An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
Experimental, art house mockumentary could be the future of romantic comedies
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
Directed by Terence Nance
Cast: Terence Nance, Namik Minter
“How would you feel?” That’s the question relentlessly and repeatedly asked by Terence Nance’s wonderfully inventive, playfully experimental first feature An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. It’s also the title of a short film Nance made in conjunction with the Sundance Institute circa 2006. That film is presented in its entirety within An Oversimplification—with frequent narrative interruptions—and it tells a very simple “fictionalized” story. An Afro-bohemian artist (Nance) returns home to his apartment in New York City in expectation of meeting a young woman with whom he has been spending an increasing amount of time. He’s pretty sure he’s in love with her, but he’s not yet convinced she feels the same. As he prepares for their date (or is it?), she calls and says she can’t make it. So ... how would you feel?
Throughout the film Nance and his erudite narrator (Reg E. Cathey from “The Wire”) address the question to the audience in a probing, second-person narrative. But it’s a query with which the artist himself is clearly struggling. Obviously the story in “How Would You Feel?” is true. Nance wrestled with his feelings so much that he shot a short film about himself and the unnamed woman in question. The film, which starts out sounding like some grand romantic gesture, ends up being what Nance calls “an oversimplification of her beauty”—a one-sided, memory-clouded portrait of his romantic obsession, warts removed and personal flaws glossed over.
Some six years later, however, and Nance is still brooding on the initial question of “How Would You Feel?” by using it as the basis of his feature-length docu-art project An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. In it he shows off his earlier short film, expands on the narrative, indulges in countless artistic digressions and freely discusses the aftermath of his (perhaps misguided) cinematic love letter.
Along the way we get documentary-style footage, mockumentary-like reenactments, hand-drawn animation, stop-motion animation, epic ruminations on the nature of love, more navel gazing than a Smiths album and a running narrative commentary that wittily dissects Nance’s entire self-centered project. This is experimental filmmaking in the truest sense. Unlike many films that end up labeled “experimental,” An Oversimplification of Her Beauty doesn’t present viewers with an impenetrable narrative or incomprehensible visual symbolism. Instead it’s a funny, smart, poignant and extremely freewheeling work of art that plays with the medium of film, endlessly searching for new ways to relate its deeply internal story to audiences.
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is as heartfelt an examination of love, unrequited and otherwise, as the sonnets of William Shakespeare. Not that there’s a one-to-one correlation. The Bard’s got no worry about being unseated here. But Nance is doing more or less what Shakespeare was back in the 16th century. He’s digging deep into his heart, creating an intimate artistic examination of basic human attraction. Only Nance is employing the most modern of mediums. This is poetry of word and picture, of raw digital image and of handmade animation. It’s a restless, eclectic, distracted tour through one man’s heart and mind. And it feels as fresh and up-to-date as any film in recent memory.
Eschewing dialogue and traditional narrative structure, the film’s internal-monologue-as-performance-art focuses viewers’ attentions far more than a simple romantic comedy ever could. The details are wonderfully and hilariously real. Every time Nance returns to his apartment for that fateful blow-off, he’s carrying large pieces of wood. Eventually the narrator explains that “you” are attempting to build a bed based on “a book about Japanese wood joinery that you found in the garbage.” Clearly Nance is/was thinking that getting his mattress off the floor might grease the romantic wheels. Later on the narrator returns to point out that “you are bad at carpentry and you can’t read Japanese.” That’s the kind of self-effacing joke that Woody Allen would be proud of.
Occasionally there’s a creeping feeling that Nance may be trying too hard, showing off his every film school skill—from drawing the animation to writing the songs—and turning his debut feature into a sort of “look at me” calling card. Charm, audaciousness and sheer enthusiasm count for a lot, though. Eclectic and chaotic as Nance’s approach may be, it’s instantly accessible. Who hasn’t been in his shoes, wondering that most human of questions: “Does she like me or not?” Of course the film is much more well-spoken about it, ruminating on “a platonic in search of the romantic.” The course of true love never did run smooth, to steal a phrase from Mr. Shakespeare, and An Oversimplification may be the most vivid personification of that clamorous, complex road to romance or heartbreak.