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Posted 10 October 1999
Carrie Gorringe takes you into the screening rooms of the
Toronto International Film Festival.
was the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes festival and,
along with Tom Gilroy’s tiresome indie retread, Breaking Ground, was
among the films that were least deserving of the praise being heaped on them by
the proverbial truckload. Purporting to be a story about the tragedies suffered
by a downwardly-mobile teenager at the hands of her shiftless, trailer-trash
plays out its hands with sparse background details, alternating between extreme
sentimentality and extreme dissociation. Aside from the questions of how one
says “trailer trash” in French (roll the phrase “les petits Blancs pauvres”
around your mouth a couple of times, and begin to appreciate the succinct,
dismissive cruelty redolent within the English counterpart), and why the
filmmakers chose to shoot this twaddle in an aggravatingly clumsy cinema-verite
style, there are very few others worth posing about this film.
One might argue that Rosetta is yet another one of those
– yawn! – “stinging indictments” of capitalism so beloved by those both
well-heeled and politically “progressive”, and one might just manage to
sound reasonably articulate on the subject, if it weren’t for the
well-documented effects of the asphyxiating cradle-to-grave welfare system in
France upon the upward mobility of the socio-economically disadvantaged like --
Rosetta. Imagine that.
The level of social enlightenment offered by
Rosetta is, to put it kindly, non-existent;
after eighty-six minutes, the only “awful truth” the film can reveal
to its audience is this: sometimes
poor people aren’t very nice to each other.
Since Marxist historian Raymond Williams was the first to codify this
presumably axiomatic hypothesis back in the ‘50s (and it apparently wasn’t
all that self-evident in some quarters, so necessary was it for Williams to
state the obvious), the brothers
Dardenne (Luc and Jean-Pierre, who brought us the heart-string tugger La
Promesse in 1996) are in the rather embarrassing position of having too
little to say and having said it all a little too late.
With its unwieldy thematic blend of sentimentality and outrage, Rosetta
plays like a film for people who have just discovered the specter of intractable
poverty after reaching their majority. Those expecting intelligible – never mind intelligent –
revelations concerning the plight of the poor should turn their minds elsewhere.
The film that
should have won this year’s Palme d’Or, but didn’t, was Atom
Egoyan’s creepy little masterpiece, Felicia’s Journey
Perhaps the jury at Cannes mistook the film’s title and expected a
pleasant little travelogue through the quaint nooks and crannies of Ireland. Instead, what the audience gets is an unpleasant (but
compellingly constructed) travelogue through the modi operandi of a
British serial killer named Hilditch (a magnificent performance by Bob Hoskins)
at the point where his life and the life of a pregnant Irish teenager (an
equally masterful debut by Elaine Cassidy) intersect. After
watching Felicia’s Journey, you’ll be convinced that The Sweet
Hereafter is the aberration in Egoyan’s oeuvre, at least in its more
low-key style and tone; Felicia’s
Journey is an atavistic journey back to themes of voyeurism, outrage
and guilty secrets so prevalent in his past projects. Bob Hoskins and newcomer
Elaine Cassidy make a wonderful cat-and-mouse team as each plays out his or her
inner drives on the other, one unwittingly.
The talented Arsinee Khanjian (Egoyan’s wife) is wonderful as
Hilditch’s obsessive and brutal French-chef mother, seen only in
black-and-white videotaped accompaniments to Hilditch’s cooking sessions, as
the killer tries, yet again, to beat Mother at her own game.
After enduring the psychological wringing-out imposed by Felicia, it’s no wonder Toronto audiences rushed to The
Five Senses; allegories on solipsistic behavior, after all, are considerably
less stressful on the mind. [review the review
and interview by Cynthia Fuchs]
Felicia, there was a brief interlude in Happy, Texas.
Consider the comedic possibilities in two convicts (Jeremy Northam and
Steve Zahn) escaping from a Texas chain gang courtesy of a plot device ripped
unapologetically from The Fugitive
(either version). Said
ex-chain-gang members steal a DOA RV, decide to assume the identities of the
former owners, then discover they have to not only impersonate artistic advisors
to help the no-account town of Happy, Texas win its first beauty pageant, but
they have to act as long-time lovers. Then,
to top it all off, the local sheriff (William C. Macy, of all people) decides
it’s time for him to come out of the closet and take a shine to one of the
“advisors”, who’s really in love with the local bank manager (Ally Walker,
from TV’s The Profiler).
Naturally, our boys, being so experienced in crime and all, know an easy
mark when they see it – and Happy’s bank, with state-of-the-art security, by
nineteenth-century standards -- has “open” signs all over it.
Northam and Zahn (the latter best known for his role as the crazy
guitarist in That Thing You Do!
and his intriguing work in Out of Sight)
update the traditional “buddy” routine with a great deal of vigor. Add
Illeana Douglas as a Southern-Belle music teacher always coming down with the
vapors at the drop of a hat (or the utterance of a dirty word), and the results
are wickedly funny, so funny, in fact, that one wonders whether or not the film
will spawn a Southern Anti-Defamation League. Tyro feature director Mark Illsley
(a USC grad) might not want to make any travel plans that focus south of the
good ol’ Mason-Dixon anytime soon.
Falls on Cedars is the latest offering from Scott Hicks, whose last project
was a little film called Shine. Ostensibly
a murder mystery set in Washington State in 1949, Cedars alternates
between the post and pre-war years to illustrate a grim tableau of
anti-Japanese-American prejudice, and its embarrassing refusal to disappear,
even after the specter of Manzanar. All
it took was a suspicion that a Japanese-American war veteran turned fisherman
had murdered his former (white) best friend for the trouble to bubble up from
its barely-concealed trough of guilt and resentment.
Cedars is at its best
recounting the wartime trials of Japanese-Americans, notably in the sequence in
which Japanese-Americans are being rounded up for deportation.
Shot in alternating long takes and extreme close-ups, it encapsulates all
of the outrage and misery of the unjustly accused without veering into
the film falls on weaker ground
when it lands on its “contemporary” passages, tending toward treacly
denouements in an attempt to paste some sort of happy ending on an extremely
grim situation. Snow Falls on
Cedars has several deeply resonating moments, but overall, it lacks the
necessary cohesiveness characteristic of great filmmaking.
With the Devil is Ang Lee’s interpretation of
the American Civil War and it is a subtly spellbinding exploration of how
the conflicting forces tore apart life in the state of Missouri;
the conflicts depicted here, both emotional and martial, also serve to
represent, via synecdoche, warfare nation-wide.
Devil also provides an explanation for the rise of the
post-Civil-War lawlessness as the frontier and opportunities for advancement
began to narrow and finally close (the guerilla tactics of the Missouri
“Irregulars” (those who fought for secession) would prove useful training
for outlaws like Jesse James and the Younger Brothers). Lee takes this volatile
material and renders it without hysteria or sentiment, but with a great deal of
compassion, and is one of the few directors capable of achieving such a goal
(perhaps the Taiwanese-born Lee had the advantage of emotional distance on his
side, but his story-telling skill is also painstakingly exquisite). [Click
here to read the full review]
(also seen in Lee’s The Ice Storm) and Skeet Ulrich (Scream, The
Chill Factor) are the two individuals charged with the tall order of
distilling the Secessionist ideology into a comprehensible, and nearly
sympathetic, viewpoint. They do so
character, with the unlikely name of Jack Bull Childs, is a Southern Bryon,
flamboyant in manner, hot-headed and stubborn (literary talent unknown),
who will do anything to defend the slaveowning classes’ way of life.
Jake Roedel (Maguire) becomes the film’s Everyman figure, whose
character embodies the contradictory situations in which those who fought for
the Secessionist cause often found themselves (Jake’s father, a German
immigrant, is murdered for his pro-Union beliefs, and although Jake keeps on
fighting for “the cause”, seemingly despite all reason, his loyalty is
always suspect to everyone but himself).
Folksinger Jewel makes her screen debut as a wily Southern widow, and
carries herself with far more dignity and humor onscreen than, apparently, she
does when off (there were stories in The Globe and Mail of Ms. Kilcher
throwing conniption fits when “unauthorized” photographs were taken of her
at the public screening of Devil). Jeffery
Wright, as Holt, the former slave of the Childs family, and Jake Bull’s
devoted companion, has been given a wonderfully-written role and plays it to its
limits and beyond.
Mendes, director of London and Broadway sensation, The Blue Room (best
known, or notorious, depending on your point of view,
for its showcasing of Nicole
Kidman in the altogether), comes American Beauty, the debut film that was
the talk of the festival and the winner of the People’s Choice Award for best
film. American Beauty’s
premise reads just like another one of those suburban expose films (i.e., there
are kinks floating around underneath the bland veneer of ticky-tacky homes that,
as Malvina Reynolds sang, “all
look the same”), with wife-swappers, pedophiles and what-have-you all
conspiring against each other while trying in vain to preserve their own
In fact, stripped of all of its elegant
veneer and acting power, that’s exactly how American Beauty plays, as
Lester Burnham (Spacey), a forty-two-year-old family man with a rotting
marriage, psyche and career (amazing how troubles always run in threes in these
films), attempts one last fling with his teenage daughter’s best friend (Mena
as Lester goes on the road to ruin and (we are informed in the film’s first
five minutes) his Sunset Boulevard-like impending death, the film
emphasizes the fallout that his midlife crisis-to-be generates within both the
family and his immediate neighborhood. His
wife, Carolyn (Bening), an individual so obsessed with home and style that she
makes Martha Stewart look like a Jane-come-lately to the world of haut monde
place settings and fine Irish linen, also begins to come undone ( it should come
as no surprise that she is especially fond of “American Beauty” roses, those
deep-crimson works of art whose petals project the most exquisite, fragile
elegance one day, then rot at warp speed), and his daughter (Thora Birch) is
being stalked by the next-door video voyeur/pot dealer (Wes Bentley), whose
Marine Corps father (yes, that is Chris Cooper) collects Nazi-era china plates
(yet another instance in this film, and perhaps the most obvious, of
beautiful veneers concealing the hallmarks of ugliness which are easily
revealed by the most simple of gestures). He
makes Pat Buchanan sound like a moderate Democrat.
He, too, has a Nasty Little Secret, which will naturally be revealed by
the final act. Any one of the
misdeeds, evil acts or thoughts could be credible by themselves, but so many
have been jam-packed into one temporal and spatial block that American Beauty
sometimes seems like Grand Guignol in the suburbs.
Sounds like fun?
Replace the gloss, Spacey’s projection of cool irony over a cauldron of
emotional breakdown, and Bening’s explosive rendition of a social striver
whose carefully-constructed veneer of respectability has been repaired so often
that it is on the verge of permanent collapse, and American Beauty is, at
its best, an updated version of Death of a Salesman (and the comparison
is not in any way meant to be an insult). The elusive, deceptive and arbitrary
nature of beauty, and its relationship to financial and personal success is the
focal point of Mendes’s film: the
literal and metaphorical manifestations of beauty (what it is like to no longer
be “beautiful” to your employer, your family or even yourself), its
limitations and consequences, unsparing in their intensity even to the unaware.
Certainly, with its chock-a-block compiling of misery upon misery, Mendes
and playwright-turned-screenwriter Alan Ball could surely be accused in some
aspects of pandering to a so-called “liberal intellectual boomer elite,”
through heavy-handed symbolism (those red roses make far too many symbolic
appearances in a hundred-minute film to prevent their descent into triteness),
but the film has many of those so-called “moments of truth” which more than
compensate for the occasional misfiring. It
is an elegant, ugly, ungainly, precise, and, in balance, a most worthwhile film.
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Copyright © 1999 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights