Female bonding is a wonderful thing, proclaims writer-director John McKay, so splendid that it justifies a degree of ruthlessness that would be disconcerting even if his Crush were, say, a war picture. This comedy features three middle-aged women who reside in a quaint, decorous notion of rural England, and closes with a moment of modest self-affirmation. The film’s crucial development, however, is the chick-flick equivalent of a fragging.
Obviously designed to appeal to the Four Weddings and a Funeral audience, Crush returns Andie MacDowell to that art-house hit’s green and pleasant land, where she plays Scottish-American headmistress Kate. When not running the picturesque local school or listening to such British folk-rock martyrs as Sandy Denny and Nick Drake, Kate joins her friends Molly (Anna Chancellor) and Janine (Imelda Staunton) in gin-fueled discussions of their frustrating spinsterhood. Molly, a thrice-divorced doctor, and Janine, chief inspector of the local police, compete with Kate for a Bridget Jones-ian prize, the box of chocolates that’s awarded to the week’s “saddest fuck” (British for “pathetic loser”).
Kate disrupts the group dynamic when she enjoys a not-at-all-sad fuck with Jed (Kenny Doughty), a charismatically rough-edged Scottish funeral organist who a decade previously was one of Kate’s pubescent students. (He’s 25; she’s “over 40.”) Sex with a younger man is often presented as liberating in middle-aged-spinster tales, but Molly and Janine’s fascination quickly turns to disapproval. They become even more agitated when Kate’s “crush” becomes a permanent addition to her life. Jed asks Kate to marry him—which conflicts with her pals’ earnest but inexplicable plan to wed Kate to Gerald (Bill Paterson), the village’s dowdy vicar. When a shopping-and-sex trip to Paris is insufficient to distract Kate from Jed, Molly decides to sabotage the couple’s happiness, leading to an event that impartial observers might reasonably consider catastrophic.
Like last week’s Frailty, with which it shares a breathtaking cynicism, Crush is difficult to discuss without revealing crucial plot points. Because McKay’s film purports to be a comedy rather than a thriller, however, let’s go ahead and blow its secret (potential viewers who want to be surprised should stop reading now): Molly, with Janine’s reluctant assistance, manages to poison Kate and Jed’s relationship. Kate throws Jed out, and the distraught kid is promptly run over by a truck. If this is the intentional secondary meaning of Crush, then McKay’s sensibility is well beyond cynical.
Movie directors kill characters all the time, of course. From sweeping war epics to cheesy slasher flicks, supporting players are cut down and hacked up with impunity. But Crush is set in the Cotswolds, not on Omaha Beach or a space station overrun by zombies. And it presents itself mostly as humorous entertainment, with a wannabe-heartwarming ending that avows the superiority of friendship with women (even ones who indirectly killed your lover) over romance with men. Before raising a glass of gin to that sentiment, imagine Kate, Molly, and Janine’s reaction to a movie in which two middle-aged guys conspire to split a pal from his 25-year-old girlfriend, who ends up conveniently dead. Whether making a chick flick or a macho romp, it’s hard to be life-affirming when your story turns on a callously contrived death.
It may be surprising that two recent films have been adapted from the work of 18th-century French comic playwright Pierre Marivaux, but it’s entirely predictable that the lesser of the pair is the one to get an American release. Clare Peploe’s Triumph of Love has two commercial advantages over Benoit Jacquot’s 1999 False Servant (aka The Scandal Exposed) in the U.S. market: It’s in English, and it stars an American actress, Mira Sorvino. For all but the most serious subtitle-phobes, however, these assets will be offset by two demerits: It was directed by Clare Peploe, and it stars Mira Sorvino.
A doggedly mediocre filmmaker, Peploe owes much of her career to her marriage to the man who produced and co-wrote Triumph of Love, Bernardo Bertolucci. (She’s also the sister of Mark Peploe, a frequent Bertolucci screenwriter who’s discreetly identified as the film’s script doctor.) Here Peploe takes the premise of a musty old farce on its own terms, while aimlessly modernizing the thing around the edges. Thus the movie begins with blurry handheld shots designed to represent the speed of the carriage in which the Princess (Sorvino) and her servant Corine (Rachael Stirling) are busy changing their clothes and their identities.
Marivaux favored cross-dressing heroines. In False Servant, Isabelle Huppert plays a woman who trades her dress for breeches to meet the man she’s slated to marry. In Triumph of Love, the Princess poses as Phocion, a young traveler and scholar, to woo Agis (Jay Rodan), the man she’s loved since she glimpsed him naked at a woodland bathing hole. Complications abound: The Princess’ parents deposed and killed Agis’ father, the former king, when Agis was an infant, and the heir has vowed to restore his throne and eliminate the Princess. (Luckily, it’s the 18th century, so he’s never seen a picture of her.) Agis lives with his patron, austere neoclassical philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley), who disdains love and all women save his sister, Leontine (Fiona Shaw). Hermocrates customarily rebuffs guests, so to gain permission to visit the philosopher’s chateau, the Princess (as Phocion) undertakes to seduce Leontine. Meanwhile, she reveals her true gender to Hermocrates and Agis, calling herself Aspasie and endeavoring to make them both fall in love with her. It’s the sort of intrigue that suggests Hermocrates was right to ban women from his retreat.
Based on a London staging of Marivaux’s play, Triumph of Love is very theatrical, with the broad but assured performances of Kingsley, Shaw, and a few supporting characters clashing with Sorvino’s Hollywood-teen-comedy delivery. Peploe moves the players around the house and grounds for visual variety and employs jump-cuts in an awkward attempt to make the proceedings cinematic. Yet the director also uses occasional glimpses of an audience and a final curtain call to self-consciously note that this is a filmed play, not a film. Like the score, which layers the electric guitar of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour over Mozart and Rameau, the result is an awkward and ultimately pointless hybrid. CP