“The Funeral,” directed by Juzo Itami

funeral2

The Sound of Flowers Burning and Other Ghost Properties

By Ray Sawhill

Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo,” the second film he directed but the first to be released in the U.S., conveys a child’s delight in splashing food around and a happy director’s delight in playing with movie conventions and genres. It’s free-form, bright-colored and high-flying. “The Funeral” — his first movie as a director, although it only recently opened in America — is relatively subdued and even-toned. It’s so well-mannered that some may take it as a generic exercise in estheticized comic melancholy. But you may find it enjoyably peculiar, as I did: quiet and spare, yet lustrous and inviting. It has the quality of certain jokes that you repeat to yourself time and time again, wondering why you enjoy them so much. Itami, who is said to be an expert cook, has designed his film to be a passing, melting pleasure, experienced most fully in the savoring of it. Like “Tampopo,” “The Funeral” seems meant to turn you into a gourmand and a food critic, only in this film, resonances and aftertastes are what Itami orchestrates.

The film is narrated by a successful middle-aged actor, who is married to an actress he sometimes works with. In the opening scenes, her father, who lives in a country home near the ocean with her mother, has a bad heart attack. He pulls himself over the floor to the porch; when his wife finds him there, he explains that he was trying to get a look at the ocean — that the sight of it had helped him over such spells before. A few days later, in the hospital, he dies. The film’s skeleton is a chronicle of the ceremonies — and the preparations and worries that attend them — during the three days that follow. Laced in and around these basics are a variety of mild farce elements: a cranky older brother, a naughty mistress, eccentric neighbors, confusion about roles.

You can sense that everything in the film is presented in relation to ritual even though you don’t always know what the rituals are — like the characters, we learn about them as we go along. The acting milieu and the stage set-like house (whose rooms lend themselves to being seen two or three at a time) help give the film a backstage-farce vivacity; Itami has been an actor himself, and he’s especially good at using performances to bring out the flavors of locales and situations.

These ingredients are like glimmers that draw you into watching, or dreaming about, what’s going on down below: in this case, a tone poem that is a meditation on the dispersal of form. (Being drawn through the chronicle and farce creates its own awareness of dispersal.) Itami has shot and recorded his film so that there’s always something about the surfaces that makes you lose yourself in what’s beneath them. Everything — even new, pop objects — seems to have a patina, and a succulent, hand-rubbed richness: the sheen of wood, leather and flesh are especially vivid.

The blacks, like the blacks in “The Conformist” and “The Makioka Sisters,” are warm, active. Here, they’re in correspondence with another, deeper layer: a shadow black. The sounds unfold themselves for our delectation: the sound of hair being brushed, the ringing of a ritual bell (percussion, clang, tone, buzz, etc.); the sound of flowers burning, of rain pelting first a nylon umbrella and then a paper umbrella. One quick, stunning effect occurs when a furnace fire ignites: Fwoof! — and a room’s paper windows thwack and crinkle outwards with the pressure.

A Buddhist priest, who arrives in a white Rolls and who lights up at the sight of tabletops inlaid with French tiles, is played by Chishu Ryu, and the Ozu echo must be deliberate — Itami’s film suggests a loose, appreciative look at a late Ozu picture. But it has an element of the random and erotic, of darting play, that’s lacking in Ozu: Itami wants to convey his pleasure in the processes that give rise to and sustain ritual and performance. There’s life washing around the whole time, like static around a clear signal: kids tussling, people’s feet tiring as they squat on their knees, friends arriving to help out with food and chores. Itami is bringing us into contact with ghost presences, letting us swim among crisscrossing impulses. The layers reveal themselves and return you to the next surface.

The film’s events strike your mind like stones striking water, and watching the ripples expand and mingle can be very pleasurable. Several shots are from the point of view of the corpse. Through his eyes, so to speak, we watch his family bend over to peer at him, and we see the coffin lid lowered and two small doors opened to permit viewing. These shots, and several others like them, are grotesque jokes, but they’re held longer than we expect, and are repeated until we become familiar with them. They’re like the sound of that ritual bell — ours to wander around in.

They’re also reminders of a great shot in Dreyer’s “Vampyr,” and expressions of a feeling that so long as the physical vessel exists, the spirit continues to dwell within it. In other scenes we’re given a moving-through-a-tunnel effect. The camera precedes the hearse as it moves along narrow, wall-bound roads, over which trees close in; it rides the coffin into the furnace. By the time the crematorium chimney pours forth its smoke, and the widow, actor and actress burn the ceremony’s used bric-a- brac in a barrel, we may find ourselves thinking about how we are both chambers and enclosures.

Two scenes rise up out of what the other scenes flow into, and with a kind of blind force. One involves the actor and his mistress. The young woman, who has arrived with the mourners and who has grown drunk and resentful, lures him into a wooded area. She seductively exposes her neck to him, taunts him, and finally incites him into sex. Afterwards, he falls and muddies himself trying to fetch a bauble she’s lost. She laughs happily; he slaps her but she keeps on laughing — she’s tickled by the trouble she has caused him.

During the other scene, some members of the family happen upon a behind-the-scenes room at the crematorium. They look through a viewing hole in the furnace and see the corpse burning, and they talk to a technician about his job. This likable man, who bowed to the furnace before lighting it, tells about his dreams, and about his fears that one day a body he has put in the furnace won’t yet be dead. (We can know little about death; all we are empowered to do is become specialists in the rituals attendant on it.) A glen, hot with glowing chlorophyll and insects; the guts of a kind of factory — these scenes take place in realms where ritual, at least as we can know it, is supported and made possible.

The film’s tone edges towards comedy and then dissolves. What we grow familiar with is a rhythm of gathering, tensing, and then dispersing into a new set of forms. American audiences are used to a fantasy that there is some realm we can get to where we can be happy, powerful gods — a domain that’s often symbolized, at least in audio-visual terms, by dance numbers, car chases, gunplay, couples splashing in the California surf.

Itami’s assumption seems to be that it is part of the nature of identity to be dissatisfied with given forms, and that all that is available to us is a release into something about which we can know only that it has its own form; all energy and matter can hope to do is metamorphose. (He directs as though he believes that this can be achieved only via a heightening of our awareness of form — via something like fetishism. He’s as concerned with fetishism as De Palma, yet there’s nothing very obsessive in his way of seeing, and nothing very bound-in about the film. Fetishism, in the world of this film, is just what happens when you tighten your focus and begin to bear down.)

You begin to picture a life (or a movie) as a gathering of energy and matter, a channeling of them through space and time, and a final dispersal into something we can know nothing about. The film’s approach and style express the conviction that there’s an equivalence between ritual’s place in behavior, the body’s place in experience and form’s place in acting and art — that for all their drawbacks, ritual, the body and form are what make sensation possible.

There’s nothing overbearing or strict about Itami’s work; he’s an entertainer, and he deals with ideas by nicking them as he passes by, making them spin. They’re part of the show. A joke is “resolved” in a way characteristic of the film near the end. All along, the husband has been expected to give a talk about the deceased at a final dinner, and while he’s being introduced, his eyes are glassy and his knee twitches; this actor suffers from stage fright. But the widow indicates that she’d like to speak instead. The actor relaxes and the audience laughs; he has been given a reprieve.

The widow talks quietly about her regret that she wasn’t able to be present as her husband died; she was kept out of the room by the crush of doctors and nurses, and she is afraid that he may have been lonely. She talks about her feeling that her husband’s nature has changed, about a feeling she has that he and she have entered a new phase together. The camera moves in on her slowly, then cuts to a closeup. We understand that this is her discreet public acknowledgment of the momentousness of what she’s going through. (Watching her is like realizing that a local, family-owned store you’ve been planning to patronize has changed hands.)

Yet the camera’s exposure is set more for the brightness outdoors than indoors — the light on her face is grey and dim — and even as we take in her tiny, worn face and her struggle with her feelings and words, our vision is drawn past her and through the large window behind. We can see the porch and the green of trees, and we sense the presence of the ocean beyond, the sight of which the dying man hoped would heal his heart. “The Funeral” is about rituals that release the spirit, about giving up the ghost. It offers its own to us as a gift.

©1986 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Film Quarterly.

“Disclosure,” directed by Barry Levinson

disclosure

By Ray Sawhill

“Disclosure,” from Michael Crichton’s potboiler, is a facsimile of an absorbing movie. It’s a humanoid with a heart of silicon that has been sheathed alluringly and made to perform some fluid dance steps. The crisis-in-the-workplace atmosphere is what’s most original about the movie. You’re drawn to notice the way a secretary avoids her boss’s eyes when she knows something she doesn’t want to tell him. You wonder what that group down by the elevator could have been meeting about at this time of day.

The director, Barry Levinson, has fitted the film out with an oil-rubbed, yuppie opulence — weathered wood and time-worn brick, lush Pacific Northwest greenery. Ennio Morricone’s score supplies a suave version of old-fashioned movie-music warmth and grandeur. “Disclosure” may be for audiences that ask only for something a little more movielike — bigger, more adult — than the TV they usually watch. But it’s a handsome, professional job.

Demi Moore is Meredith, a lustrous package of calves, thighs, greed and cleavage, wrapped in a power suit. Michael Douglas is Tom, a roll-up-your-sleeves family man. Both are employees of a Seattle computer firm. They had an affair back when Tom was single; now she gets the promotion he was hoping for, and she becomes his boss. She invites him to a meeting in her new office. “You’ve kept in good shape, Tom,” she says with throaty appreciation; then she comes on to him mercilessly. From there on out, it’s dueling accusations, and Tom’s struggle to keep his job and protect his family. No, not just that, but to establish the truth, goddammit.

We know Tom deserves his righteousness because we’re shown his kids, his matronly wife, and his iconic home: fireplace, cushions, warm lights, comforters. We know Meredith is evil because she works out on a Stairmaster, and because we never see her at home. All she has in her fridge, we’re told, is an orange and some champagne.

The company’s building (designed by Neil Spisak) is the film’s central showpiece and metaphor. It’s a matter of PC networks, black steel and leather, slipped into an arches-and-fluted-columns, renovated industrial space, with an atrium that’s like a small opera hall. It’s a stylish beehive, a pull-off-your-tie workplace. It’s also sliced up by panels of glass, and it’s unnervingly well-wired — i.e., watch your back. The audience murmurs when Tom starts receiving mysterious e-mails, and when, after a career of keeping his office open, he begins swinging his glass door shut.

Friends tell me they enjoy Crichton’s overcaffeinated-but-not-too-gonzo pacing, and the enthusiasm in the press for his current TV series, “ER,” has focused on its pace. “It’s an adrenaline rush of velocity, trauma, pathos and heroism,” wrote Rick Marin in Newsweek. “It’s like channel surfing without having to hit the remote.”

Information overload isn’t my idea of entertainment — I get enough of it at work — but I also have other problems with Crichton. He has zero sensuality and no descriptive powers. He has a way with pop hooks, but the novels seem to consist of nothing but research, coincidences, and downtime. In his novel “Congo,” the loopiest of the bunch (to be released in movie form this summer), he piles on the jaw-droppers — he subjects his jungle-explorer heroes to a political revolution, cannibals, killer gorillas, angry hippos, and a volcano that’s ready to blow. It’s a high-tech “Tarzan,” minus campiness and sexiness.

A mixture of technocrat and Dr. Frankenstein, Crichton projects the mechanical onto the organic; he’s fascinated by people hooked up to life-support systems. Where does the person end and the machine begin, and vice versa? If he has a theme, that’s it. The central image of his work is an ID card being run through a slot, and providing ingress to a fancy lab.

I’ve sped through a number of his books, but the only two I’ve sped through happily are the most recent, “Rising Sun” and “Disclosure.” In them he’s gone from futuristic cautionary claptrap to torn-from-the-headlines cautionary claptrap, and he’s become an angry man, an op-ed novelist. The topicality and fire give filmmakers something to contend with. The director of “Rising Sun,” Philip Kaufman, did a lot of script tweaking and creative casting, and made a film that was a hip, off-hand comedy about multiculturalism, as well as an essay about the dissolution of the movie image.

Barry Levinson works more broadly, and in square, showbusiness terms; his work has gone into making things smooth and acceptable. It’s a creamy example of contemporary Hollywood retrofitting. Levinson and his screenwriter, Paul Attanasio, have made the film more balanced than the book. In the novel, for instance, Tom’s wife is a feminist shrew who leaves town with the kids for the duration of the brouhaha; in the movie she sticks around to witness, suffer, and be loyal.

But, like Kaufman, Levinson is also writing an essay, in his case about what movies have become. It’s a joke about how work-obsessed the country is that, as for the homey but high-tech Seattle, all we get — aside from some cityscapes and a little time on the ferries — is a single sequence. The company’s CEO (Donald Sutherland) is driving Douglas to a hearing, and is trying to con him into a deal. We see the city reflected in the car’s windows.

Michael Douglas’ peevishness and flabby sarcasm don’t put off the audience. Moore’s lack of stature and tenacity don’t either. You could criticize the film by saying that no sparks fly between Douglas and Moore, even in their operatic near-coitus scene, but Douglas doesn’t lose face playing the anguished virgin. A man who waits until after the cock-sucking and panty-ripping to pull himself away from a woman should be a joke, and some members of the audience do giggle. But they don’t give up on the film. Moore and Douglas have been in hits and on the covers of magazines, thus they’re stars, and thus they have sex appeal.

Levinson seems aware that Douglas and Moore are simulacra. (Most of the rest of the cast is loose and funny.) They’re what we build films around today, he’s saying, as we build films around Crichton’s flow-chart plots. The filmmaker’s role is to customize these elements to the audience’s preference, to dress the robot. (In fact, you read Moore’s character by her clothes: is it charcoal miniskirts and stiletto heels today, or a severe pantsuit?) Levinson is half going along with this, and half taking note of it.

It’s heartening that almost no one in the press has gotten worked up about the reversal on the usual sex-harassment pattern. No one except The New York Times’ Caryn (Dial-a-Theme-Piece) James, that is. She argues that the film unconsciously expresses men’s fear of powerful women, and she includes the inevitable reference to Anita Hill. Her editors obligingly ran a photo of Hill taking the oath.

It’s one of the funnier assumptions many writers on pop culture make, that a (for instance) committee-created artifact costing tens of millions of dollars is likely to express much of anything unconsciously. The fact is that no one leaves the theater after “Disclosure” discussing, or arguing about, sexual harassment. (What they talk about is how sweaty the “C’mon, let’s do it!” “No, I mustn’t!” scene is.) Women in the audience have no trouble hissing Meredith, Demi Moore’s character. You’d think Caryn James would be happy that it’s now OK for a woman to be the powerful villain. But then, Caryn James — quick to use feminist ideology as a substitute for thinking and responding — is the Meredith of film reviewers.

When, in earlier movies, the hero entered deeper realms — entrails — in search of truth, he usually found himself in caves, basements, abandoned factories, a sewer system. Here, he enters a virtual-reality database. The populist feelings the movie targets concern jobs, computers and bosses — especially anger at the way jobs are taking up more of our lives, yet are becoming more unstable. The film’s glamour and suspense have to do with our sense that we’re sacrificing our time and our personalities to the exciting, mysterious microchip god.

Like “Fatal Attraction,” “Disclosure” does one of those things pop movies are supposed to do, but do rarely, which is give us something recognizable that we don’t get from more serious work. In “Fatal Attraction,” it was the archetype of the dangerously-crazy, 45ish, unattached career woman. In “Disclosure,” it’s a sense of the way the boundaries between our personal lives and our jobs are eroding, and how much we resent that. The film’s limitation is that Tom, the hands-on guy we identify with, is involved in making computers, and there’s no irony about his complicity in making machines that will distance us from direct experience yet one more step.

Meredith, alluring and ruthless, yet empty, is one of those automatons Crichton finds sexy yet warns us against. If Crichton were an artist rather than a moralist-entertainer, he’d admit that Meredith isn’t just his enemy — she’s also his muse.

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

“Mimic,” directed by Guillermo del Toro

Mimic-1997

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

romance poster

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.

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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.

“Smash Palace,” directed by Roger Donaldson

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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.

“Tucker,” directed by Francis Coppola

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By Ray Sawhill

Francis Coppola’s “Tucker: A Man and his Dream” lumbers around, off in its own world, doing little pirouettes. Coppola wants us to play with ideas about Imperial America, which is fine, but he also wants to make us swallow his view of Francis Coppola. You may not feel like submitting.

“Tucker” is like a Frank Capra movie with a Felliniesque self-consciousness mixed in; the two elements seem meant not to jell but to coexist fairly peacefully. Neither one has much snap; they don’t enhance each other, either. The film, from a script by Arnold Schulman and David Seidler, takes off from the story of the actual Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges), who, in the heady years after World War II, tried to go outside the major corporations to mass-produce a car that would be snazzy, safe and reasonably priced. But we aren’t given anything besides Tucker’s devotion to his “vision” to explain his persistence and energy. Couldn’t Tucker have had, in addition to enthusiasm, a taste for daredeviltry and high rolling? As a Capraesque bit of kitsch Americana the film is a bust because of Coppola’s conviction that he’s addressing yearnings all of us have outgrown. But he doesn’t mean us to take the storytelling very seriously anyway. The way the WASPiness of the Tuckers is presented as a lack of ethnicity is a sign that we’re not supposed to go looking for much in the people onscreen.

What we’re meant to take more seriously is the Fellini side of the film — Coppola’s view of American public life as a circus, and especially the way the film’s real subject matter is Francis Coppola. Coppola has spoken about having wanted to make a film about Tucker since the early ’60s, but what might have excited him back then about Tucker is a mystery, because the real subject matter of the film as he has made it is his own experience with Zoetrope Studios. This story is as present onscreen as Tucker’s is. (In brief: after creating sensations with the two “Godfather” movies and “The Conversation,” and then exhausting himself and ruining himself financially with “Apocalypse Now,” Coppola tried to recoup his fortunes by breaking with established Hollywood ways of producing movies. He signed actors and technicians to long-term contracts, purchased production facilities, and in interview after interview spoke of developing a radical new technology. Zoetrope’s biggest production was Coppola’s own “One From the Heart”; after all the hoopla, what his revolutionary new studio had produced was a slight romantic comedy with a hallucinogenic look. The film lost huge amounts of money, and a short time later the studio collapsed.)

“Tucker” is gargantuan yet weightless, with some amusement provided by doodles of style — the kinds of neo-Busby Berkeley devices Coppola developed for “One From the Heart”: trick cutting and lighting, patterned sequences that seem on the verge of turning into musical routines. What Coppola is saying is, “So maybe in trying to make a go of Zoetrope, I made a few mistakes and created a lot of fuss. All I ever wanted to do was make better movies. Was that such a sin?” This view of his own history leaves out his disgust and rage. Worse, it fudges the main issue: if, as legend and this film have it, Tucker was more done in by the Big Three (operating through a compliant SEC) than by his own business practices, Coppola was already broken by the time he began assembling Zoetrope’s production facilities. In order to finish “Apocalypse Now,” he’d had to mortgage everything he owned. It’s more accurate to think of Zoetrope as a desperation gamble than as an inspiration. And if the self-reflexive, art-cinema side of this film doesn’t work, it’s mainly because Coppola has simply never, as a filmmaker, been the Orson Welles-like genius of self-display that he seems to think himself. In his best movies, he has worked from inside stories, bringing out the corruption and danger implicit in what we think of as business-as-usual.

Almost nothing in this film connects with the audience. Playing a man whose only characteristics are ingenuousness and exuberance, Bridges persists rather grimly. Of the cast, only Dean Stockwell, who as Howard Hughes has one scene, makes much of an impact. Narcissistic dreaminess and an unconvincingly benevolent indulgence towards storytelling are what Coppola gives us in “Tucker.” He’s like a tiresome old uncle infatuated with his own whimsy.

©1988 by Ray Sawhill

“The Age of Innocence,” directed by Martin Scorsese

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Loose Talk

By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Ray Sawhill: Most people probably take “The Age of Innocence” as a more-visually-inventive-than-usual Merchant-Ivory film. And most of them seem to enjoy it as such.

Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill: Middlebrow alert!

Polly Frost: It’s set in upper-crust 19th century New York City, among old money but just as the robber barons are emerging. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer. He has a private income, he dabbles in the law, he’s a member of one of the respectable families, and he’s engaged to the flawless, brainless offspring of another “good” family (Winona Ryder). But he has a hankering for culture. He caresses his books, and he knows one or two painters.

RS: Into his world walks Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess Olenska, woman of mystery and scandal. She’s fleeing a marriage to a philandering Polish count. She’s exotic, a teeny bit bohemian. Newland falls for her bigtime. So: will the countess, who needs money, return to the count or not? And what will Newland do about his passion for her?

PF: He’s such an honor-bound square that the way he expresses his passion for her is by helping her. There’s nothing more irritating than a man who gives you a lecture rather than making a pass at you. I’ve known a few of those.

RS: It’s a film in the tradition of “Brief Encounter.” And the missed-opportunity tragi-comedy is not my favorite genre. What do you make of the fact that some people have an appetite for genteel entertainments on this theme?

PF: They make a viewer feel civilized. They’re soap operas with all the good parts taken out.

RS: Newland Archer is a rotten central character. He’s a prig. You never understand why the countess looks at him passionately. Another problem is that Scorsese externalizes everything. Crimson, gold and chandeliers are everywhere. Since it’s already a Visconti world, the Countess doesn’t stand out. The film winds up being narrated and illustrated rather than dramatized.

PF: Some of the actors in the minor roles do seem to exist fully in the world of codified behavior and language. And Winona Ryder has a puppy-like helplessness, even when she’s being lethal and enslaving, that’s very effective.

RS: But Day-Lewis can’t do much with his role but mourn the way his balls are shriveling up. He’s so meticulous about playing a yearning American that he seems super-British. Pfeiffer works hard to generate some Garbo-like luster, but her nerves and her voice seem pure California.

PF: I liked her better than you did. She’s trying to come up with a reason why the countess is attracted to Newland. Maybe her interpretation is: the countess is out of her mind. She’s having a nervous breakdown.

RS: There’s another problem, which is the material itself. Over to you, honey.

PF: It’s a shallow and arch book, and it scores too easily off its characters. It exists mainly in its narration. Although when Wharton lets the two women really play with Newland, the book almost becomes malicious fun.

RS: I hate the snug, mocking social commentary about what “old New York” was like.

PF: And I hated Joanne Woodward’s reading of the narration. She had the tone of voice of someone who isn’t fun to gossip with. Julia Child would have been a better choice for the narrator.

RS: Scorsese makes old New York look like Vatican City, and his idea of psychology seems to be that WASPs are repressed Italians. What do you think he’s up to?

PF: He sets up an intricate perceiver/perceived thing, with binoculars and theater and paintings on the walls. What he does with it — and with the unbroken camera moves, and the dissolves, and the splintery editing — is try to show how your identity is formed by the tribe you’re in. And how people try to outwit it and like to think they can exist outside it, but are always getting trapped. It’s a web. The problem is that Scorsese thinks in purely cinematic terms. He knows what it is to be formed by movies and the media, but he doesn’t seem able to imagine his way inside someone who wasn’t formed by the media and the movies. Renoir and Ophuls used circling techniques to show characters caught up in a web, but they were so worldly you don’t feel it’s anything but cinematic technique.

RS: Scorsese really believes, or believed, that cinema is the apotheosis of the arts. He was one of those kids who was all revolutionary fervor. And his generation’s revolution has just led to corporate take-overs.

PF: It’s a generation that’s stuck with nostalgia. But I know you’re on a roll.

RS: Thanks. The generation before them — of Altman and Peckinpah — mastered traditional craft before they blew it apart. Scorsese’s generation bypassed traditional craft and headed for personal values. Now Scorsese’s left turning everything he touches into “personal cinema,” which in this case means he’s taken on Edith Wharton and produced a dignified variation of “Mean Streets” and “GoodFellas.” He makes the same movie over and move, no matter what the subject. The characters have no free will. There’s only Scorsese’s vision.

PF: In a scene set in the opera house balcony during intermission, the camera and the audio iris in on Newland and the countess, and she talks about the yellow roses he once sent her anonymously. He’s entranced: how does she know he sent them? She finishes talking to him, and she’s backlit for a minute by the stage lights as the curtain rises for the second act — she’s what connects him to the world of grand emotions, and to the arts. Art is viewed as transcendence, as it was in “Raging Bull.” But in “Raging Bull,” Jake LaMotta hurls himself directly at transcendence. Here, Newland holds back.

RS: Newland is like a virgin playing hard-to-get without even knowing it.

PF: I’ve known a few of those too.

© 1993 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in
The Modern Review.