoul. An elderly narrator voice then cuts through to intone “It was the summer of 1996 . . .” as if that date were a hundred years in the past (or maybe this film is a dispatch from a #slowcinema future?). What I loved most, though, is that the film openly acknowledges in its dialogue when it’s boring us, as its lengthy stories of misogynist violence take the non-linear, detail-distracted paths of teens gabbing on a landline. As often happens with #slowcinema—or so I’m told—this absurdly patient approach to narrative leaves the audience in a loopy state where tiny, hallucinatory details that break through the spooky atmosphere register as major events. Did I imagine a skull or the Devil’s talons entering the frame between these lengthy tales of woman-hating cruelty or did those images actually appear onscreen? It’s hard to remember for sure as floods of details from the monologues overwhelm the slumber party drama, but I never lost the sense that the movie was fucking with me and having a great time doing so. I admire that.
This prankish experiment in traditional storytelling, cheeky atmosphere, and artful boredom is obviously not going to be for everyone. About half our audience walked out midway through the screening once they realized the full scope of what we were getting into. I was personally tickled by it. There’s enough layered, soft-focus imagery crammed into its cramped Academy Ratio framing to keep your mind busy as the stories being told lull you into a #slowcinema daze. Once you’re hypnotized in that state, it’s up to the movie whether it wants to creep you out or laugh in your face, depending on its minute-to-minute whims. If nothing else, I greatly enjoyed the tension of not knowing which of those effects it was going to choose next at any given moment.