“Death Becomes Her,” directed by Robert Zemeckis

death becomes her

By Ray Sawhill

Meryl Streep’s performance in Robert Zemeckis’ new movie “Death Becomes Her” doesn’t wipe out memories of the hours of classy boredom she’s inflicted — instead, it makes amusing use of them. As a dragon-lady star of stage and screen, Streep scrawls nasty things on “Meryl Streep,” the A-student. (In all fairness, it must be admitted that for several pictures — “She-Devil,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Defending Your Life” — she has been trying to subvert her image.) An immaculate performer, she doesn’t have the messiness or the subterranean qualities that true popular stars have. Here, her performance is like a Mad magazine parody of a Streep performance, only she’s giving it herself — and she has edge and dirt. You can finally see what people who saw her on stage have always said they saw — a sense of fun. She may be constitutionally incapable of cutting loose; even her yowls and hisses are impeccably modulated. But her control is part of the joke, and she seems wise to it.

“Death Becomes Her” is a striking horror comedy about glamour and the desire for eternal youth — an enjoyably malicious Hollywood act of self-desecration. Streep is the aging star; Goldie Hawn is the dormouse best friend, whose fiancés Streep keeps stealing. They play female drag queens, scrapping to the death over a guy who isn’t worth it (and who knows he isn’t worth it) — a plastic surgeon played by Bruce Willis. Isabella Rossellini, in a low-slung sarong and Salomé necklaces, is a siren with an elixir that defies time and aging. Her presence, with its echoes of cosmetic ads and of her mother, kicks the movie into fantasyland.

The screenwriters, David Koepp and Martin Donovan, have described their script as “Night of the Living Dead as Noel Coward would have done it” — it’s pure camp ghoulishness and bitchiness. Robert Zemeckis’ direction is all boyish exuberance and technological hi-jinks. Zemeckis, who is known for his mock-heroic, Moebius-strip action comedies such as “Used Cars” and the “Back to the Future” series, goes for debonair comic poise. But the film still has its rambunctiousness — it’s like an Ealing comedy as the young Steven Spielberg might have directed it.

As a failure who’s out of his league, half-boozed and skidding around corners, Willis doesn’t just play against type. He creates a convincingly small man with ordinary failings and wholesome goals; he’d like to live out a Capra film but he’s caught up in a Puccini opera. Goldie’s a joy in her scenes with Meryl when they’ve made up after their feuds — they’re girls together again, finishing each other’s sentences. And when Goldie’s weight balloons in misery — itself a joke on the actress’s obvious fanaticism about her figure — she seems inspired. If she’s not as successful in her other scenes, this isn’t just because her own features have clearly gotten some surgical tune-ups but because she hasn’t figured out a Phyllis Diller-like way of acknowledging and enjoying the improvement. On some level she’s still hoping we won’t notice.

Zemeckis plays with elements straight out of horror films: turrets, mirrors, shadows, fireplaces, arches, thunder and lightning. It’s “Kane” and it’s “Frankenstein,” with the iconography used not for depth and resonance (however pseudo), but cartoonishly. (And the special effects are used for L.A.-gothic shivers.) Zemeckis, the misanthropic puppet-master — the filmmaker as mad-scientist/cartoonist — is too cold-hearted to achieve beauty, but he gives the film a spooky, layered, visual splendiferousness. He wraps the action in oversized marble staircases and columns that are a parody of Hollywood postmodern/baronial luxe. They’re meant to contrast with the characters’ pettiness and narcissism. This epic décor is a joke about how the glamour factory is also a horror factory where people try to turn themselves into monuments to themselves. The composer Alan Silvestri partners Zemeckis, heightening the already-overdone Hollywood thing and making it even more absurdly grand.

Zemeckis has the soul of a mid-American media-junkie kid. He’s frankly in love with speed and cheapness, over-the-top-ness, camera hysteria, genre clichés — with the vulgarity of film, and with the ways movies can overstimulate us. His style expresses the uncontrollable enthusiasm of a small boy turned on by the huge movie image and engulfing music.

But the film’s combination of wit and physicality unnerves some people, as though you ought to be allowed only one or the other. These people find Zemeckis’ perversity and excitement an assault; they want to be asked to care for the characters on screen. Zemeckis never asks you to believe in what he’s showing you; in his films, human values exist only to be mocked.

Zemeckis excites us, then needles our responsiveness to the movie image — not for an art effect, but strictly for our entertainment. He’s a companionable sadist. Like Joe Dante and Brian De Palma, Zemeckis can seem crude, dumb and childish to Europeans, and to people who cling to European-style notions about art and seriousness. He’s the opposite of an art movie-maker; the tradition he’s working in is of overbright commercial entertainment. Yet in “Used Cars” and “Death Becomes Her,” he provokes some of the same responses Buñuel sometimes did. (It’s another sign of how well-digested “revolutionary” as an aesthetic criterion has become that people who have learned to appreciate surrealism and to talk with approval of its revolutionary intent get riled by “Death Becomes Her.”)

Zemeckis gives viewers no moral vision to hang onto; putting over his cartoon effects is his only morality. Streep’s noggin gets bopped and her neck breaks and hinges over backwards, leaving her head hanging upside down between her shoulder blades. Goldie Hawn rises from being shot, angry as hell and with a hole a foot wide in her gut. It’s cheerfully gruesome and macabre — pop Buñuel.

“Death Becomes Her” is such a rowdy hunk of polished malevolence that it made American media people fret and freak when it was released this summer. It’s a kick watching the hypersensitivities erupt — adults grow touchy about the things they threw darts at as kids. Variety’s scorecard of critics’ reactions showed 14 negative and only five positive reviews. David Denby proclaimed from on high, or least in New York magazine, that it was all he could do to refrain from calling the film the worst big-budget movie he’d ever seen: “anxiety, loathing and self-hatred gush from its pores,” he thundered. (When evil needs crushing Denby’s your man.) Even the people who devised the publicity campaign felt it necessary for the ads to spell out that the film is a black comedy.

Perhaps just raising the topic of women and aging is enough to put some people in the mood not to laugh, and to make them find a film cruel to its women characters. It’s probably no use pointing out that the film is cruel to everyone, and that’s the fun — pleasure in amoral vindictiveness is not the kind of fun these people want from a movie. Of course Zemeckis sees his women as monsters. But he’s also tickled by their overblown crass vitality and their cut-throat determination to have things their way. The plastic surgeon, who wants to live out a normal lifespan and redeem himself with humane works, is cackled at. He’s a sucker, a softie who wants to do good — he’s like the people in the audience who are horrified by the film.

Zemeckis apparently lacks the desire to do anything elevated in tone. (He’s an anti-do-gooder.) But it may be that his mean-spiritedness is what gives him staying power and keeps his work enjoyable. He has made a few films some of us have regarded as duds (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, “Back to the Future II”); he has asked us to care about his characters a few times (“Romancing the Stone,” “Back to the Future”); and this film has some glitches of logic. But throughout the whole of his career (it began in 1978 with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”), he has never once romanticized his feelings, not even his feelings about movies.

Cheerfully lowbrow, Zemeckis’ pictures can be wonderfully complicated and suggestive. “Death Becomes Her” may get you thinking about how the overlapping themes of time-travel and of bringing the dead back to life are among the most potent themes of pop movies. And, like all his films, it’s full of screens, reflections, frames and projections. You could set a team of grad students to work on such topics as “Zemeckis’ use of blue-screen effects,” or “the foreground/background joke,” or “contraptions, toys and models as metaphors for the filmmaking process,” or “old movie cannibalization and the new movie image,” and keep them busy for years. But Zemeckis doesn’t get poetic; he gets the giggles. His hall of mirrors is located at the suburban multiplex.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Misson to Mars,” directed by Brian De Palma

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Space Rhapsody

By Ray Sawhill

Last Saturday, after a week of media-free living in Mexico, my wife and I walked into a San Diego movie theater, where we watched a new science fiction picture in the company of a modest crowd. At first I was intrigued by its quiet tone. Some awkward moments made me worry that the film might lose its audience, but the crowd remained attentive. Then some passages of extraordinary beauty and daring took me another step in. By the film’s end I was quite moved. I spent the rest of the evening happily babbling about what the movie had made me feel and think.

The movie was Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars,” and only when we arrived in New York and I tuned back into the media did I learn what readers who follow the press’s coverage of movies already know — that “Mission to Mars” got the year’s worst reviews, a spanking almost as severe as that received by an earlier De Palma film, “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Friends told me of press screenings where viewers jeered the film, and after a first weekend of strong business, audiences for the film are growing sparse. The reviewers’ criticisms? The movie is slow, it’s unconvincing, it’s preposterous, it’s over-solemn. Rumor has it that De Palma was so humiliated by his notices that he canceled all his publicity dates after the reviews came out. “Mission to Mars,” the world seems to have concluded, just doesn’t work.

Beg to differ: it sure worked for me. I’d like to suggest that it might work for some other viewers too — at least if you don’t go to it expecting a big corporate space jam. Instead, it’s introverted and reflective, less a conventional clash-of-conflicting-desires drama than a mournful, sweet ballad on the themes of fate, adventure, and near misses. It’s narrative poetry in the guise of an outer-space adventure — not such a strange combination, if you think of something like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

It has to be admitted that De Palma’s movies are a special case. He has never had much gift for conventional persuasiveness. The acting in his movies can look college-production awkward, and, although he has featured such actors as Robert De Niro and John Travolta early in their careers, he sometimes makes bumbling casting mistakes. (Here, Armin Muehler-Stahl is as heavy-spirited and hammy as ever.) De Palma has always struck me as a born avant-gardist, a Donald Barthelme or Godard type who has applied himself conscientiously to the making of conventional pop movies. Perhaps he appeals most to people for whom art is a game anyway, and who don’t need a lot of persuading in order to join in.

For those who do find his wavelength, “Mission to Mars” offers a jaunty and gallant Tim Robbins; Don Cheadle doing a good job of suggesting mental horsepower and technical expertise; and a real find in Connie Nielsen, a poised Swedish beauty who suggests Isabella Rossellini with a couple of advanced degrees. There are some beautifully done stretches where De Palma takes you inside the kinds of mental states you might experience during moments of panic, as well as unusual moments when you’re drawn into a character’s cerebrations. Gary Sinise, playing a hurtin’ astronaut who feels he has nothing to lose, may not be the ideal actor for this role — he’s gloomy where he needs to be warm — but he comes through at his best here. The movie also offers some silent-movie style visual poetry, corny, obvious images that are transcended by feeling and audacity.

It also offers genuine thought and reflection — and not the usual art-and-entertainment-world, gender/power/class/race crapola. De Palma is genuinely a science-idea-driven filmmaker. When I interviewed him some years ago, I found him guarded and perverse. Then I ventured the thought that I was convinced his thriller “The Fury” — like “Mission to Mars,” occasionally preposterous on the surface but brilliant underneath — was really all about cybernetics (a science that studies feedback and control, and that has been of intense interest to people in computers and neuroscience), and riffed on how the film’s themes, organization and staging suggested circuitry and feedback loops of both the electronic and organic type.

He brightened up and told me he’d written a thesis in college on cybernetics, and from then on the interview went swimmingly. (The Times the other day ran a story about some scientists who have proposed that a meteorite shower millions of years ago perhaps seeded the earth — an idea not far from one of the major ideas in the film.) “Mission to Mars” could be said to be about the human cost of our involvement in our ideas and adventures, and about how that cost makes us ask ourselves some of the big questions: Why, for instance, are we forever getting ourselves into these predicaments? And what are the sources of our drives?

Here are some tips about what to watch for in the film. Look for circles and spirals, the way circles are always morphing into spirals, and the ways De Palma associates these shapes with dance and rhythm: the pulsing double helixes, the twister that swallows the crew in the first act, the way blood and soda spiral around in weightlessness — images that made me, for one, gasp at their beauty. Even the film’s telescoping narrative suggests a spiral — it begins in great circling camera moves set to swirling Louisiana music, moves through several apparent protagonists, and ends with a blastoff through a column of luminous swirling debris.

Watch for the use of toys, models and rehearsals. An early emergency occurs when a micrometeorite breaks through a touch-screen the astronauts are using to prepare for dealing with emergencies. Suddenly they’re contending with an emergency they had no way of anticipating.

The film begins with a visual joke — a rocket blastoff that turns out to be a toy rocket. By the final blastoff, real lives are at stake. De Palma is talking about the way we seem to be moving from an industrial culture that demands certitude and explanation to an information culture, where everything is a matter of probability and we try to comprehend the world by making models of it. Kubrick, our only other truly intellectual feature-filmmaker, got the respect for his brains (even for “Eyes Wide Shut” !) that De Palma has never gotten — perhaps because the later Kubrick always maintained a magisterial, Euro-serious manner. De Palma is more American and boyish; he at least tries to deliver the pop goods.

You’ve never seen a movie where so much of it is upside down, circular, or rotating. De Palma swoops in, right through windows and other barriers, on his space-suited characters as they float about, or walk around in circles. He’s suggesting the fun and fact of weightlessness, of course, but also the giddiness of that domain we’re all getting to know called cyberspace, and perhaps the experience of thought itself. Watch also for the way the number three keeps recurring, and let yourself play with its resonances and suggestions: mother/father/child, the three acts of conventional drama, the three main parts of the human body, the three orders of classical architecture. The Christian Trinity, also: De Palma makes a point of always having someone say, when experiencing terror or surprise, “Jesus,” or “My God.”

There’s a real vision here — of life as a game that, whether we want it to or not, will always get serious on us; an almost Tantric vision of women (the circle) and men (the column) attaining occasional bliss (the spiral) together; of art and religion as the outs that our fate occasionally permits us. And it’s a vision of the place of ideas and belief in our lives. The film might be said to be a meditation on origins and destinies, couplehood and death, and the fate of pictorial storytelling in the age of the computer — motifs and themes that are braided through the film with a complexity that suggests two great late Chris Marker films, “Sans Soleil” and “The Last Bolshevik.”

Why did the press come down so heavily on “Mission to Mars”? On a surface level, the film certainly isn’t as convincing or dynamic as it perhaps ought to be. But there’s plenty of high-quality urgent realism to be had these days — “Law and Order,” for instance, is on TV nearly every night. Why insist on it from every work of dramatic entertainment? Some reviewers complained that when emergencies occurred, the astronauts remained too poker-faced. But many people enter a deliberate, calm state during emergencies. Do we really need the usual flashing red lights, and extras rushing about as though supplying background action for “E.R.”? The film is certainly unusual — internalized, yet played out as spectacle. But at least some reviewers are familiar with the likes of Tarkovsky’s legendary “Solaris,” the winner of no one’s awards for plausibility or peppy editing. And is the film’s much-ridiculed dialog really worse than the dialog in “2001” or “Aliens”? Really? The film was even mocked for its space creature — but she struck me as a witty fusion of the Roswell alien and a Cambodian Buddha, along with suggestions of E.T.; in a nice touch, her frog eyes echo Sinise’s.

Is it unfair of me to wonder aloud whether, at a time when ironic or edgy media gloating is the preferred tone, the film’s combination of intellectuality and emotional straightforwardness was hard for reviewers to process? But perhaps they really just didn’t enjoy the film. Too bad — there’s much there to love. Here’s my tip for those who know and respond to some of De Palma’s work: “Mission to Mars” is one of his tender, personal films, like “Blow Out” and “Casualties of War.” For those who have never tuned in to his movies, this isn’t the one that will win you over, though I don’t think even on a surface level it’s as bad as it’s been made out to be.

For everyone else: Why not try “Mission to Mars”? If you don’t mind forgiving some surface gaffes and letting the film’s deeper structures go to work on you, you might find yourself enjoying some unusual visions. Late in the film, Sinise is being prepared for a long journey. He steps into a lighted circle, is encased in a glass column (those circles! those columns!), and is submerged in a clear, roiling liquid. In a panic, he holds his breath until he can’t hold it anymore. The air finally bursts out of him — but then he finds he can get oxygen from the fluid. Is he a baby in a womb or a living exhibit? Is he dying or in ecstasy? In any case, this questing, melancholy searcher is finally going home. “Mission to Mars” is a nerd’s rhapsody.

©2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

“Liquid Sky,” directed by Slava Tsukerman

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By Ray Sawhill

As “Liquid Sky” begins, a pie-plate-size flying saucer lands on an apartment building. Soon after, the sex partners of a sullen model begin dying just as they reach climax. A low-budget art-house hit directed by a Soviet émigré named Slava Tsukerman, this film is a curiosity. Part science-fiction thriller, part Warhol-style spoof of Manhattan’s punk music and fashion scene, it takes a dry, faintly burlesque look at its wild material. The lighting is lurid, the new-wave décor and costumes are amusingly garish, and the oompah-music score is a pleasing reminder of the avant-garde of the 1920s.

Given all that, it’s too bad that “Liquid Sky” never really turns into much of anything. Too many scenes don’t play conventionally and don’t work as camp. And some of the performances are lousy enough even in fun-bad-acting terms to be downright painful. The cast does have one standout: Anne Carlisle, who plays a young male drug addict as well as the model. Big and strong-shouldered, yet with some of the debauched-thoroughbred look of an Edie Sedgwick, Carlisle is fascinating to watch. In one of the movie’s most effective scenes, she steps out onto a terrace and implores the aliens inside the tiny spaceship to accept her. The sky is black, the wind blows through her lacy dress, and her eyes are soft but demented. “You can feed on me if you want to,” she offers. The moment has a voluptuous, Gothic glamour.

©1983 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“The Cooler,” directed by Wayne Kramer

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By Ray Sawhill

I found “The Cooler” sweet and absorbing. Praise the lord: it isn’t a flashy electronic-media thing. And, although it was shot in six weeks for very little money, it’s full of real acting, real writing, and real filmmaking. It’s an experience to sink into, not to be wiped out by.

Whether or not you enjoy the film may depend on how well you tolerate several things: the neonoir form; and fairy tales about little people, Lady Luck, and Vegas. I fell for the whole package. William Macy gives his most William Macy performance ever as an über-loser who’s such a sadsack that he’s employed by a casino to ruin people’s luck. He’s The Cooler: all it takes to cool someone’s good run is for Macy to walk on by. Maria Bello plays a gorgeous ragamuffin whose hopes have come to naught but whose emotions aren’t yet extinct. Alec Baldwin is the scummy oldstyle casino owner whose schemes throw Macy and Bello together.

As far as I was concerned, the film isn’t in the same class as the best of the semi-recent neonoirs, “The Grifters” and “Croupier.” Main reason: an overlong third act, during which the filmmakers run their characters through every possible narrative variation, a few of which struck me as skippable. But I was very happy spending a couple of hours in the film’s world. The actors, who let it all hang out in many lovely ways, show a lot of talent, skill, and gusto; the smallscale, bluesy atmosphere is enchanting; and the tough/tender, make-believe tone is pitch perfect.

©2006 by Ray Sawhill

“Bull Durham,” directed by Ron Shelton

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By Ray Sawhill

Set in baseball’s minor leagues and written and directed by Ron Shelton, who spent five years in the minors himself, “Bull Durham” is a comic, engaging mix of burliness and delicacy. It gives, in movie terms, a version of the so-stirring-they’re-funny emotions that sports events sometimes deliver, and it’s full of scenes that are instant classics.

As it begins, a soul-gospel voice soars over sepia photos of baseball heroes, and Susan Sarandon, in a voice-over, explains that to her baseball is a religion. She plays a baseball groupie in perhaps her mid-30s. Kevin Costner is a seasoned catcher nearing the end of his playing career who’s sent to the Durham, N.C., Bulls by their parent organization to break in a gifted but loutish young pitcher, played by Tim Robbins. Every year, Sarandon tells us, she takes one of the Bulls as her lover, and every year that lucky man has his best baseball year ever. This year she picks the kid, even as she and Costner size each other up over the kid’s head.

The film is about how to make the magic happen, or at least how to nudge it along — about how the ability to “throw smoke,” while exciting, doesn’t last long and isn’t everything. The kid has a hot arm and a hot dick, and he can’t figure out why Costner and Sarandon don’t think that’s enough. On the field, Costner faces him down, forcing him to mix his pitches up and obey the catcher’s signals; in the bedroom, Sarandon lures him into taking his time, and into letting her enjoyment become part of his pleasure.

The film has a goofy, sweet side that takes off from the fact that everyone in it is a baseball fan, even the ball players. When Costner tells his teammates about a few weeks he spent in the majors, there’s the kind of hush there might be if an Elvis nut were telling others about the day he shook hands with the King. When the kid is having a bad streak, Sarandon, who is taken with pop forms of mysticism, urges him to pay attention to his chakras, to be sure to breathe through his eyelids, and to wear one of her black garterbelts under his uniform. Costner laughs when he finds out, but respects her suggestions; after all, they might work.

Ron Shelton brings his own kind of seasoning to the picture. In addition to having spent time in the minors, he’s an experienced yarn spinner; he worked on the script of “Under Fire” and wrote “The Best of Times.” As a director, he’s warm and rowdy with actors, and he’s sly and deceptively lackadaisical; his story points always arrive with a lot more stuff on them that he’s led you to expect. The minor-league setting helps keep things colorful and in perspective — the spotlights are pointed elsewhere, so the people here can wear their idiosyncrasies more openly. Robbins makes a wonderful musclehead, and Costner and Sarandon seem ideally cast; they’re skillful, spirited actors — team players. And the film has a kind of daring in its suggestion that the Costner character — someone who never made it big, who’s on his way out and to whom almost no one has ever paid much attention — has his own accomplishments and points of legitimate pride. Yet it doesn’t sentimentalize, mythologize or romanticize him. We see that he gets by on tenacity, concentration and brains, and that he has managed to learn that there are concerns more important than making it in “the show,” which is minor-league slang for the majors.

©1988 by Ray Sawhill

“Blind Beast,” directed by Yasuzo Masumura

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By Ray Sawhill

Yasuzo Masumura had studied law and philosophy in college and filmmaking in Rome and he had apprenticed with Ichikawa and Mizoguchi before he began to make his own movies in the mid-1950s.

His 1969 “Blind Beast” is a psychodrama that suggests early Bertolucci (“Partner,” say) crossed with Butoh. It’s a kinky study of a blind sculptor who, with the help of his possessive mom, kidnaps a vampy model; he’s a virgin and an artist, and he wants to put his heightened sense of touch to use creating a masterpiece of sculpture. When the sexy model starts to mess with her naive captor’s mind, mama-san ain’t pleased and the film’s kink-factor goes into overdrive.

Most of “Blind Beast” takes place in a large, stark set whose decoration consists of casts of oversize body parts, as well as two enormous soft-sculptured women’s torsos. The anguished, hysterical characters — who spend a lot of time groping each other — dart and crawl around a stagey space that’s like what Noguchi designed for Martha Graham. It don’t get more primal than that.

My verdict is that the film is divided about 50/50 between the boringly pretentious and the entertainingly perverse. I loved an outlandish early scene, for instance, when the model spies on the sculptor, who is fondling a sculpture another artist made of the model. As the blind sculptor caresses the scupture’s private spots, the model gasps and convulses as though he’s touching her. Whew. It’s all very ’60s, but it’s short, it’s well-lit, and it has a dozen memorable far-out moments. And Mako Midori — who plays the self-centered, amoral model — has a crisp, Carnaby-Street-style beauty, as well as a lot of talent.

©2007 by Ray Sawhill

“Mimic,” directed by Guillermo del Toro

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By Ray Sawhill

“Mimic” is undoubtedly the best mutant-cockroach horror thriller ever made. Even granting that there hasn’t been much competition, this is intended as a high compliment. The director Guillermo (“Cronos”) del Toro’s giddy, elegant scare picture is also a mutant among current movies: it never sacrifices its story or characters to its special effects, and its thrills aren’t extensions of theme parks or videogames. It works on your emotions rather than your nerves.

The script, from a short story by Donald Wolheim, tells a classic nature-takes-revenge-on-us-for-messing-with-her story. Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam are scientists who have stopped a cockroach-borne epidemic in New York City by releasing genetically engineered roaches programmed to breed and then die. A few years later signs of a different problem appear: some of the designer bugs may have outwitted their DNA, mutating into scary new forms. The two scientists set out to solve the problem they have created.

A virtuoso at tension and atmosphere, Del Toro orchestrates sounds, shadows and textures with expressionist malice, and sets the action amid damp, vaulted spaces and in tunnels full of forgotten industrial debris — the city as a roach nest. Sorvino, with her air of Yuppie expertise and her face puffy with guilt and fear, is touching as the top bug-fighter. Playing her mentor, F. Murray Abraham hits eerie bass notes. Charles S. Dutton, warm and humorous, is the cop who leads the team underground.

As a yuck!-and-eek! extravaganza, the film is an effective successor to “Scream” — audiences at New York previews have been shrieking, giggling and talking back to the screen. Yet “Mimic” is also a feast for film buffs, recalling such cult favorites as 1985’s “Re-Animator” and the Italian vampire and horror movies of the ’60s. In one long sequence, the investigators take shelter in an abandoned subway car deep under the city. All around are scaffolding and crud; above, far out of reach, beckons an enormous, befogged skylight. The image has the flamboyant poetry that silent movies are still treasured for. Then the giant cockroaches attack. “Mimic” is just an exploitation movie with artistic touches, but it gives us the creeps about all the creatures we share our cities with.

©1997 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Romance,” directed by Catherine Breillat

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By Ray Sawhill

1.

Had Catherine Breillat’s “Romance” been released 25 years ago, it would have caused an immense fuss in the press, and would likely have been a must-see for the stylish crowd. You’d have overheard people arguing about it in restaurants and bars. Hipsters would have competed to see who could be bored with the whole brouhaha first. These days, who knows how it’ll be received? It is an art-house sex movie, and that term no longer has the allure it once did. But I found “Romance” to be one of the two or three most potent films about sex I’ve seen in the last few decades. And I hope to persuade you that it’s something more than just some arty turn-on, though among other things it certainly is that, too.

It’s quite different from “Basic Instinct,” “Eyes Wide Shut” or “Nine 1/2 Weeks.” No stars, no melodrama, no rock soundtrack, no flashy cutting. Instead, “Romance” is austere, even clinical. And where such gross-out date movies as “There’s Something About Mary” and “American Pie” suggest food fights at the Burger King, “Romance” is like an evening spent at a four-star restaurant, lingering over the paté and snails. “Romance” is about Marie (Caroline Ducey), a sexually frustrated woman who is looking to be fulfilled, wherever that desire may take her.

She’s a schoolteacher, mousey but chic, whose narcissistic, male-model boyfriend (Sagamore Stevenin) will barely touch her, and he won’t let her touch him. For the needy Marie, he’s like a Beckettian, cosmic joke. Depressed by his sensual neglect, she seeks physical fulfillment elsewhere. She finds an Italian stud (played by the international porn star Rocco Siffredi). Her boss at school (François Berleand) provides her some surprises, and other men have a go at her too. Woven throughout is Marie’s voice, in an unusual kind of voice-over that’s part diary, part stream-of-consciousness.

Breillat has a talent for targeting and hitting raw spots. Attracted to images and situations where the gruesome and the voluptuous are hard to disentangle, she’s a specialist in unease. (When does she want us to laugh? It can be hard to tell, but the movie is occasionally very funny.) And in “Romance” she has created a landmark — the first movie to give a convincing, feature-length account of sex from a woman’s point of view.

In many ways, “Romance” is a version of the standard French novella about sex and death, the one with short chapters and lots of somber white space. But watching performers embody the explicit sex acts you’re used to reading about on the page changes the experience drastically. (“Romance” suggests a film from Femme Productions directed by Eric Rohmer.) The movie has the kind of daredevil oomph that those of us who treasure memories of moviegoing in the ’70s recall. Breillat seems to have been infuriated at all those films that feature manicured, coiffed Frenchwomen conducting unhappy affairs while looking poised and expectant even in bed. She wants to show us what following the sex urge out is really like.

2.

romance in bed with boyfriend

When did people decide that the aphrodisiac has no place in art? Some moviegoers have fallen into the habit of dismissing such work as “just a turn-on.” But that is to dismiss essential parts of major art traditions — Japanese, Italian, Indian and French film, just to start, which were once sought out by what were known as “adult filmgoers.” It was understood that a French movie wasn’t just an excuse to get out of the house, but also an occasion for visiting cafés and bars afterwards, to flirt, drink and flex a little intellectualism. Another hurdle for filmgoers who might otherwise be open to more eroticism is the legacy of some feminist film theorists, who have long asserted that the camera is an expression of the phallus, and is thereby related to technology’s rape of nature, America’s rape of Vietnam, capitalism’s rape of everything — you name it. They have made a lot of educated people feel that it’s offensive to look at performers with adoration and lust, and to use movie images to keep our inner flames burning. (We do it anyway, but we react to being chastened by becoming crude.)

But taking erotic pleasure in filming and watching performers isn’t just some perverse hobby. It’s central to the history of movies. Certainly, there can be a kind of implicit pornography in shots of performers; there can also be admiration. Often, and perhaps ideally, there’s both. Stiller and Garbo, Hitchcock and Grace Kelly, Von Sternberg and Dietrich — these were collaborations, not acts of rape. Jean Renoir once said that the reason he went to all the trouble of financing, writing, directing and editing movies was to justify making close-ups of actresses he loved. As moviegoers, we tend to luxuriate in the idea that the image before us is of both a made-up character and a real person. (That really is Nicole Kidman’s butt, and at the same time I accept it as the butt of the character she’s playing.) For much of film history, this duality — the fact that every movie is both a work of fiction and a documentary, more specifically a documentary about its performers — has been one of the major, disturbing attractions of the medium. It has always been part of what draws people into theaters, and draws some people into filmmaking itself.

Younger American audiences, particularly those raised in a P.C., media-saturated environment, are especially likely to find “Romance” objectionable. It won’t reward a channel-surfing, crack-wise-with-your-friends state of mind (as, say, “Sex in the City” and “Cruel Intentions” do). Worse, a full-bodied appreciation of the movie depends on having a range of cultural references that extends slightly beyond the purely pop. That lighting calls up Ingres, doesn’t it? And isn’t that image of scissors and clingy, wet panties reminiscent of Oppenheim’s furry teacup? Some familiarity with authors such as Colette, Tanizaki, the comtesse de La Fayette, Georges Bataille, Lady Murasaki and Strindberg won’t hurt either.

Enjoying “Romance” depends on our ability to feel the seductiveness of beauty, to wince when it’s violated, and to recognize what it implies of an inner life. The spareness of the film’s visual design (the Japanese touches, the white/blue/crimson color scheme, the use of circles and visual frames), Breillat’s attentiveness to acoustic shifts, and of course the eyes, flesh and feelings of the actress Ducey — they’re what the movie is built of.

In the 1970s, these aspects of film — a fascination with beauty, movie history, performers and sex — all boiled to the surface in what I think of as the “let’s fuck in a bare apartment until we arrive at an existential realization of ourselves, or die trying” genre. These films range from the sublime (“Last Tango in Paris,” “The Last Woman”) to the provocative (“In the Realm of the Senses”) to the preposterous (“The Night Porter”). Breillat had a small role in “Last Tango,” and has said that she was inspired to make “Romance” when she watched “In the Realm of the Senses.” Can art and porn be fused? Can a movie achieve the stature of, say, the novel “Story of ‘O'”?

3.

romance after rape

Breillat’s approach to moviemaking is lordly in a way that I usually find off-putting. (Of her previous movies, only the 1988 “36 Fillette” is available on video in this country, and I didn’t enjoy it much. A search on the used-book Web site Bibliofind turned up a copy of her novel, “A Man for the Asking,” which she wrote at 17. It’s ferociously pretentious, but pretty sexy.) She’s a ’60s princess with a weakness for dry theory, and in “Romance,” she’s aristocratically pitiless in the way she cuts her characters almost no slack. Yet in this case her temperament and approach yield some astounding scenes.

In one, it’s night, and Marie’s on foot. She passes a guy who mutters to her that he’ll give her some money if she’ll let him perform oral sex on her. She pauses, then assents. In an unbroken shot, he goes down on her for a bit, but then flips her over and semi-rapes her from behind. She claws the ground as he thumps away, but she doesn’t try to escape. When he’s done, he calls her vile names and hurries off. She yells after him angrily, “I’m not ashamed” — yet by now she’s just a wet, shuddering heap of flesh. Marie has kind of asked for what she’s gotten, and has kind of not asked for it too, and is now both proud of and disgusted with herself.

For the spectator, the scene has heat, and messiness and complexity too. Breillat has carefully set up a number of dramatic skeins to give this scene its shuddery effect. Earlier, Marie, suspecting her boyfriend of having an affair, tracks him down, only to find him alone in a Japanese restaurant, eating sushi and reading Bukowski. She doesn’t want to get home before him, so the passing stranger’s offer has an appeal. Marie has spoken earlier about not liking to see the face of the man she’s having sex with. And since being gone down on is like being worshipped, she anticipates that she’ll feel in charge and exalted. But then she’s up-ended, repelled and not in charge of anything at all, yet getting something out of it anyway. Like many other scenes in the film, it feels almost out of control, but it also perfectly fits in.

Breillat’s approach also yields some beautiful close-ups. In one scene, a suave older fellow proposes tying her up. She doesn’t respond out loud. Instead, she backs up against the frame of a door and bows her head. She can’t say yes, but she wants him to proceed — or at least she thinks she does. She’s shying away, hoping he won’t disappoint her, but she doesn’t want to give him any help either. You see her furtiveness, her excitement and uncertainty. In other scenes, her face is swollen with longing and rage as she lies in bed next to her dud boyfriend. She’s a misery junkie ennobled by her addiction. (These images are similar to some of Godard’s in “Hail Mary,” but Breillat’s are more specific, and more charged.)

However much “Romance” resembles some male-made porn, the fact that it was made by a woman with high intentions changes the experience of watching these images and scenes. We aren’t staring at them from the outside, so we have to wrestle with their content. These are facts of this woman’s life, Breillat is saying — and she’s saying that maybe they imply something about women in general, too. Marie’s adventures don’t happen in the take-charge way we Americans have been taught to applaud. It’s hard to think of a worse role model than Marie, and women who want to like or at least approve of a movie’s heroine may find “Romance” hard to warm up to.

Marie sinks into passivity and masochism. She’s released emotionally, at least somewhat and for a while, by bondage and thralldom. Sex here is presented as an occasion for pleasure, despair and shame, as well as for near-religious ecstasy. (Breillat wants us to acknowledge that, while sex can lead you into a sense of self-discovery, it’s just as likely to leave you overwhelmed by loneliness.) The theme of “Romance” is a woman’s relationship with her erotic being, and Breillat has the sophistication to acknowledge that if you don’t feel good, that doesn’t always mean you’re doing something wrong; no relationship is always happy.

In one long, daring overhead shot, Marie is on her back, in bed, naked and masturbating. The camera travels from her crossed ankles up her tense legs, over her crotch and torso (her hand is hard at work), past her neck muscles and veins to her flushed, glossy, straining face. In a voice-over that resembles interior monologue, Marie says that she isn’t crazy about masturbation — “It’s only mildly satisfying, but it’s proof I don’t need a man.” Ultimate blasphemy, to present masturbation as something other than a triumphantly can-do form of self-empowerment.

The slim, dark-haired, covertly pretty Ducey had only had a few screen roles before “Romance.” The heightened and exposed way Breillat puts her on view is glorious but unsettling. There’s a narcissistic arrogance in the way Breillat works, as there was in the way Bertolucci worked at the time of “Last Tango in Paris.” (That’s part of the excitement of their work.) Your anxieties about the performers in these movies become part of your experience of the film.

When Marie is untied after being bound for the first time she bursts into wracking sobs. The man — who a minute ago had sat before her, admiring the beauty of her trussed-up form — now tries to soothe her, holding her in his arms and anxiously petting her damp hair. You wonder whether what you’re watching is one actor trying to calm another after a scene has misfired; you half-feel that you’re watching something that should have been an outtake. She wails and gasps and, finally getting a little hold of herself, says, it’s OK, my hands were just beginning to go numb — i.e., it’s been Marie, not Ducey, all along. I can’t think of a scene that danced so close to the existential edge since Brando’s monologues in “Last Tango.” Soon Marie is back for more. After playing with shackles and rope, she and the guy go out for caviar and vodka.

Some scattershot criticism: The movie is both a study — in the “objective” French manner — of a recognizable character type and a parable about creativity. (Marie is named Marie for a reason.) She endures trials in her search for fulfillment — there’s even the hint of an immaculate conception. Her journey (and the film’s title) may remind us of medieval romances and make us wonder: If a man’s search for the Grail takes him outside himself, where might a woman’s take her? Breillat’s use of Japanese touches and of circles may make us think of Zen, and may also relate to Marie’s desire for obliteration. (She speaks of wanting to be reduced to nothing but a hole during sex, yet she also dislikes parting her legs.) The salacious elements and the humor, the shock cuts and the poised pacing all put stresses on each other — Breillat is as strict (and cruel) as a French chef in holding it all together.

4.

romance spreader02

When I saw “Romance” for the first time, it was in New York at a festival of French films. The audience was largely French and largely female — the house was full of scarves, sweaters, makeup and disdain — and the humidity level got pretty high during several of the film’s sexier scenes. Outside afterwards, the women smoked and chatted appreciatively. The next time I saw the film was in a screening room, among a small crowd of New York media women who tittered happily and knowingly during the film’s first few minutes. There’s some just-among-us girls truth-telling in the film that resembles the sex-confession columns in the new grrrl-power-influenced women’s magazines, and the media women recognized and enjoyed it.

Then Ducey is in bed with the sweetly tender Rocco Siffredi, and there’s a yucky condom being held up and mused about — those Europeans, they’ll philosophize about anything! — and then Rocco gets hard, and my lord but he’s hung, and he politely asks Ducey — sorry, Marie — if she wants to be fucked in the ass (she declines, but graciously), and then, omigod, it looks as if they’re really having sex. From then on, the media women seemed agog. In the elevator after the film was over, most of them were visibly pulling themselves and their irony back together. But one woman looked at the others and asked straightforwardly, “Were you ready for that? Did you know what we were in for?”

These days, movies can be made more cheaply and with more freedom than ever before, and cable channels need programming. We also have a remarkable abundance of performers — especially women — with the gifts and drives to take dicey chances: Elizabeth Shue, Diane Lane, Georgina Cates, Rebecca de Mornay, Kelly Lynch, Fairuza Balk, Joey Lauren Adams, Elizabeth Peña, Ming-Na Wen and many others come to mind. We’ve even had a few small movies that have shown some worldliness — but Andrew Fleming’s “Threesome” and Amy Jones’ “Love Letters” went largely unnoticed. And when Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy,” which did have some success, was discussed, what got mentioned was the comically smutty dialogue, not the film’s tone of erotic melancholy, or its evocations of pain and regret.

But educated Americans, even while they’ve become more adventurous in their cooking and eating, have largely given up the pleasures of erotic movie art. They’ll rent porn, or watch a few minutes of a Cinemax “erotic thriller,” but they’ve lost the habit of searching out films that join sexual content with the psychological, visual and narrative power of real movie art. “Romance” can’t be beat as a way to remind ourselves of these pleasures, or perhaps to learn about them. Seeing it in a movie theater, in its full, stained-glass radiance, will certainly leave you with plenty to think about. Why not visit a bar, order drinks and talk the film over? That’s its own kind of erotic pleasure.

©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

“The Specialist,” directed by Luis Llosa

specialist

By Ray Sawhill

“The Specialist” is moronic and inept, and it put me in a very good mood. It’s an attempt at marrying a woman’s romance to an action-adventure plot. Sylvester Stallone is a bomb expert with something awful in his past. He’s in Miami, living the embittered former-soldier-of-fortune lifestyle — i.e., bunking down in an abandoned warehouse, practicing martial arts, playing intently with lethal gizmos that beep and make the camera cut to anxious close-ups. Sharon Stone is an enchantress who talks him into a risky job. Her parents were murdered when she was but a girl, and she wants Stallone to blow away the Latino gangster family responsible. Rod Steiger, really working that accent, is the ancient Latino patriarch, Eric Roberts the dumb stud son. The question is: can Sly and Sharon get over clinging to their pain and learn to trust each other?

The film has a luxury-resort quasi-glamour; it seems to have been made on sets that didn’t make the cut for De Palma’s “Scarface.” The visual scheme is tropicalismo: candy pink and neon blue, cabanas and palm trees. The script, by Alexandra Seros, shows a woman’s touch, if not perhaps to its best advantage. Stone to Stallone: “So that’s it? We just walk away? Forever?”

The director, Luis Llosa, may be bereft of filmmaking skills, but that doesn’t stop him from seeing everything in legendary terms. Steiger is unspeakably powerful; James Woods, playing Steiger’s Mr. Fixit and Stallone’s nemesis, unutterably unprincipled; Stallone indescribably masterful; Stone unthinkably beautiful. The bad guys smoke cigars to show how corrupt they are. John Barry contributes an appropriately excitable score. During one scene, the triumphal-yet-ominous horns and strings call up images in the mind of mounted lawmen arriving in town for the final showdown. What’s actually on-screen is Stallone carrying a bag of groceries.

Although watching Stallone struggle with his feelings is like watching cement being mixed, he’s surrounded by world-class hams. Eric Roberts is a sleek, spoiled viper. Woods wears domineering, double-breasted sports jackets, and throws a couple of fits as mean and funny as anything in “Pulp Fiction.” Both are as meek tyros beside Steiger, who chews scenery for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and stays hungry. In one scene, he pushes his face up to the camera and literally snorts like a bull. Woods, for maybe the first time ever on camera, looks a little intimidated.

In a swanky party scene, Stone makes a swivel-hipped, babe-on-a-catwalk entrance; she’s a stunning camera subject. She can act, too, and her tiny-featured, airline-stewardess prettiness makes her commitment to emotionality all the more vivid. Pursuing Roberts in order to watch him die, she allows herself to be caressed and made love to by a man she wants to kill. She does the arousal-crossed-with-revulsion touchingly well. In a daytime scene with Roberts at a bar, she’s wearing flowing cream slacks and a mostly-open cream tunic; her hair and makeup are more subdued than usual. Everything about her is taking in light and returning a soft glow except her narrowed eyes, which glitter. She looks well-fucked, financially taken-care-of, and venomous. (The guys behind me said “Damnnnn!” and “Sheeee-it!” admiringly.)

Is there another actress who compares to Stone as an incarnation of what America — alluring, narcissistic, deceitful, troubled — means to immigrants, and would-be immigrants? She’s the blonde who heroes in chop-socky movies sometimes won, and sometimes had to renounce. Many of the working-class people and recent immigrants I saw “The Specialist” with brought their kids and infants along to enjoy the bombings, beatings and nudity. We were all pretty cheerful afterwards. It’s a film that doesn’t make you feel sour about getting exactly what you paid for.

©1994 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Smash Palace,” directed by Roger Donaldson

smash palace

Glass Houses

By Ray Sawhill

The only films from New Zealand to receive a major American release in recent years are “Sleeping Dogs” and “Smash Palace,” both directed by Roger Donaldson. “Smash Palace” is about how a husband and wife jockey for position when their marriage goes flat, and it has a beautiful clarity and a plain-spoken elegance. Al Shaw (Bruno Lawrence) has brought Jacqui (Anna Jemison), whom he met and married in Europe, to the New Zealand boondocks. There, tinkering in an auto junkyard, building and racing a sophisticated car, teaching their daughter, Georgie (Greer Robson), how to use tools, and chuckling over snooker and beer with his friend Ray (Keith Aberdein), Al is content. But the chic Jacqui has grown bored. She wants a chance to feel pretty and saucy again; she begins an affair with Ray, takes the child and moves out. Al sputters impotently until, humiliated by a friend of Ray’s, he decides he must have Georgie all to himself, if only for a while, and he hatches a desperate, nutty plot.

The story may sound grim, but Donaldson, who also co-wrote the screenplay (with Peter Hansard and Bruno Lawrence), tells it with unaffected wit. The film is congenial and funny, and it takes you farther than you expect. The warm, powdered light, the authenticity of the details and the patient rhythms bring you in close to Al and Jacqui; the action unwinds out of their deepest yearnings as if that were the most natural way in the world to tell a story. The principal actors let you look right into them: Bruno Lawrence and Anna Jemison keep Al and Jacqui’s inner fires burning ferociously, and little Greer Robson shows you the strength of Georgie’s emotional life.

“Smash Palace” was made on New Zealand’s North Island, a setting that seems both familiar and eerie. Not far from little wood houses, tall grasses and rolling hills that resemble down-home America are a rain forest and a fog-collared mountain — beyond the everyday slumbers something more essential. One long sequence cuts between Georgie, sucking her thumb and clicking a flashlight on and off, as if trying to hypnotize herself into numbness, and, in another room, her quarreling parents. Al and Jacqui trade accusations, scream at each other and come to blows. As Jacqui sobs, Al pulls her clothes off and makes love to her, brutally and despairingly. They lie back against the green and red quilt, and Jacqui, her flushed face streaked with tears and sweat, tells Al she’s leaving him. It’s a daring domestic scene, breathtakingly sustained. Roger Donaldson has made a film that has the surprises, the calm and the inevitability of a classic fable.

©1982 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.