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When I interviewed Martin Scorsese in 1974, he told me that nearly every time he visited fellow director Francis Ford Coppola, they screened Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante. Vigo’s surrealist 1934 romance strikes me as an unacknowledged key to Coppola’s idiosyncratic, swooningly beautiful One From the Heart, released 22 years ago and now returned to theaters in a newly struck print.
Vigo’s is the simplest of narratives: The skipper of a barge on the Seine marries an unworldly provincial girl. This ordinary couple share an intense but inarticulate physical relationship. Following a quarrel, they separate; then, regretting their parting, they vainly search for each other. In the movie’s exultant fadeout, they are reunited and, without exchanging a word, resume their passion.
Set in a vast, neon-bathed replica of Las Vegas, One From the Heart, co-scripted by Armyan Bernstein, seems equally slight, featuring a pair of unremarkable, ineloquent protagonists. Hank (Frederic Forrest) co-owns a junkyard called Reality Wrecking—a nod to the film’s formal artifice—and Frannie (Teri Garr) works at a travel agency. They have been together since their meeting, five years earlier, on the Fourth of July, but their relationship has grown stagnant. After making love on the eve of their Independence Day anniversary, they have a bitter spat—Hank complains that Frannie has let herself go, and she counters that he’s gained weight and is starting to resemble an egg. Frannie walks out.
Within hours, both find enticing new romantic interests. Frannie catches the eye of Ray (Raul Julia), a suave coffee-shop waiter with showbiz aspirations, and Hank, to his astonishment, is hit on by Leila (Nastassia Kinski), a stunning, exotic circus girl. But these transitory flings prove unfulfilling, and the two reconcile in a wordless, profoundly affecting closing sequence.
One From the Heart was contemptuously received by reviewers and rejected by the public when it was first released. The main complaint was what was perceived as an imbalance between Coppola’s lush style and his spare storyline. Even while hailing Vittorio Storaro’s extraordinarily luminous cinematography and longtime Coppola associate Dean Tavoularis’ sumptuous production designs, critics found the characters uninteresting, the plot skimpy, and the tone excessively somber for a romantic comedy.
I can’t deny the movie’s shortcomings. Its pace falters after the first hour, in sluggish scenes depicting Hank and Frannie consorting with their respective rebound conquests, and several would-be comic sequences—Hank’s dumb slapstick with a recalcitrant broom and his hapless attempts to retrieve Frannie from Ray’s motel room—fall flat. The pair’s sympathetic confidants—Maggie (a role ideally suited to Lainie Kazan’s good humor and Grand Canyon cleavage) and Moe (grizzled Harry Dean Stanton, equally well cast as Hank’s junkyard partner)—aren’t allotted enough screen time to function effectively as foils to the discontented protagonists.
But critics failed to perceive that the apparent incongruity between One From the Heart’s lavish scale and its intimate narrative mirrors the movie’s theme: the need to transcend glamorous illusions in order to acknowledge authentic emotions. “Is There Any Way Out of This Dream?,” the song that accompanies Fannie’s introductory scene, underscores this idea. Throughout, Tom Waits’ song score, which he performs with Crystal Gayle, expresses feelings that the characters are unable to articulate—uncertainty, frustration, bitterness, regret, and ultimately tenderness.
Admittedly, on first viewing, the film’s imagery is so voluptuous that its meanings tend to be overwhelmed. It opens with blue theatrical curtains parting to reveal our planet. In a series of dissolves, the camera descends through clouds to the Nevada desert, where it follows two sets of footprints meeting, separating, and then reuniting, foreshadowing the movie’s plot. The main credits then appear on replicas of illuminated Las Vegas marquees, after which Coppola begins the story with a technically mind-boggling shot that moves through the scaffolding of a casino sign, traverses the bustling, rainbow-lit center of downtown Vegas to the façade of the travel agency where Frannie is decorating a Manhattan-themed window, and then passes through the glass into the office, where she discusses her troubled relationship with Maggie, her lovelorn business partner. All this in a single take that ends with an image of Frannie gazing into a mirror and lamenting her graying hair, which dissolves to one of Hank, anxiously examining his thinning pate in a looking glass.
This is only the first in a series of strikingly ingenious cinematic set pieces. When Hank daydreams about a potential relationship with Leila, she materializes from a collage of luminescent billboards. Frannie dances a tango with Ray in an abandoned, orange-lit nightclub, which dissolves into a fantasy Bora Bora, from which the couple emerges, through the window of the travel agency, into a Las Vegas night street teeming with dancers. And, in one of the most exquisite images ever filmed, Frannie, having angrily abandoned Hank, strides down a bungalow-lined, rain-puddled street in a clinging red dress while fireworks burst above her.
It’s frustrating to attempt to convey the things that make One From the Heart so moving, because its power lies in its sensuousness: vibrant colors, swirling camera movements, evocative music. (Over the years, the soundtrack CD has become a cult classic, a collection of jazz-tinged songs—notably “Old Boyfriends,” “Broken Bicycles,” and the heartfelt title number—with Waits’ gravel voice and Gayle’s crystalline tones cushioned by a velvety string orchestra featuring Pete Jolly’s sparkling piano and Teddy Edwards’ sonorous tenor saxophone.) The emotional weight of Garr’s and Forrest’s fervent performances in the movie’s final scene is also remarkable—perhaps the most emphatic use of mute closeups since Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Arriving after a string of masterpieces—The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now—One From the Heart proved to be a turning point in Coppola’s career. The film’s critical and commercial failure clearly shattered his creative self-confidence; the director has yet to risk another project as unconventional or formally innovative. Apart from the unjustly maligned but less ambitious Rumble Fish, his subsequent work has been, at best, amiably mediocre (Peggy Sue Got Married, Tucker: The Man and His Dream), at worst, bewilderingly misbegotten (The Cotton Club, The Godfather Part III, Jack). Since 1997’s The Rainmaker, Coppola hasn’t taken a director’s credit; instead, he’s devoted his energies to producing movies, including features by daughter Sofia and son Roman, and making wine.
But One From the Heart has not passed unnoticed by Coppola’s peers, who have embraced and been inspired by it. The sultry, stylized opening sequence of Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me admittedly derives from Coppola’s neo-musical, and Baz Luhrmann has cited it as a source for his spectacular if overblown Moulin Rouge. “Nothing prepared me,” Luhrmann has said, “for the visual power of what I was about to see when I saw One From the Heart screened for the first time.”
And Coppola himself has continued to defend his movie: “I’m very proud, and I imagine that years from now, just as with my other films, people will see something in it,” he once told Time. Perhaps the current theatrical revival—an opportunity to see One From the Heart as it was meant to be experienced—will at last attract the audience that this flawed but spellbinding masterpiece deserves. CP