“Everyone struggles to find a version of themselves that they like,” so says Jane, as played by Gillian Jacobs, in the new, spellbinding exquisite-corpse film “The Seven Faces of Jane.” She’s talking to a young teenage girl who’s run away on her quinceañera, but she’s talking to herself too.
Jane has something of an identity crisis, or rather, one that’s been created for her. A single mother with time to spare while her daughter is away at camp, Jane sets off on an adventure, or several of them, actually. What follows are seven different stories by different directors, none of whom know what the others are doing.
This form is known as an “exquisite corpse,” as is defined at the start of the film, which functions almost like a game of Telephone. The directors in question, curated by Roman Coppola, are Jacobs herself, Gia Coppola, Boma Iluma, Ryan Heffington, Xan Cassavetes, Julian J. Acosta, Ken Jeong, and Alex Takacs. Some of these names (Jacobs, Coppola, Cassavetes and Jeong) might ring a bell. The others are more fledgling or niche presences in the film world. Regardless, it’s clear they all had a task at hand, to set Jane forth on a journey of self-discovery.
Does an exquisite corpse ever really work as a film? Not especially, but diehard believers in the creative exercise will be the first to tell you that working isn’t the point of an exquisite corpse. The point is the variety, the spontaneity, the surprise.
It’s a shame, then, that “The Seven Faces of Jane” is lacking in most of those. Though Coppola has no doubt gathered a group of artists he admires, none of them are producing work that’s really all that different from each other. “The boundary was that there were no boundaries,” he insists, but unfortunately these filmmakers are hemmed in by the boundaries of their imaginations.
None of these films or segments do much that feels exciting or original. Several of them tread familiar beats. What we’re left with feels like a half-hearted attempt at something more profound than it winds up being. “The Seven Faces of Jane” gives the viewer, at best, maybe two-and-a-half faces of Jane.
That’s not to write off every attempt here. The film begins with a stylish, almost Edgar Wright–ian action-adventure short directed by Gia Coppola, in which Jane encounters her double, wanted by a British gangster (Anthony Skordi) for an unknown crime. The whimsical style, quick cuts: these are exciting! But the corpse game quickly grows repetitive, with too many of these directors leaning on familiar indie-dramedy beats.
At least two films (one by Iluma, the other by Jeong) explore, rather dully, a relationship gone south. Julian J. Acosta’s “Rose,” the aforementioned encounter between Jacobs and the teenage girl Rose (Daniela Hernandez) running away from her quinceañera, is blessed with a gentle and engaging script, perhaps the most fully considered collection of scenes in the bunch. Surrounded by pieces of lackadaisical talking and considering, however, it feels oddly and unfairly muted.
Jacobs, however, proves herself a game and talented director and actor. Highly expressive, wonderfully open, and undeniably daring, “The Seven Faces of Jane” remains worth watching for all her efforts. She throws herself into the project, and each film is better for her commitment. She dances, she weeps — she weeps a lot. Jeong’s film even reunites her with “Community” star Joel McHale, with whom she always shared an easy chemistry. At times it almost feels as though “The Seven Faces of Jane” is a better actor’s reel for Jacobs than it is a successful project, begging other directors to put her in more interesting work.
These are talented filmmakers who seem as though they’ve been inexplicably stuck together for this project that none of them are all too invested in. Jane, for that matter, comes off not only scattered — that’s to be expected — but also shallow. It’s not so much that there’s no version of Jane that she herself likes; it’s that these directors don’t seem to like her very much, either. Her interests, her wants (especially those outside of men she knows) never seem that important to her.
The nature of the pandemic saw the work of many filmmakers taking bold, new and exciting chances in order to work creatively within the confines of a tumultuous time. Despite playing with both limitations (time, budget, actors) as well as expansiveness (the free room each director got to play with), “The Seven Faces of Jane,” feels like it takes a step backwards in creative development. The sandbox of “The Seven Faces of Jane” might have been fun for these filmmakers to play in for a while, but the results are drab and uninteresting. If there’s a winner in this particular exquisite corpse game, it’s certainly not the audience.
“The Seven Faces of Jane” opens in U.S. theaters and on demand Jan. 13 via Gravitas Ventures.