Volume 4, Number 20
This Week's Reviews: Enigma, The Triumph of Love, The Mystic Masseur, Behind the Sun, The Piano Teacher.
This Week's Omissions: Esther Kahn.
BY: DAVID PERRY
Michael Apted, who turned the simple BBC documentary Seven Up into the most remarkable documentary series ever created, takes another stab at fiction with the British mathematician equivalent of a spy film, Enigma. His best narrative works -- Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorky Park, and Gorillas in the Mist -- have a colloquial quality that Apted strives to perfect; his worst narrative works -- Nell, Always Outnumbered, and The World Is Not Enough -- seem to be lost in an attempt to create something internationally accessible. Apted is a British sociological filmmaker -- his knowledge of particular people, especially his own (as proven by the Seven Up series), has been paramount in his work as a filmmaker.
Enigma shares that bond with Apted's best films -- like the others, it is about Brits with conditions pertinent to mainly England in a British setting. Set in 1943, as London felt the regular bombings from Hitler and the Allied ships were often bombarded by German U-boats, the film covers the work of the men and women who toiled in the top secret estate of Bletchley Park. During the war, this small area north of London was filled with verbal and mathematical geniuses in hopes that they could make sense of all the messages coming between the Axis Powers.
Like the recent American film U-571, the movie looks predominately at the work around the Enigma machines that Germany used to decode their messages. The American film glazed over much of the history, turning many of the European achievements into grand American fetes. According to U-571, Americans captured the first German Engima machine in 1944 that brought about the turning point of the war; in reality, the Polish revolutionaries (why didn't Wajda get a chance to make this into a movie) stole it from the Germans in 1941 and gave it to the British who struggled to decipher its complicated encoding style.
To a much lesser degree, though, Enigma also changes facts. British decoder extraordinaire Alan Turing has been changed to Tom Jericho, a more sellable lead (unlike Turing, Jericho is both a gentile and a heterosexual). Portrayed by comely character actor Dougray Scott, Jericho has a sad-eyed, semi-schizo, finger-pointing persona that automatically brings to mind Russell Crowe's John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, another film that changed a historical figure's Jewish relations and sexuality to make the character more "acceptable."
I was not one of A Beautiful Mind's historical accuracy Nazis, who used the film's marginalization of the real John Nash as a way to bash the film (for my money, it was the horrid screenplay and direction that made it such a painful film to watch, not its artistic rewriting of history), though the erasing of Turing in Enigma is rather distressing. The choice is not the complete fault of Apted and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, who are adapting from a Robert Harris novel that used the same replacement of characters. Plus, the historical accuracy Nazis would escalate their anti-Enigma comments if Turing has been placed in the spy drama that ensues in the rest of the film, not to mention the love triangle.
All these revisions to the story come at the head of a relationship between Jericho and another Bletchley Park worker, Claire Romilly (Burrows). Seen in flashbacks, she uses Jericho like tissue paper, quickly throwing him to the side when given the heart (and bed) of another man. Distraught, Jericho pleads with Claire to let him back into her life, even offering to tell her all the secrets he knows from his part of the Enigma project. He finally collapses in a mental breakdown, getting a month's leave to regain his senses.
When Tom Jericho arrives at Bletchley again, he finds that Claire has been missing for a couple days and the finished decoding of Enigma had suddenly been changed when the Germans switched to a new codebook. Soon he goes into his two other modes: Inspector Morse and Steven Hawkings. Juggling the two problems, he finds the gracious help of Claire's dowdy roommate Hester Wallace (Winslet), who beams girl next door behind her horn-rimmed glasses. Not only does she get to play Nancy Drew, but she also gets to begin a budding relationship with her prettier roommate's old beau. It's like Danny Bonaduce leeching off of David Cassidy: it's, err, kismet.
Add her majesty's secret service in the form of nosy agent Wigram (Northam) and Jericho's code breaking coworkers, and you have a full house of English gents and ladies playing spy games far over their heads. Wigram gives the film its best scenes, probably because Stoppard had never written a character like this and was, therefore, more willing to play with writing choices he had long before exhausted on other characters. Northam, too, is due some attention for the work: it is further proof of his acting abilities, which have been seen in great use on films like An Ideal Husband, The Winslow Boy, and Gosford Park.
His scenes are rare, though, but the sharp writing by
Stoppard and the nimble direction by Apted and editing by Rick Shaine help keep the film
going when Wigram is not around. Despite the fact that their lead character is rather
uninteresting, at least in the form Scott plays him, Enigma still comes out as a
nice, simple achievement. Its historical interests are often interesting (the fact that it
correctly thanks the Polish military for the Enigma machine is enough for some
recognition) and its production values are first rate. Unfortunately, Enigma is a
British production that will probably only play in smaller venues or art cinemas without
getting much attention around the rest of Middle America. Enigma will come and
go, and most people will continue to think America was completely to thank for the
decoding of Enigma as they watch U-571 again on HBO.
Midsummer Night's Dream
|The Triumph of Love
BY: DAVID PERRY
Clare Peploe's giddy adaptation of Pierre Marivaux's Le Triomphe de L'Amour comes to the screen in a collection of whimsical styles that only a filmmaker like Peploe would attempt. Her previous films, the sprite High Season and the whimsical Rough Magic, were technically sound productions (though, in the case of Rough Magic, narratively poor too) that showed she was more than a notable screenwriter (of the maligned but underrated Michaelangelo Antonioni epic Zabriskie Point) and famous spouse (of Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci). With this new film, translated to The Triumph of Love, Peploe again proves herself as technical filmmaker, even if that Rough Magic-storytelling trouble is still around.
Marivaux's story is about a princess (Sorvino), who is about to ascend to her nation's throne despite the fact that her family is not the rightful holders of the reign. In her childhood, the princess' parents usurped the rule from the previous king and queen, placing them in prison. Soon a baby boy -- the rightful heir -- was borne in the prison, where a philosopher Hermocrates (Kingsley) adopted the child to raise outside of the prison as his parents soon perished.
Now the legatee is a young, vibrant man, given the name Agis (Rodan), under the complete control of Hermocrates and his spinster sister Léontine (Shaw). By living on their estate with only the companionship of the two caregivers, the gardener (Molteni), and a harlequin (Oliva), Agis has been brought up to hate emotions, especially love and the methods wayward women use to it to shape men into their playthings. Oh, and the main woman to hate: the princess.
But the princess (her name is not given) is suffering from guilt over her parents' actions and wants to see the man who should rightfully hold her throne. Peering into Hermocrates' estate one day, she sees Agis come out from a nude swim -- shallow or not, it's love at first sight for the young dame. Since no one in the estate knows what she really looks like, the princess decides to come onto the place looking for training from such a respected philosopher. But, to get around the problem of her gender, the princess and her aide Corine (Stirling) don male attire and take the names Phocion and Hermidas, respectively.
Once on the estate, though, her plans begin to collapse -- neither Hermocrates nor Léontine really think his/her presence is best. Quickly trying to formulate a way to change their minds, the princess begins tempting them to find their long dormant romantic sides. Léontine has spent much of her life immersed in science without thinking of love, the sudden introduction to someone that loves her seems heavenly; Hermocrates sees through the disguise automatically thinking that the woman -- she uses the new name Aspasie -- is there to court Agis, but the princess speaks to him with such loving grace that he can no longer question her intentions.
All the while, she clumsily attempts to get the same love out of Agis. Though his foppish side (let's remember, he's only known four people in his life, three of which are men) automatically opens to Phocion, his fey amorousness turns to unbridled love when the princess changes to her Aspasie personality for him. By the film's halfway point, the princess has three people working to help her and three people desperately in love with her counterparts.
Soon the film's largest problems arise -- though everything has been setup splendidly, there's nowhere else to go until the end, meaning that Peploe can only rely on repetitions of the same sequences for about thirty minutes. When the film does hit its climax, the fun comes back into play, but it's been a long second act to get to it.
Peploe tries to make this forgivable with stylish flourishes not often seen in today's costume dramas. Filming with handheld cameras, over-exposing the film, and making extensive use of jump-cuts, Peploe seems to be trying to find the spirit if Jean-Luc Godard in The Triumph of Love. Admittedly this makes for some refreshing alternatives to the stuffy Merchant-Ivory approach to period pieces.
Many of the actors meet the energy Peploe brings, especially Shaw and Kingsley with their established talent thrown into characters that seem unnatural for them (though not near as unusual as Kingsley's change of pace for Sexy Beast). Sorvino too does a good job, probably her best work since her Oscar win for Mighty Aphrodite. The only real problem in the main cast is Rodan, who is a natural at looking like a befuddled hunk, but lacks everything else in the acting department.
Marivaux's stories -- at least in my mind -- never really
arise as more than a mere trifle, making them pale in comparison to the works of other
classic playwrights like Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Molière. He was like a high-class
Garry Marshall for the time, creating winsome little comedies that never meant much of
value beyond the entertainment they brought to 18th century Frenchmen. The Triumph of
Love is not unlike those other works, which have the interesting upper-class quips of
Oscar Wilde without the strong characterizations. Try as Peploe might, she has a hard time
refreshing something that was barely fresh at the time.
|The Mystic Masseur
BY: DAVID PERRY
"[For] the smaller film's, they've got A Room with a View with Staircase and a Pond type movie. Films with very fine acting, but the drama's very subsumed... Everything's people opening doors: 'Oh, I'm, oh.' 'What?' 'Well, I, oh.' 'What is it Sebastian, I'm arranging matches?' 'Well, I though you, uh... I better go.' 'Yes, I think you better have.'"
That's Eddie Izzard in his Emmy Award-winning show Dressed to Kill on the state of British films. These comments come from a mode of production originating from late David Lean and perfected for Reagen/Thatcher Era audiences by the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Their best known films -- Room with a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day -- tend to have that slow, melancholy reflexivity that Izzard ridicules. Why, then, are those films so great? Because they do successfully create the atmosphere of the original novels from E.M. Forster and Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote novels with slow, melancholy reflexivity. For the short-attention spans of many of today's audiences, these films are torture, but for the less beguiling cineaste, they are perfectly realized works of fiction brought to the screen.
In all those great films -- as well as some good ones like A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries and Surviving Picasso -- James Ivory directed with Ismail Merchant producing; today, though, Merchant has made an effort to get to direct, leaving his normal collaborator as just a small credit in the "A Merchant-Ivory Production" credit. Without Ivory on the set, the Merchant-only Merchant-Ivory films are generally wrecks with great sets but horrible direction. The latest M-I work from Merchant, The Mystic Masseur, is no exception.
The relationship between England and India has always been an interest for the two of them, Englishman Ivory and Indian Merchant, having used it as a setting for films like The Courtesans of Bombay and Cotton Mary, Merchant's last solo effort. The Mystic Masseur continues in this tradition, though moving it over the Indian hotbed of Trinidad, an island where England shipped Indians for extra laborers, creating a subculture within the dominate African population.
The most well known child of this Indian subculture in Trinidad would have to be Nobel Prize winning novelist V.S. Naipaul, whose works, ranging from A House for Mr. Biswas to Half a Life, deal with the problems created for a culture trying to survive hundreds of miles from its origin nation. His first work -- and, probably, least known -- was 1957's The Mystic Masseur, which I have never read, but seems to lack some of the more cultural ironies that are striking in Naiplaul's other works, at least based upon the film version.
The story is about a schoolteacher named Ganesh Ramsumair (Mandvi), who in 1943 leaves his job in Port of Spain to return to his small village to write a novel. He is excited by anything written, whether it is a Dostoevsky philosophical drama or a Hindi church pamphlet -- he even stands in awe when looking at a small hand-controlled printing press. He finishes his first work 101 Questions and Answers about the Hindu Religion and finds little response outside of his own village. To make the money needed to take care of himself and his wife Leela (Dharker; the terrific actress from The Terrorist), Ganesh begins working as a masseur to calm the problems faced by the locals. The public response is poor at first (as one person puts it, every Indian in Trinidad tries to make money becoming a masseur or a dentist), but once he turns it into the gallivanting of a modern prophet working for the people, his business begins to boom.
With the power that comes from his far-reaching fame, Ganesh sees his novel sales skyrocket and soon picks up an entourage, including neighbor Beharry (Bhaskar) and young student Partap (Mistry), who follow him from village to village blessing people. Thinking he's speaking for the people, he begins newspaper publishing and then works for the ouster of the current politico in charge of his people -- guess who the people then want to bring into the vacant political office.
Despite making some interesting remarks on the state of the people of Trinidad -- a British governor's dinner is especially telling -- there's little meat in the story. The progression of Ganesh's career is predictable throughout and nothing in the midst of the story really takes the audience elsewhere. Only a terrific performance from Om Peri as Ganesh's money-hungry father-in-law, bares some interesting moments, though many of them are dulled by the overt mediocrity of the rest of the picture.
The film begins with a 1954 encounter at a train station
between Ganesh and Partap, where the young Oxford student narrates his feelings for the
stumbled giant of his life. There's little doubt that V.S. Naipaul was basing this on
someone who enriched his life in a similar fashion -- a melancholy way to look back at our
old heroes. Ismail Merchant, though, does not seem too willing to remark on this, only
turning to the haphazard comedy he's planning for the rest of the picture. Hopefully James
Ivory's on the next train -- he may be currently stumbling with films like The Golden
Bowl, but he's still more fulfilling than his partner.
Y Tu Mamá
|Behind the Sun
BY: DAVID PERRY
The violence currently seen in Israel is an example of the way old violence begets modern violence. For centuries people of various races, creeds, and religions have fought others simply because of a difference in backgrounds. The Serbs and the Palestinians have seen generations of fighting with Bosnians and Israelis that the original disagreements almost seem forgotten -- it's almost as if they are fighting because that is what they are supposed to do.
Behind the Sun, the latest film from Brazilian auteur Walter Salles, covers a similar fight, one between two families. Like the Hatfields and the McCoys, these are two lines -- the Breves and the Ferrieras -- who have been killing each other off for so long, that the land in question is less important than family pride. But, there's a small problem arising, the Ferrieras are evidently winning the competition -- their cattle ranching has proven more profitable than the Breves' sugar cane growing, not to mention the fact that there are three times more Ferrieras than Breves.
An old ritual has made things a little easier on the Breves: once a person in the family has been killed, there cannot be vengeance from the family until the deceased's bloody shirt turns yellow in the hot Brazilian sun. When the film begins, the Ferrieras have made their latest hit, killing off the oldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Breves (Dumont and Assemany). Now, the middle son, Tonho (Santoro), must prepare to sneak onto the Ferriera land and shoot his brother's killer. He succeeds, and the vicious circle begins again.
As a marked man, Tonho begins to lurch around his family's home waiting for the inevitable. At just 20-years-old, he has never known many of the important parts of life -- in fact, he has never even left the Inhamuns Badlands. But when a two-person traveling circus comes into town, Tonho finds love in the form of fire-eating trapeze artist Clara (Antonio). She is torn between the expectations of her stepfather Salustiano (Vasconcelos) and her growing love for the marked Tonho; he is torn between accepting the love that she shares with him and the pride-driven expectations his father has emphasized all his life.
All of this is seen through the eyes of the youngest Breves child (Lacerda), a boy whose mortality has been so highlighted for the family that they've failed to give him a name, just calling him 'kid' (Salustiano is the first person to christen him with a name: Pacu). He plays the role of a moribund Puck, worrying what will happen to all the characters in his little play.
Like his last film, the internationally acclaimed 1998 Oscar nominee Central Station, Walted Salles is looking at the way familial past can crush the small children of Brazil. Though in an entirely different time period (1910), the film shares that feeling of dread for the smallest citizens, unable to change what has gone on between their own kindred for generations. Ultimately, though, Central Station was a more rewarding experience, intimately showing how one person can, unknowingly or not, come into the child's life and give it some meaning, independent of his forbearers.
Further pressing the internationality of this story, the original book this film is based on, Ismail Kadaré's Broken April, is set in Albania, though little else has been changed in the adaptation. The screenplay by Salles, Karim Ainouz, and Sérgio Machado works in much of this familiar-political warring but does in such a muddled way that some of the intensity intended is lost. These people are so intent on their actions and blinded by the futility of it all that it is hard for the audience to really care what happens to them.
Nevertheless, Salles and cinematographer Walter Carvalho do
pacify the audience with fine visuals, but little of it seems of importance when the story
is plodding like it does. The film would probably work better in a shorter form, possibly
as a short film, extracting much of the filler. This is a movie built around repetitions
to ram into the audience that the repetitions of the families have made this way of life
fatally acceptable. But the form becomes tedious and disengaging, emotions that Salles
certainly did not intend.
School of Flesh
|The Piano Teacher
BY: DAVID PERRY
is permanent, obscure, and dark, and shares the nature of infinity."
Rarely has a filmmaker emerged with as intense a revulsion for his own audience as Michael Haneke. The German filmmaker has worked with stories that constantly show the lowest form of human behavior and the most exploitive ways to deal with it, all the while turning off as many viewers as possible. The feeling that ran through me after The Piano Teacher, Haneke's latest effort, was very similar to the feeling that I got from his most well known film, Funny Games.
Like the 1997 Austro-German production, I was unquestionably distanced from the actions out of a human need to dissociate with the stories and characters who move along in Haneke's violent, pseudo-sexually abhorrent world. At the same time, I'm drawn to the director's formal genius; rarely has a filmmaker worked with such horrible affairs and still made it seem so conventional. He, like the most nimble voyeur (though, in this case, one who loves the vicarious thrill of passing it on more than watching) seems to see -- or at least wants to see -- that sexual deviancy is human nature.
Fresh off of his masterpiece, the assured and surprisingly chaste Code Unknown, Haneke takes another step in the wild side, returning to sadistic cinema that made him a name with Funny Games and 1992's Benny's Video. His kindest critics will point out that he is one of the few filmmakers who can deal with something so reprehensible and still keep the audience in their seats. In fact, in the near full public performance I saw, no one walked out of The Piano Teacher, despite the genuine disgust that was emanating from the elderly patrons sitting near me. Haneke draws the audience into his stories by structuring his scenes and characters in such a way that interests the audience. Few people would come out of the movie saying that they enjoyed the film, and yet no one will answer that his or her fascination was lost for a moment.
The story, based upon the novel by Elfriede Jelinek, is about Erika Kohut (Huppert), a French piano instructor in the Viennese Konservatorium der Stadt Wien. Every day she looks over students who are becoming more talented -- her worst fears is that these kids come out of her grasp and become more successful than she was. To take care of her own fears, Erika stares out the conservatoire window and then castigates the kids for their smallest deficiencies. In one of the film's most harrowing moments, Erika prepares an "accident" to end the possible career of a fast-growing student (Sigalevitch).
Erika's sadistic nature is not simply part of the old schoolmarm abusiveness -- as we learn throughout the film, Erika is actually a sexually repressed, S&M-wanting product of a broken home. She comes home late and is attacked by a mother (Girardot) who wants to know everything her forty-something daughter is doing; after a hair-pulling scuffle, they sleep in their pushed-together double beds. And that's just in the late night; between students during the day, Erika patronizes a local porn shop to watch the peep shows and smell the fresh semen in the wastebaskets and visits the drive-in theatres to peep into the car windows of couples having sex. And, I won't even go over the way she pleases herself while her mother is preparing dinner.
Jelinek, through Haneke, tries to explain why a person becomes this way, though the main interests of the cancerous growth of sexual deviancy moves to another character as the film continues. A discussion between Erika and her haughty twenty-something student Walter (Magimel), covers the works of Schubert and Schumann, noting the way genius can sometimes be most awe-inspiring when it's on the cuff of insanity. It is hard to question the insanity brewing within Erika throughout the movie, though Haneke knows well enough that Fatal Attraction-style movements would dull what is otherwise a quietly unsettling treatise on human mental illness shown in acts of sexual disturbance.
"You disgust me," says one character to Erika, a chance to speak for much of the audience watching the film. However, Haneke brilliantly throws this on the head when the voyeurs in those comfortable theatre seats see their cinematic equivalent digressing just as deeply as their disturbed heroine. The way he seamlessly turns this sexual/mental illness into an issue of gender and of degree stands as testament that Michael Haneke, regardless of how hard it is to watch at times, can make some of the strongest remarks through films.
A great deal of the impact in The Piano Teacher comes from Isabelle Huppert's performance, which comes as her finest career moment, as well as one of the year's early choices for 2002's Best Actress (personal list, of course: I highly doubt that the conservative Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be able to make it through the film). Similar accolades were thrown upon Huppert at last year's Cannes Film Festival, where she won Best Actress, Benoît Magimel won Best Actor, and the film won the Grand Prix (second place, falling just under Nanni Moretti's far more uplifting The Son's Room).
Within this performance is a highly volatile person,
pushing against all social mores a cultured woman like Erika Kohut would be expected to go
with. Ms. Huppert is not a terribly sexy actress, but she brings to the role a terrible
sexuality -- she moves across the screen like a nun shedding her habit down to her lace
skivvies. Not since Ellen Burstyn's harrowing performance in Requiem for a Dream
has an actress created a character this traumatic to see. Denouncers of The Piano
Teacher will be relatively common, but I doubt anyone will ever question the high art
at work from an actress long known for playing mature women living in an immature world.
But, of course, never has the immaturity been as shockingly surreal as in Michael Haneke's
picture. Even if there's nothing in The Piano Teacher that would make Leopold von
Sacher-Masoch or the Marquis de Sade blush, I'd say they would still be proud.