ON midnight Thursday, the elegant contemporary interiors of the new Chop restaurant on the corner of Sargent Avenue and Century Street underwent a transformation into something at once more exotic and sinister.
It became the Black Narcissus Restaurant.
Well after the witching hour, when most restaurants are dark and deserted, this place is bustling with prosperous-looking, elegantly attired diners ... all apparently unaware that a murder is being committed in the men's washroom by a serial killer out to eliminate the only living witness to his crimes.
The movie is Faces in the Crowd. The diners are mostly local extras and the witness, a kindergarten teacher named Anna, is being played by Milla Jovovich, the 34-year-old Ukraine-born actress-model-designer-singer.
After Jovovich, clad in a hip-length raincoat and a long silk scarf, walks through the restaurant for a blocking session, onlooking costume designer Cathy McComb observes from one of the restaurant's booths that Jovovich is so beautiful, the biggest challenge McComb faced was trying to make her look like an average woman.
The "average" is an important distinction. In other films, from the Resident Evil franchise to The Messenger (the 1999 historical drama in which she played Joan of Arc), Jovovich is usually more proactive in dealing with threats of both an earthly and unearthly nature. But in this film, she's at a distinct disadvantage. When her escape from the killer results in a brain injury, Anna suffers from a condition known as prosopagnosia, or "face blindness." The condition is described by the film's French-born writer-director Julien Magnat as being similar to dyslexia, only it's facial features that become unreadable.
For the purposes of the film, that means when Anna is interacting with one character, Jovovich must play the scene with a multitude of different but similar-looking actors, all reflecting Anna's visually unstable point of view.
"It's like every character is an ensemble," Magnat says.
"I have to be dealing with it in a way like (Anna) does," says Jovovich during a brief break from the shoot. "It just becomes very different to have so many different faces everywhere. They all look similar, but they're all very different."
She says she's grateful Magnat didn't exercise the option of employing a single actor for each part and distorting his or her face with visual effects.
"This is definitely one of those movies where special effects and CGI would be wasted," she says, "because it would almost take away from my performance. The fact that I'm not comfortable with (a procession of actors playing the same role) helps me a lot."
The character is different in other ways from Jovovich's previous work too, especially her
Resident Evil heroine Alice, who helped establish Jovovich as one of those rare actresses who can commit to full-contact action sequences while looking stunningly beautiful doing it.
Just don't expect much in the way of Jovovichian ass-kicking this time out.
"She's a sweet person and she doesn't know how to use a gun," Jovovich says of Anna. "I've never really played a character like this before -- a normal girl dealing with these abnormal circumstances.
"And I've never done a movie like this before," she says. "I think conceptually, it's really cool.
It's a thriller but it's a thriller that's esthetically really interesting. It looks so different."
Magnat set out to give the film the tone of a classic thriller to complement the potentially confusing face-changing motif. Renaming the Chop restaurant "Black Narcissus" would seem to be a shout-out to the 1947 drama of the same name by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. But Alfred Hitchcock is the name that crops up to describe the look Magnat is going for.
"It has a little bit of that Hitchcock feeling and Milla's hairstyle sometimes (looks like) Grace Kelly," Magnat says.
"It's a woman-in-jeopardy movie and Hitchcock did that so well."
The setting of the film is kept ambiguous, but the city of Winnipeg significantly added to its esthetic, especially the Exchange District (Magnat loves old buildings with fire escapes) and a key sequence in which Anna is injured in a fall from the Provencher Bridge.
"The Provencher Bridge has never been used in a movie," Magnat says. "And the first day I saw that I was like: Can we have that? It's very exciting." (To the delight of producer Jean-Charles Levy, the City of Winnipeg's film office closed traffic on the bridge for five nights so the movie could shoot there.) But the preponderance of night shoots have been challenging, says Jovovich.
"I've never worked so many nights on a film, so it's been kind of crazy to have a two-and-ahalf year old with you and be working nights," she says, referring to her daughter Ever with husband (and Resident Evil director) Paul W. S.
"The schedule has been trying for everybody," she says. "But when you don't have kids, you can go home and sleep and wake up a half an hour before your call. But when you have kids, you come home and it's full-on. She's just bouncing off the walls and I've got to be there with her.
"It's tough shooting that late but I'm just so blessed that I can have my daughter here and spend so much time with her," Jovovich says.
Faces in the Crowd commenced shooting May 8 and wraps Monday. It is expected to be released in the fall of 2011.