Friday, December 26, 2008

Dangerous Liaisons (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, 1959)

Our mini love affair with Jeanne Moreau continues with this French adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Rather than telling the tale in its original eighteenth-century setting, as did the American version starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich, director Roger Vadim and writer Claude Brule set this story in late-1950’s France.

This time around, Merteuil (Moreau) and Valmont (Gerard Philipe) are cast as a couple in a VERY open marriage. They actively encourage each other in their dalliances, and enjoy crowing about their conquests to one another. Outsiders view them as a little odd, and most of their acquaintances know that at least one of them is unfaithful, but no one guesses at the true depths of their degeneracy. Merteuil is slightly piqued that Court, a lover whom she had been planning to dump, has beaten her to the punch by getting engaged to a pretty, young woman named Cecile (Jeanne Valerie). Merteuil decides to get even by having Valmont seduce Cecile, thus sullying Court’s marriage bed. In a stunning Alps ski resort, Valmont sets about the relatively easy task of bedding the curious teenager, but along the way he meets a much more intriguing woman. Marianne Tourvel is not only beautiful and charming, but a virtuous wife; and Valmont has just enough heart left to be drawn to her. He tells himself and Merteuil that he is simply relishing a difficult conquest, but Merteuil senses the budding love behind his bravado, and she is jealous of it. There follows a classic storm of jealousy and deceit, leaving behind broken hearts, minds, and lives.

I have not read the novel on which this film is based. My introduction to this story was through the 1988 John Malkovich movie, and I am a huge fan of that film. Merteuil and Valmont are simply fascinating people. They put on this elaborate show of worldliness and seduction, each for an audience consisting only of the other, yet they hold each other at arm’s length. There have never been two who deserve each other more, but they express their love for each other through elaborate conquests of others. Or maybe their delight in each other’s dalliances is not love at all, but a sick form of possessiveness. Perhaps each feels that as long as the other is completely promiscuous, they will never commit true, emotional infidelity.

Laclos’s novel is said to have made waves upon its publication in 1782. The tale of French aristocrats is one of a class of people whose lifestyle has run itself to its logical conclusion. The Aristocracy is known for living lives of leisure, with an obsession with fashion, and a lack of the usual sexual mores. In Merteuil and Valmont, the Aristocracy is seen as consisting of nothing but leisure, fashion, and sexual obsession. It is a story, in a way, of the end of an era, and some say it helped hasten the end of that era. The novel’s dramatization of depraved behavior may have helped flame the fires of the rising French Revolution. Really, the guillotine is too good for Merteuil and Valmont!

This modernized version of the story did not thrill me quite as much as the Malkovich/Close film. The quality of acting and dialog in that 1988 movie conspire to make it perfect. The 1959 “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is not quite perfect, but it is still excellent. Jeanne Moreau and Gerard Philipe play their roles with charm and menace. Early on, Moreau seemed to be playing a slightly gentler version of Merteuil, but I think that was just her incredible beauty influencing me. Eventually she is seen to be crueler and more heartless than Valmont.

Jeanne Moreau is a fascinating actress. She has what I would consider to be one of the most beautiful faces in film. Her eyebrows are natural and full, on a strong, yet feminine face that, like many beautiful faces, borders on the ugly at times. With her looks and talent she could have been a traditional movie star, but she seems to have made a specialty of playing dangerous women, heartbreakers, and libertines rather than heroines. In an interview on “The Lovers” DVD, she makes it clear that she didn’t set out to play villainesses, but she was always drawn to strong female parts, and in the 1950’s and 60’s, that meant playing unsympathetic women. She plays them unapologetically.

That “Dangerous Liaisons” goes down so well in a more modern setting shows how timeless it is, and I’m sure that the right filmmaker could make a science fiction classic out of it. This story will remain relevant as long as people continue to fall in love and get jealous of each other. As for me, this film only left me more in love with Jeanne Moreau, who is quickly becoming my favorite actress.

4.5 stars

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (1964)

This ranks as one of the most bizarre movies I have seen. From the first line to the last, everything is sung. I don’t mean this is a musical, where there are actual songs that tell the story. It is a regular movie, with regular scenes and dialog, but the actors sing all of their lines. Try it. Get your favorite song going in your head, and then sing these words along with the music. That’s this movie! I couldn’t believe my ears for the first couple of minutes, but after a while I got used to it, and it really wasn’t too bad! Actually, the singing adds charm to what is otherwise a pretty minimalist story.

Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) are a couple of young lovebirds whose prospects are threatened by the clash between Guy’s working-class position and the aspirations of Genevieve’s scrabbling, bourgeois mother. They are devastated when Guy gets drafted, so they commemorate their last date by finally doing the big nasty. You can guess how that turns out. Guy goes to Algeria, leaving Genevieve in Cherbourg with a bun in the oven. Genevieve is determined to wait for Guy, but her mom takes the opportunity to try to pair her daughter with Roland Cassard, a wealthy diamond merchant (Marc Michel, reprising his role from another Jacques Demy movie called “Lola”). It’s actually harder than you’d expect to root for Guy at that point, because he rarely writes to Genevieve, and damn, that Roland is charming!

At the risk of spoiling the plot, I’m just going to say that nothing really dramatic happens in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” (By the way, the title comes from the fact that Genevieve and her mom run an umbrella shop.) This film is driven by vibrant, colorful sets and winsome performances from the cast, who manage to make the singing-the-lines thing work. The movie was a nice introduction to director Jacques Demy, who is apparently quite accomplished. His work has been described as the “tragedy of the everyday,” but I don’t really see “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” as tragedy. To me the film is about how life doesn’t necessarily go in the direction we think we want it to, but there are still great opportunities for love and happiness if we face forward and embrace them. The wistful final scene is tinged with regret, but it also contains a hopeful message about refusing to give in to regret over lost opportunities.

3 stars

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Graduate (1967) *****

To really get what a classic “The Graduate” is, it helps to consider that it perfectly captured the shifting societal mood of its time, but is still imminently watchable today. Prior to the late ‘60’s, movies almost always portrayed a positive outlook on America and our way of life. A few films, like “Rebel Without a Cause,” bucked that trend, but in general, Hollywood told America what it wanted to hear about itself. In westerns, the guys in white came out on top; in love stories, the guy got the girl; and in war movies (not to mention the wars themselves), America always triumphed. In the ‘60’s, people were questioning the American dream, and Hollywood started to really dip its toes into those turbulent waters with movies like “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy,” and “The Graduate.” Movies like these paved the way for what is today an almost dogmatically pessimistic view of American life among artistic films.

The standard description of “The Graduate” is that it is about a younger man, Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman), who has an affair with an older woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). That misses the point of the movie, though. There is an affair, of course, and as far as that goes, it is fairer to say that it is about an older woman who seduces a younger man. The affair is initiated by Mrs. Robinson as a way to restore her sexual confidence and escape her boring, affluent life and inattentive husband. Being with a younger man, of course, helps her deal with her fear of aging and her disillusionment. The affair is also meant to help her combat her fear that her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) now possesses the youth and beauty that Mrs. Robinson once had, which is why she reacts so jealously when Benjamin takes notice of Elaine’s photograph.

But “The Graduate” is mainly about Benjamin, and for him, the affair is almost incidental. He IS trapped into the “sick” affair, but in the end it is really a more or less convenient way for him to deal with his horniness while he floats aimlessly through post-college life, waiting to be struck by the desire to make something of himself. He has successfully jumped through all the hoops his parents and society have set up for him, and faced with yet another hoop, graduate school, he suddenly finds himself completely without motivation. He looks ahead to a life of suburban homes, cocktail parties, and cheating wives, and he balks.

The affair between Ben and Mrs. Robinson is, of course, a major portion of the film, but when you take a step back and look at how Ben’s life is unfolding, the affair is not really a seminal event. The movie starts with a party celebrating Ben’s college graduation, and it is apparent that his academic career has been a success. Interestingly, the party is populated entirely by friends of his parents, so the tone is set early on that Ben hasn’t yet established his own identity. Ben’s attitude toward the party can be interpreted as shyness around all those older folks, but we eventually see that Ben is feeling deeply lost. We are left to guess at when and how he turned this corner, but he seems to have succumbed to the feeling that he has spent 20 years pursuing his parents’ dreams for him. He now finds himself very empty, without anything of his own to pursue.

Elaine gives Ben something to pursue. He is initially cold to her, at the insistence of her jealous mother, but he inevitably warms to the joy of being with someone his own age. Once he gets past her shyness, Ben falls for Elaine, and it is this, not the affair, that is the seminal event in the film. Falling in love awakens Ben to himself, gives him a sense of purpose, and makes him a man.

“The Graduate” is not an entirely perfect movie. Some of the directorial choices, like the rapid flashes of nudity in one scene, look a little dated now. I also think that Anne Bancroft played Mrs. Robinson as a tad overly harsh, which is ironic, because the role was supposedly very difficult for the normally sweet-natured Bancroft. The occasional flaw really isn’t worth quibbling over, though. In its witty, artful way, “The Graduate” is truly one of the great films.

5 stars out of 5

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)

It’s a rare occasion now that I see a movie in the theater. On a whim, we decided to take our 3-year-old to see the “Madagascar” sequel. She saw the original in a hotel a while back, and she still talks about it, so she was completely stoked to see “Madagascar 2.” We would have been better off just watching “Monsters, Inc.” on DVD again.

For those without kids, just stop reading now. This is not one of those crossover animated movies that appeals to adults. “Madagascar 2” is for kids, and the adults will be lucky not to fall asleep. (My wife literally did fall asleep for a while!) Briefly, the plot is that those wacky zoo animals that were left stranded at the end of “Madagascar” finally fix up their plane and launch an effort to get back to New York. It turns out that penguins can’t navigate worth a damn, so when the plane inevitably crash lands, it is in Africa. This gives Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) a chance to re-unite with their own kind, which strains their friendship. Not that the plot matters, really. What “Madagascar 2” is really about is hyperkinetic characters zipping around the screen doing exaggerated voice acting and making winking pop-culture references.

Maybe I’m being churlish criticizing a kid’s movie, but “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” really isn’t the kind of entertainment I’m looking for for my kid. The characters, situations, and crises all feel manufactured and two-dimensional. It seems like whenever the writers got stuck, they just threw in some hip-hop and made the characters dance around. The film also slips in some clumsy slurs against hunters. Call me reactionary, but being a hunter myself I’m really not interested in having Hollywood teach my daughter that hunters are evil, thuggish, and trigger-happy. (If it sounds like I am over-reacting, I will direct you to Whit Stillman’s movie “The Last Days of Disco” for an exposition on how the depiction of hunters in “Bambi” shaped the modern environmental movement.)

If this were the best entertainment available for kids, I guess we could tolerate it, but we don’t have to! As Exhibit A, I give you “Wall-E,” which also came out this year. “Wall-E” mops the floor with the “Madagascar” movies in every way possible. This is a movie that doesn’t even have any dialog for the first 10 to 20 minutes, and yet my three-year-old daughter loved it. The robots and people in “Wall-E” have depth and subtlety to them. With a minimum of celebrity voices and no dance music, “Wall-E” manages to tell a charming story that entertains kids and adults alike. Since that is possible, we don’t have to settle for sub-par fare like “Madagascar 2”. Sure, kids like the “Madagascar” movies; kids like just about anything animated you put in front of them. We might as well put them in front of something good.

2 stars out of 5