The horny teenager is father to the man. Or at least that’s the lesson of both Facing Windows and The Door in the Floor, in which directors Ferzan Ozpetek and Tod Williams, respectively, marshal adultery, death, sexual initiation, and even the Holocaust to provide weight to fables about love, loss, and symbolic portals. Each movie, however, remains stubbornly lightweight.
Although it’s structured as something of a mystery, Facing Windows will offer few jolts to anyone who’s seen Ozpetek’s previous movies, notably 1997’s Steam: The Turkish Bath and 2001’s His Secret Life. (The latter traveled the film-fest circuit under the title Ignorant Fairies.) The Turkish-bred Italian director specializes in gentle but didactic tales of sometimes Turkish and often gay outsiders who are eventually revealed to be, in their way, everyday people.
As in His Secret Life, Facing Windows’ agent of discovery is a sheltered heterosexual woman. Beautiful Giovanna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, the cheated-on fiancée in Gabriele Muccino’s The Last Kiss) is a querulous, profoundly disappointed young wife and mother. Husband Filippo (Filippo Nigro) is usually un- or underemployed, and he’s currently working a low-income gig on the night shift. The family relies on the money Giovanna earns as an accountant for a chicken-processing plant. Frustrated in her ambition to become a pastry chef, Giovanna has escaped into fantasies of romance with Lorenzo (Raoul Bova), the handsome neighbor she observes through the window that faces his across a ventilation shaft.
One day, Giovanna and Filippo are walking across a Tiber River bridge when they encounter a confused old man (Massimo Girotti). As conveniently bewildered as he will later be helpfully coherent, the well-dressed gent becomes the couple’s house guest, much to Giovanna’s annoyance. Clues gradually accumulate: The man utters the name “Simone” to the couple’s daughter, makes elegant crêpes for breakfast, and has a number tattooed on his arm. (The last is presented as a shocker but is so heavily foreshadowed that it’s no surprise at all.)
Giovanna, who quickly warms to the man she calls Simone, takes him with her to a bar, where he starts having clunky flashbacks to 1943: The Germans have just taken control of Rome and are rounding up Jews. Lorenzo just happens to be at the bar, and he helps Giovanna with Simone. Soon Giovanna and Lorenzo are pals, and teetering on the brink of an affair.
Then Simone disappears, the adultery-minded couple must search for him, and, with the help of a love letter Giovanna finds in his jacket pocket, the old man’s easily guessed secrets are revealed. Those won’t be discussed here, but there’s no harm in disclosing some of Facing Windows’ lessons: (1) Gay love is as true, intense, and enduring as its straight counterpart. (2) A faithful husband who’s good with the kids is better than a sexy stranger. (3) Never use tap water to make fancy cakes. And, as Simone tells Giovanna, (4) “Don’t be content to merely survive.”
The last is a curious moral for a film that itself takes exceptionally few risks, either stylistically or thematically. Ozpetek and co-writer Gianni Romoli’s script opens with a murder, but it happened in the ’40s—and nothing that occurred that long ago, including the Holocaust, has any real resonance in their scenario. The story’s principal sources of tension are Giovanna’s irascible temperament and adulterous desires, both of which evaporate as soon as Ozpetek decides to make her a sympathetic character.
Strangely, the movie recommends forbidden lust only if it’s impossible. For Giovanna, it proposes nothing more than fidelity and a new job in a pastry shop. If Facing Windows begins as an invocation of great passion, it ends with the sort of solutions dispensed by high-school guidance counselors.
Having just split from his wife, Ted Cole prowls the Hamptons, looking for women to sketch—squid ink only, of course—and then screw. Frequently drunk and often naked, Ted is a ruthless squash player, rhapsodic jazz fan, and hopeless narcissist. He is, in short, the Jackson Pollock of children’s-book authors.
Hunh? This rampaging prick writes children’s books? That’s what The Door in the Floor would have you believe, and that’s not the only aspect of the movie that strains belief. Adapted from the first section of John Irving’s novel A Widow for One Year, writer-director Williams’ second feature starts as melodrama and then lumbers promisingly toward farce—only to snap back to upscale soap opera in its final reel.
When the story opens, a melancholy triangle is about to splinter. Ted (Jeff Bridges) tells wife Marion (Kim Basinger) that he wants to separate for the summer. He proposes that they alternate nights at their pricey beach house—so 4-year-old Ruth (Elle Fanning, little sister of Dakota) gets to see both of her parents regularly. To add to the domestic instability, Ted hires an Exeter student, Eddie (Jon Foster), as his assistant for the summer. Eddie is a would-be writer and a fan of Ted’s books, especially The Door in the Floor, but his job isn’t a literary apprenticeship: Ted recently lost his driver’s license, so what he really needs is a chauffeur.
Soon enough, Eddie finds himself living in a shrine decorated with photos of Ted and Marion’s two sons, who died in a car crash. And the photos are just as important to Ruth as they are to her parents: The little girl, conceived as a replacement for the dead boys, has memorized the stories behind each snapshot. Eddie starts to learn them, too, although the family’s pretty young nanny, Alice (Bijou Phillips), declines to join the cult.
Eddie bonds with Ruth, but he’s more interested in Marion. He graduates from sniffing her pillow to masturbating over her underwear—an act in which he’s interrupted by the garments’ flustered but mostly flattered owner. (This is one of several embarrassing events in the movie that could have been avoided by simply locking a door.) Basinger is as blank as ever, so it’s hard to imagine what Marion is thinking when she puts Eddie’s hand between her thighs. Meanwhile, Ted is trying to end an affair with a high-strung model/muse who reacts badly to the proposed break (Mimi Rogers). Stark naked, she attacks him with a knife, and Ted’s anatomically explicit drawings—actually rendered by Bridges—are scattered all over the neighborhood.
From this hysterical pitch, The Door in the Floor then cools to lugubrious sentimentality. In a drunken postmortem on his marriage and the summer, Ted tells Eddie exactly what happened to the boys. Although it’s interrupted by quick-cut flashbacks, Ted’s tale seems as endless as it’s obvious. If the story’s no revelation, it at least establishes what Williams intended for the film—and it’s not satire.
Too bad. In The Door in the Floor’s center section, Bridges plays an amusingly cracked version of the sort of visionary he impersonated in such celebrations of the American spirit as Seabiscuit and Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Yet most of the film is more akin to musty accounts of older-woman/younger-man encounters such as Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ’42. Perhaps The Door in the Floor would have made more sense if Williams had left it where Irving put it: the ’50s. The story is nuder than that decade would have allowed, but no more trenchant.CP