Dan Brown and his various publishers aren’t complaining, but the massive success of The Da Vinci Code—60 million copies sold and counting—has long seemed like a distraction. With its headlong gait, compressed time line, and tiny cast of characters, the novel was always meant to become a Hollywood movie. But it turns out that the book’s success has not only delayed the film but also undermined it. Because Brown’s conspiracy-minded rewrite of Christian history has gotten only more controversial in the three years since its release, the prudent choice for a filmmaker hoping to reach the widest possible audience would be to make a movie that essentially betrays the novel—which is just what director Ron Howard and scripter Akiva Goldsman have done.
The Da Vinci Code is not, of course, a “good book.” It’s clumsily written and humorless, and it makes a hash of history and theology. Still, it’s cleverly plotted and amusingly provocative. Whether Brown’s goal was to shake the foundations of Christianity or simply to write an Umberto Eco novel for the masses, the book has filled a need. It knocked the cobwebs from centuries of dogma and put the “facts” of Western religion in play for millions who had never questioned them. So does the movie, after a fashion. Howard and Goldsman retain the novel’s basic plot, as well as its heretical—if not especially disturbing—conclusion.
For the first half of the film’s two-and-a-half hours, the filmmakers mostly just compress the story, eliminating false steps and second guesses and rendering events even speedier than in the briskly paced book: Late one night in Paris, American professor of religious symbology Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is summoned to the Louvre. There, venerable curator Jacques Saunière (Jean-Pierre Marielle) managed to leave an abundance of clues to his secret mission while dying from a gunshot wound inflicted by killer monk Silas (miscast Paul Bettany). As driven French cop Bézu Fache (ever-feral Jean Reno) questions Langdon, winsome police cryptographer Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) arrives, secretly warning the American that he’s about to be unjustly charged with Saunière’s murder. Neveu helps Langdon escape the museum, and together they pursue Saunière’s clues, which indirectly lead to the chateau of British scholar Leigh Teabing (a twinkling Ian McKellen), and on to London. At stake, as you might have heard, are the Holy Grail, The Last Supper, and the divinity of Jesus.
Howard, who first hooked up with Hanks for the big-screen sitcom Splash, might not seem like the guy to handle such material. But his style has gotten darker over the years, and he and Goldsman collaborated on A Beautiful Mind, which also explored the danger lurking in ideas. As in that film, bits of information pulsate to show that someone (usually Langdon) is thinking about them. Howard clearly fears static images and long passages of expository dialogue, so most speeches about personal or religious history are illustrated by brief, agitated flashbacks to a past characterized by desaturated color and low production values. Wham! The crusades! Bang! The persecution of witches! When Neveu explains the design of a cryptex, a sort of booby-trapped combination lock, the camera rockets inside to show the device’s workings.
There’s a lot of information here—some factual, much conjectural—and including so much of it inevitably overpowers the movie’s attempts to thrill. The Da Vinci Code comes on strong at first, with swooping camera, frantic cross-cutting, and the introduction of Silas’ blood-spattered devotional routines. Once the characters leave the Louvre, however, the tension slackens, and Goldsman’s rewrites introduce annoying incoherencies. (Besides, nothing can top an early scene of Silas’ self-flagellation, which is by far the movie’s creepiest bit.)
Hanks traditionally plays good-guy leads, so Howard’s decryption of The Da Vinci Code does require a few dilutions of the source material. In the book, Langdon and Neveu are equally matched, complementing each other’s areas of expertise and trading forensic riffs as if one of the Hardy Boys were a Frenchwoman. In the movie, however, knowledge is a man’s world. It’s Neveu’s job to stand there, dazed and bemused, as Langdon and Teabing lecture her on the power of the sacred feminine. As a screen presence, Tautou has never looked less powerful.
But that’s not the script’s most important bit of behavior modification. To protect Hanks’ mass-market likability, Langdon has become more skeptical of the very points that seem most important to Brown, which include a characterization of Jesus similar to the one that brought picketers to theaters showing The Last Temptation of Christ almost 20 years ago. In the book, as Teabing deconstructs the Roman Catholic worldview, Langdon adds his assent. In the movie, he challenges Teabing’s interpretation, pointedly rejecting or dismissing some of the ideas that most upset Brown’s detractors. When Teabing advances one of his (and the novel’s) more heterodox notions, Langdon barks, “This is an old wives’ tale!” As the movie progresses, it deviates even further from its source, until Langdon is left murmuring such homilies as “the only thing that matters is what you believe” and suggesting that sensational new information about Jesus should “renew” Christian faith.
Such backpedaling won’t be enough to satisfy the most outraged naysayers, but it’s sufficient to turn the film’s final revelations to mush. The Da Vinci Code has been handled as a potential thunderbolt, with the film shrouded in secrecy and armored by a marketing campaign designed to co-opt religious opponents. But the explosion fizzles, and in a way that’s altogether typical of Hollywood adaptations: Though the movie intensifies the book’s violence, what really gets murdered are its ideas.
Most critics have gone to some effort to distance themselves from Brown’s novel, attacking not only its prose but also its premise. Roger Ebert, the most groveling of big-name movie reviewers, even went so far as to claim the film is better than the book. Yet Brown’s creation, essentially a movie in written form, is more cinematic than Ron Howard’s self-sabotaging treatment of it. The Da Vinci Code will survive this botch, and perhaps it will even endure long enough to be filmed again by a less timid director.
In the meantime, maybe Langdon could tackle a less fraught assignment: decoding Drawing Restraint 9. Although Matthew Barney has successfully moved from the art museum to the art house, actually attracting paying customers to his hermetic films, his pseudoreligious services are still designed for a congregation of one: himself. Or perhaps two, now that girlfriend Björk has, quite literally, come aboard. Barney’s new film is set almost entirely on the Nisshin Maru, a Japanese vessel that’s one of the world’s few remaining whalers. This, of course, enables Barney to rile contemporary ecological sensibilities by taking a ride on a ship that kills endangered mammals. But just as fundamental to the project is something that Barney nonbelievers should have realized was only a matter of time in coming: the artist’s wedding of his ponderous ritualism to the most boring practice known to man, the Japanese tea ceremony.
You don’t need to have seen any of Barney’s five Cremaster movies to get—to the degree that that’s possible—Drawing Restraint 9. But a little information on other aspects of the artist’s method is probably useful. Barney’s films, like Christo’s wraps, are merely the centerpieces of projects that also include drawings, photographs, sculptures, and so on. These non-narrative conceptual pieces explore the artist’s individual obsessions and come in series, which are numbered but not always sequentially. (The Cremasters were made in this order: 4, 1, 5, 2, 3).
Although this is the first Drawing Restraint film, the series began about 20 years ago, when Barney was in college and decided to transfer ideas from his weight-training workouts to performance art, doing pieces in which he tried to draw while bound by elastic cords. He also developed a restraint emblem, an oval with a bar across it, that’s his own private equivalent of the Christian cross or the Star of David (or, if you find Barney’s testosterone-pumping rites a little creepy, the swastika). In this film, a massive restraint logo is constructed of petroleum jelly, one of the artist’s favorite materials. There’s also a scene involving ambergris, so perhaps Barney is connecting petroleum jelly to whale oil, a crucial industrial product before the widespread use of geologic petroleum.
Or perhaps not. Though Barney occasionally grants interviews in which he discusses the process of making his films, he rarely touches upon their meaning. In part, Drawing Restraint 9 was inspired by a Japanese museum’s interest in a Barney show, and by his observations of the country while he accompanied Björk on a Japanese tour. Using his relationship with the Icelandic singer as a sort of Duchampian readymade, Barney conceived a shipboard narrative: He and Björk arrive separately on the Nisshin Maru, dress in elaborate costumes for a Shinto wedding, do the tea ceremony with wacky implements in an absurdly tiny room, and then cut at each other’s legs with flensing knives. It’s sort of Moby Dick meets In the Realm of the Senses, as the lovers symbolically become whales hauled on board to be cut apart.
Even if Barney’s personal iconography is occasionally compelling, his films are often weakened by their static camera, slipshod photography, and crude editing. The final Cremaster—No. 3, right?—was a significant technical advance, perhaps owing to both the director’s growing skills and his realization that a three-hour film had better offer some cinematic interest. Drawing Restraint 9, which runs a mere 135 minutes, is even more of a movie-movie, thanks to its unifying location and almost-linear story. It’s also significantly bolstered by its score, mostly composed by Björk and featuring her uncanny soprano as well as Will Oldham’s high tenor and the rhythmic groan of the Nisshin Maru.
Yet working aboard a ship also hampered the film, limiting possible compositions and forcing artless lighting schemes. Barney is essentially a performance artist who films activities, not a director who knows how to work within—or even benefit from—limitations. Lots of money went into Drawing Restraint 9, which features elaborate crowd scenes and extravagant purpose-built props and costumes. But all of this high-concept clutter just emphasizes that Barney has yet to learn how to use cinema to create illusions (or perhaps just doesn’t care to). His literal-mindedness is also reflected in the film’s events, which take a first-time tourist’s approach to Japan that’s as shallow as Dan Brown’s guidebook visions of London and Paris. Barney’s private mythology may be thin, but it’s positively robust compared to his vision of the world beyond his own aesthetic fetishes.CP