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Suppose that Stanley Donen, while shooting the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn mystery-romance Charade in Paris in 1963, had stumbled into the alternate cinematic universe then being created by Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and their peers. That’s roughly the idea of Jonathan Demme’s hypercaffeinated Charade remake, given the misleadingly old-fashioned title The Truth About Charlie. Though Demme evokes the French New Wave, he doesn’t submerge his own cinematic repertoire. The movie features many of the director’s previous collaborators, from Beloved’s Thandie Newton and Lisa Gay Hamilton to the Feelies, whose modal jangle-rock was previously heard in Demme’s Something Wild and Married to the Mob.
The opening credits survey a map of Paris, before two short sequences that are set elsewhere: On a train, Charlie (Stephen Dillane) dallies with a uniformed woman, while in Martinique, Charlie’s wife, Regina (Newton), meets a man who sometimes goes by the name Joshua Peters (Mark Wahlberg). Disillusioned after a whirlwind romance and three months of marriage, Regina is considering a divorce. Upon returning to Paris, however, she finds that she won’t need that kind of lawyer: The apartment she shared with Charlie has been stripped, and soon she’s being taken to the morgue to identify Charlie’s corpse. Police Commandant Dominique (Christine Boisson) shows Regina evidence of Charlie’s many lives and also informs her that she may be a suspect in her husband’s death.
Many other people are inordinately interested in Regina, including Joshua, U.S. official Lewis Bartholomew (Tim Robbins), and three thuggish cohorts, Lola (Hamilton), Emil (Silence of the Lambs star Ted Levine), and Il-Sang (Korean leading man Joong-Hoon Park). They all think that she has $6 million that Charlie allegedly purloined and that they have a rightful claim to the loot. While Regina tries to keep track of these new acquaintances, the audience must also digest cameos by New Wave icons Anna Karina, Agnes Varda, and Charles Aznavour, who appears in the flesh to serenade Regina when Joshua puts on a Aznavour CD.
The Truth About Charlie actually includes a clip from Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, and the film treats the conventions of the Hollywood thriller with a Godardian insouciance. Demme clutters the screen with possible clues and potential suspects, but attention needn’t be paid. This is not a movie that really cares what’s in that package or who’s got the loot. The Hitchcock fetish of such early Demme films as Last Embrace is here subordinated to jump cuts, fast zooms, video inserts, and impossible point-of-view shots. (Impossible, that is, unless you accept the I-see-like-dead-people whimsies of that other Hitchcock, Robyn.) The attitude is pumped-up and bleeding-edge, more akin to The Rules of Attraction than to anything Demme has done since 1986’s Something Wild.
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Gallic-rap soundtrack reflects the film’s view of its beloved location, which is as much Charlie’s subject as are Regina and her pursuers. Unlike many American directors, Demme sees contemporary Paris as considerably more vibrant and colorful than the brochures (and Amelie) allow. He leads his multiethnic cast to such low-rent but high-activity locations as the Clignancourt flea market, whose bustle matches the movie’s own. It doesn’t all work, and Wahlberg, in particular, is out of his depth—one reason that Regina and Joshua’s romance seems forced. The truth about Charlie, however, is that there’s far too much going on for the clunkers to have any lasting impact.
Tom Tykwer and the late Krzysztof Kieslowski have something in common: love of fate. In such films as Wintersleepers and Run Lola Run, Tykwer moved his characters like pieces in a living game of chess, much as Kieslowski did in his Three Colors trilogy and—perhaps most relevant here—The Double Life of Veronique. So the techno-pumping Tykwer isn’t such a strange choice to film Heaven, an unproduced script written by the orchestrally inclined Kieslowski and his longtime collaborator, Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Still, Heaven co-producer Anthony Minghella is overstating the case when he claims that Tykwer and Kieslowski’s “artistic world-views are almost identical.”
Whereas Kieslowski was a mystic and a moralist, Tykwer is more of a mechanic. A very good mechanic, of course, but still someone who’s better qualified to poke around under the hood than commune with the angels. Heaven opens with a flight in a helicopter simulator, the sort of liftoff that fits Tykwer’s universe, in which people travel by such everyday means as trams, trucks, and monorails. But Kieslowski and Piesiewicz’s script ends with a modern-day Ascension, a trip that Tykwer is less qualified to pilot.
Like Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior, Heaven celebrates the redemptive power of love. This time, though, some serious redemption is required. Philippa (Cate Blanchett) is an English teacher of English living in Turin who’s convinced that her husband and some students at the school where she works died because of the drugs peddled by upscale dealer Vendice (Stefano Santospago) from his office in a modern office building. Having gotten no response from repeated missives to the police, Philippa assembles a time bomb and places it in a trash can in Vendice’s office. But a custodian empties the trash before the bomb explodes, and four people die when the explosion rips through one of the building’s ostentatious exterior elevators.
Quickly arrested, Philippa insists on being interrogated in her native language. Stenographer Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi), a fledgling cop, volunteers to translate. As indicated by their matched names and other details that are subsequently revealed, Philippa and Filippo are a pair waiting to couple. It’s up to the young policeman to take the initiative, however. Having learned that she caused the death of four hapless bystanders, Philippa collapses in horror. Filippo is immediately smitten with the Englishwoman, who just happens to be his younger brother’s teacher. He arranges for Philippa to escape from jail, get another crack at Vendice, and then flee geometric Turin (whose street grid is traced by overhead tracking shots) for Tuscany’s bucolic landscapes and quaint villages. As many visitors will tell you, Tuscany is the next best thing to heaven—Filippo and Philippa’s ultimate destination.
With a screenplay that contains both Kieslowskian serendipities and routine thriller contrivances, Heaven is a conceptually motley film that nonetheless almost works. The director’s and the script’s sensibilities meld as neatly as the score, which combines Tykwer-composed electronica with Arvo Part’s mystical reveries. The wildly variable Blanchett gives one of her most persuasive performances, Ribisi convincingly embodies a near-holy innocent, and the movie makes an elegant transition from urban action to rural contemplation, the latter often rendered in long shots that provide a sense of detachment. (The film is as spare as The Truth About Charlie is jampacked.) If Tykwer can’t quite navigate Heaven to its transcendental finale, it should be remembered that endings weren’t Kieslowski’s strong point, either. CP