There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Jessica Stein is a prissy, uptight 28-year-old New York copy editor who hasn’t had a date in many months. Her mother is a pushy, monomaniacal matchmaker who appraises possible sons-in-law even during Yom Kippur services. Her boss, Josh, who happens to be her old college boyfriend, is a rude, supercilious tyrant. Yet all these people are fundamentally very nice. All that’s required to reveal their inner amiability is for an outgoing lesbian to come into their lives.
Did somebody say “lesbian”? The sweet, witty Kissing Jessica Stein is a story of romance between two women, but neither of them is actually a lesbian. Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt) has never considered a same-sex relationship when one of her co-workers happens to come across a personal ad with a quotation from Rilke, Jessica’s favorite poet. And the ad was placed by the highly sexed Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen), a Chelsea art-gallery manager who’s juggling three boyfriends but has never had a girlfriend. She’s keen to investigate a new erotic possibility, but Jessica—despite answering the ad—is less enthusiastic. In fact, Jessica’s unwillingness to put out drives nearly half the film—and leads Helen to protest that she’s stuck with “the Jewish Sandra Dee.”
Is a gay romance in which both the paramours are straight something of a cop-out? Well, of course it is, but those viewers who aren’t too offended by the movie’s timidity will likely find Kissing Jessica Stein a small pleasure. Many legitimate questions could be posed about the film’s scenario, which was written by lead actresses Westfeldt and Juergensen, originally as a theater piece called Lipschtick. But if the characters of Jessica and Helen aren’t entirely convincing, they are nonetheless quite engaging.
The course of the women’s relationship is divided into three parts. First comes the courtship, which is repeatedly interrupted by circumstance and Jessica’s apprehensions (although she is bewitched by an unexpected smooch and Helen’s metaphorical use of the word “marinate”). Then there’s the period when the two women are blissfully entwined but closeted from all of Jessica’s friends and family. Angered when she learns that she hasn’t been invited to Jessica’s brother’s wedding, Helen forces her lover to acknowledge her existence publicly. (How does a happily promiscuous woman who just wants some bisexual fun on the side become a needy monogamist? That’s one of the legitimate questions.) Finally, there’s a sort of twist ending, which is actually more credible than much of what came before but is inimical to the movie’s blithe spirit.
Like many directors adapting plays to the screen, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld overcompensates, interrupting the action with utterly pointless tracking shots of Manhattan. He also swamps the tale with overamplified songs, sometimes obscuring the sharp dialogue—which, along with the principals’ fine sense of timing, is the film’s foremost asset. Most of the tunes are old-timey standards—which is one reason that Kissing Jessica Stein has been compared to the work of Woody Allen. There is a bit of Annie Hall in Westfeldt’s Jessica, especially when she’s flustered, but Juergensen’s Helen both looks and acts more like Janeane Garofalo than a female Woody. And the film’s fundamentally cheerful disposition is not Allenesque at all.
In two set pieces, Westfeldt and Juergensen are a little rough—and worse, predictable—on straight guys. Still, Josh (Scott Cohen) is ultimately redeemed—which can happen only if romance truly conquers all. Kissing Jessica Stein depicts a blessed universe in which everyone loves lovers—even if they are straight women playing at being lesbians.
Any film that’s narrated by a dying fish is obviously trying to win points for quirkiness, and loquacious seafood is just one of the oddball touches in Denis Villeneuve’s Maelstrom. The French-Canadian writer-director’s second feature is an example of the enchanted-string-of-coincidences genre that currently seems to monopolize Francophone cinema: an attractive young woman traverses a series of happenstances, some of them dire, on the way to true love. Marie-Josee Croze, who plays central character Bibi Champagne, is indeed attractive and young, but it must be said (and probably already has been): She’s no Audrey Tautou.
Introduced while undergoing an abortion, Bibi is experiencing a rough patch, although it would be overdramatic to call it a maelstrom—especially because the 25-year-old Montrealer’s life derails to the ironic strains of “Good Morning Starshine,” an unbearably jaunty song from the score of Hair. Bibi is apparently estranged from the man who impregnated her and isn’t getting along much better with her brother, the financial backer of her three outwardly successful boutiques, which are having a problem with Indonesian suppliers. Seeking solace, she calls on her friend Claire Gunderson (Stephanie Morgenstern), a graduate student and one of several Norwegians who will feature prominently in Bibi’s newly upended existence. Claire counsels drugs and casual sex to uplift her pal’s mood and sings her a Scandinavian lullaby.
Another Norwegian in Bibi’s life is Annstein Karlsen (Klimbo), a solitary emigre fish-filleter who’s struck by Bibi’s car as she drives home drunk from a desperate night out. After the befogged Bibi drives off, Annstein gets up and staggers home. The two will never see each other again, but their fates are now linked. Not only will sea creatures and water become central to Bibi’s subsequent life—and the film’s imagery—but she will also soon meet Annstein’s son Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verreault), a hunky diver who just might be the One.
According to its director, Maelstrom is “a playful call to be responsible and to be careful.” Playful it is, thanks to such self-conscious devices as the piscine commentary (spoken by Pierre Lebeau); slo-mo sequences and strobe-driven cuts; flashbacks, flash-forwards, and alternate versions of the same scene; a sometimes tongue-in-cheek musical score that ranges from Edvard Grieg to Tom Waits; and title cards that appear occasionally to explain what the seemingly thought-free Bibi is thinking. Either most playful or most egregious—depending on your degree of sympathy for the movie—is the way Villeneuve presents life as a cosmic puzzle in which everything fits into place, only to leave numerous pieces strewn about when he’s done.
For all its flashiness, Maelstrom is emotionally flat, in large part because the character of Bibi is neither engaging nor amusing. The film does put Bibi at the center of a few sharp (and very dark) gags, including one featuring a toast to Annstein and another involving the lyrics to the song Claire sang to calm her friend. But the elaborate machinations become grating when it turns out that all the story’s suffering and doom were devised merely to acquaint the protagonist with Mr. Right. Bibi may hook the man of her dreams, but an involving, fully realized film is the one that got away. CP