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February 17, 2003

Moviegoing and DVD Journal: "Demonlover"; "Brief Crossing"; "Barbershop"; "High Heels and Low Lifes"; "New Best Friend"; "Storytelling"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

For no good reason at all, I found myself rushing around town checking in on arty French movies, then returning home to watch DVDs. Hey, maybe I'm still a film buff after all, and maybe youth isn't yet entirely spent. Or maybe I was just making a futile effort to recharge my already-expired film buff MetroPass.


I'll try to spare you the wordy reviews. (Or so I say as I launch into them.) Olivier Assayas' Demon Lover was as sociologically observant and as conceptually thought-through as anything I've seen or read recently. It's basically a thriller about industrial espionage starring Connie Nielsen as an ambitious corporate lawyer. (Gina Gershon is in two or three scenes, and the two names -- Connie and Gina -- explain why I was at the movie in the first place.) But it's really a poetic essay about where we are and where we're going -- imagine "The Matrix" and "Run Lola Run" as seen by Antonioni. Everything is permeable, everything interpenetrates, everything is virtual -- finance, cities, deals, architecture, relationships. Even narrative form, which Assayas seems to have laid out as a computer game rather than a traditional act-by-act structure. You advance from level to level, with the rules of the game seeming to change with each advance. It's all very brilliant, though the film did leave me thinking, If only it had been a comedy!

sarah pratt use this one.jpg
Sarah Pratt

Then on to Catherine Breillat's recent (and apparently never-to-be-released-in-this-country) Brief Crossing. I'm apparently almost alone in loving some of Breillat's movies. I guess I understand why; most people seem to find them chilly, off-putting, and obnoxious. But they make me really excited and enthusiastic. Offputting? Surgical? Yes yes yes, I want to cry -- all that and more! It seems to me they deliver goods (mainly about women and sex) next-to-impossible to find elsewhere. Have you caught Breillat's "Romance"? It's the picture of hers that's most completely realized, and I'd be eager to hear your response to it. Breillat works territory I'm fond of, which is the novella-like narrative of sex, religion and despair, and does it from a neurotically narcissistic female point of view. Yippee! Most of her films seem to be made from 15 page screenplays and to exist for the sake of one good 20-30 minute passage. Still, in "Brief Crossing," as in her recent "Fat Girl," it's one heckuva passage.

"Brief Crossing" is about a 30ish Englishwoman and a teenaged French boy who meet on a ferry crossing the English channel. For 2/3 of the movie, Breillat is doing little but setting the tone, getting you used to the scale and content of what she wants you focused on (minute emotional shifts underlain by anguish, fury and lust, basically). Then comes the amazing 20-30 minutes, when the boy and the woman are playing with emotional dynamite. He's foxy, cocky, Latin, and scared; she's Anglo, bitter yet still yearning.

What a performance by Sarah Pratt! (Who has only one other movie listed on her IMDB page. A Google search didn't turn up much about her either.) She looks like Julianne Moore (another real redhead!), though with a Bloomsbury jawline, more focus, and a bonier stride. She shifts like that (snaps fingers here) between wispiness, aggression, and jealousy -- one after another, all of them contradicting each other, all of it as infuriating to her as it is to us, a real essay in a certain experience of being female. It doesn't make sense, yet that's the way it is. It's all amazingly subtle and fleeting, yet her performance is a powerhouse.

As a filmmaker, Breillat is a miniaturist, but a bloody-minded one, like a hyper-intense Eric Rohmer. She likes to blend together realism and symbolism in the physically simplest kinds of ways. (The heroine here is named Alice -- but who's going through the looking glass? And which looking glass?) But what's really great about her is her guts and daring; a few of her movies are so extreme and sex-centric that I wound up thinking she's probably crazy. You know what Breillat presents is true of at least some women, yet it's never been put onscreen from the inside out before. Imagine something like "Jules and Jim" but minus the lyricism and made from the point of view of the Jeanne Moreau character. Beautiful. And scary.

Many thanks for recommending Barbershop, by the way, which The Wife and I caught up with on DVD. What a sweetnatured, rough-hewn, bighearted movie.

Another DVD I enjoyed (the wife didn't): High Heels and Low Lifes, a larky little British thing starring Minnie Driver and Mary McCormack whose idea is to blend a frolicsome chickflick with a semiserious lad/gangster side: Romy and Michelle get lost in the world of "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Guns," in other words. I rented it because I'm such a fan of Minnie Driver, who (playing a rather woebegone nurse) is her usual overgrown, adorable self -- big-jawed, snaggle-toothed, earthy yet capable of elegance, and with an instinct for archness and comic exaggeration. But Mary McCormack, playing an American actress whose career is going nowhere, was just as terrif. She stylizes the Americanness of her character, making her enthusiastic, straight-ahead, kinda hearty and clunky but lovable as well. The two of them dance and get drunk, they fuss over their outfits and romantic prospects, they stare in consternation at machines, they spat and make up, they outwit thugs. The lad side of the movie is semi-passable at best, but, you know, "Romy and Michelle" wasn't all that good either yet I'm glad I saw it. There's a lot to be said for watching charming actresses have themselves a frolic.

Then it was off to some Chris Marker films, two of them complete snoozers, two quite wonderful. I'll get back to him with a longer posting sometime, and promise/threaten to rhapsodize endlessly. You haven't yet caught any of his, have you? He's one of a kind, and two of his movies are among my all-time faves: Sans Soleil and The Last Bolshevik.

Back home for another couple of DVDs: New Best Friendand Storytelling, both of which I rented for the actresses. (Hmm, there's a pattern here, one that's making me think about what a good sport of a wife I have ...) Do you get fascinated, or at least hopeful, about actresses the way I do? Some actresses capture my imagination for a time. I'll chase down any old film with Joanna Pacula in it, for instance. The films almost always suck, but Pacula is almost always amazing, and I never regret watching her. I recently bought and watched a couple of obscure and lousy movies starring Michelle Johnson, who aeons ago was the big-busted nymphet in "Blame it on Rio." What's become of her? I was amazed to see that she's developed a kind of worldliness, as well as some real screen presence and power.

Monroe, Swain, Kirshner

Anyway, the actress who interested me in "New Best Friend" was Dominique Swain, who played Lolita in the recent movie. She seems these days to be drawn to wannabe-edgy movies about spoiled kids misbehaving -- R-rated versions of "Dawson's Creek," in other words. Which isn't a bad description of "New Best Friend," the story of an investigation into a coed's drug overdose on an expensive North Carolina campus. I'm not yet sure whether or not Dominique will suit me as an object of fascination -- I'm still trying her out. On the plus side, she's got a mischievous Waspy glint, as though she were Chloe Sevigny's taller, more clear-eyed sister, and the movies she appears in are good and trashy. On the minus side, she doesn't as an actress give me much of a tingle -- I don't feel like I'm privy to anything I want to surprise my friends with. In "New Best Friend," Dominique shows some spirit, but the other actresses were more fun. Mia Kirshner swings her hips around entertainingly, and (playing an on-edge poor little rich girl) Meredith Monroe is really good, like a Gwyneth Paltrow with some real chops and power. The movie itself is hilariously self-serious and bad. You could call its nonlinear puzzle-picture structure postmodern; you could also just call it inept.

Selma Blair

"Storytelling" I rented for the sake of Selma Blair, who I find pretty irresistable. Do you know her? She's been in "Cruel Intentions," "The Sweetest Thing," and many other pictures, usually as a sidekick or second lead. She's a natural-born clown, a dark-eyed slip of a thing with a touching spirit, and gargantuan emotional responses that she's always furiously and unsuccessfully trying to stuff back where they came from. Bless her, she seems to adore doing quirky supporting characters and far-out projects; I remember reading an interview with her where she talked about how much more fun you can have as an actress doing nonstarring roles. In "Storytelling," she's the lead, but for only a 20 minute episode. It's a Todd ("Welcome to the Dollhouse") Solondz movie, so as far as I'm concerned is basically to be avoided. But, credit where credit is due, he does give Selma a couple of outrageous scenes, and comes up with one amazing closeup. (Selma, obeying orders from an older lover, leans forward and braces herself against a wall. The camera's right there with her as she's about to be taken from behind, and you can see that she's lost in her own cosmos of anticipation and regret.) Selma wears her hair pink and blonde, does her first nude scene, throws herself into the project completely, and ought to feel proud of herself.

From art to trash to art to trash, skipping over the middle-ground almost completely -- that's how the real film buffs do it. Or so I remember.

What have you caught recently?

Best, if, to be honest, a little film-buffed-out,


posted by Michael at February 17, 2003


If Romance is Breillat's most completely-realised film, then I daresay I can live without seeing anything else by her.

Posted by: James Russell on February 17, 2003 5:30 AM

Alas, I guess I really am alone in loving her pictures ...

Did you dislike "Romance" because of
1) Whiney, annoying heroin
2) Pretentious "philosophical" voice over
3) Generally self-serious tone
4) Something else
5) All of the above and more

Just curious. Some of what Breillat does hits my "I love movies" button so directly that it's hard for me to imagine not enjoying them. But apparently nearly everyone hates them.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 17, 2003 10:02 AM

I always wondered what ever happened to the delightfully buxom Michelle Johnson! Thanks for the update. It's ironic that when "Blame It On Rio" was released, the full-breasted Johnson got all the media attention, but then the (at the time) small-breasted other unknown co-star, named Demi Moore, when on to fame and fortune. Still have not seen Catherine B's films yet, but will ASAP.

Posted by: Michael Serafin on February 17, 2003 11:57 AM

It's more of a mainstream release, but "About a Boy" was probably the best movie I saw last year, now on DVD. It's one of the rare movies that mixes comedy and tragedy and achieves just the right tone. It also doesn't flinch when blatantly portraying the faults of the characters.

I've finally put my finger on a pretty consistent determinant between "good fiction" and "bad fiction." I've noted that in any fictional work where the author has an apparent opinion, or specifically a negative judgment, regarding any or all of the characters, the whole work is tainted because we are forced to "look down" or disapprove of someone, often in spite of how we might feel about the characters ourselves. If an author belittles a character, or conversely obviously feels a character is cute or cool, the insinuation of that judgment overwhelms any other information on that character provided through their dialogues or action. What we are told becomes moot, and almost irrelevant, in the face of being lead on how we should feel.

I've noted that Stephen King, Anne Rice, and John Irving never make this mistake. Even the most evil and vile characters are presented to you without any authorial judgment upon the character (not counting that given by first-person narration of another character). But the recent movie, "About Schmidt" and the novel I'm currently reading, Jane Smiley's "Moo" do it in spades. It's clear how the author feels about Schmidt, or the Dean, or the secretary who really runs the college. (Respectively: He's a clueless schmuck; he's an impotent figurehead except in bed; and she's an under-appreciated genius who should really be the dean, plus she's a lesbian to boot, which only adds to her grandeur.)

The screenwriters for "About a Boy" do not allow any judgments they might have on a character to creep into the narrative, so we the audience are given the trust and respect to decide for ourselves how to feel. This is just one of the aspects that makes this a great movie - "good fiction" if you will.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on February 17, 2003 12:30 PM

Hi Michael -- Like you, I always wondered what could have become of Michelle Johnson. What a way to start an acting career! I finally ran across a couple of videos, "Fallen Angel" and "Body Shot" -- terrible, both of them. But Michelle herself has acquired a kind of fascinating, taunting swagger. No more bubbliness from her! You can usually buy used videotapes of the movies for about 5 bucks from Amazon. Let me know how you respond to "Romance" if you ever get around to it, though I semi-dread your response, too. Nearly everyone I've recommended the movie to has hated it. But I've watched it three times so far, and would happily watch it a fourth.

Hey Yahmdallah, glad to hear you enjoyed "About a Boy." I did too. Surprising work from everyone involved, no? And fascinating to hear your theory about judgment. Just the other day I was watching Ian McKellan being interviewed on "Inside the Actors Studio" and he said something very similar. Along the lines of, if you judge a character, if you think he's evil, you'll never be able to give a good performance of him. How do you play evil? But if you think, well, he had a hard time, he's got some talent, he's made some mistakes, he's drawn to certain things -- well, then you've got yourself something to play.

I haven't read "Moo," and I know what you mean about "About Schmidt." Half of me wasn't bugged by it in "About Schmidt," and half of me was. That's roughly my background, and the Schmidt character reminded me at times of my dad, and I never took offense. Why would I? That's pretty much what that world and those people (my people!) are like. Yet the movie kept slapping him down over and over, and dragging his confusion and misery out on view over and over too -- why? What was the point? I liked Alexander Payne's "Citizen Ruth" much better. Did you catch that one? Many of the same pleasures, but without all the underlining...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 17, 2003 9:47 PM


Regarding Romance: I suspect the answer is all of the above and more. I thought Caroline Ducey was terrible and the self-importance of the entire enterprise just shat me to tears. But here in Australia the film came with additional baggage, in that it was temporarily banned here before it was released on appeal. I suspect I would've been grumpy at wasting my time on the film had it just gone through without controversy, but I was additionally irritated to find that, as with so many other examples of controversial art, it simply wasn't worthy of the fuss that had been made around it.

Posted by: James Russell on February 18, 2003 6:20 AM

Re: Villians

I've heard Alan Rickman (who has played some of the best villians in recent memory) say that, to his mind, he's never played one. To him, the characters he plays have good reasons for doing what they do, and are completly justified in their own minds...

Posted by: jimbo on February 18, 2003 11:48 AM

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