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Two things we all should have learned from Merchant-Ivory films by now: Relationships with the servants can be frightfully difficult, and Brits tend to go a little wild in India. Set on the Malabar coast in 1954, Cotton Mary illustrates both of these principles with more vigor than is typical of the team’s English-country-house dramas. But, then, it was directed by Ismail Merchant, who usually takes the producer’s role, rather than James Ivory.
For wealthy matron Lily MacIntosh (Greta Scacchi, who went a little wild in Heat and Dust), life goes on much as it always has. Although the India where she grew up is now independent of Britain, Lily still maintains a colonial relationship with her longtime butler, Abraham (Prayag Raaj), and the other servants and tradespeople who cater to her. The principal difference is that her husband, John (James Wilby, who got rather close to his gamekeeper in Maurice), is a BBC correspondent rather than the military officer or plantation owner he might have been a generation earlier.
Lily’s privileged life has recently been disrupted, however, by a difficult pregnancy. When the baby is born, Lily finds herself unable to produce any milk. At the hospital, one of the nurses proclaims the infant girl a “gift from God” and insists that she will take care of her. This nurse is Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey, also seen in Heat and Dust), a Christian who proudly proclaims herself “Anglo-Indian”—the daughter of a British father and an Indian mother—and thus more responsible and trustworthy than mere Indians. Mary takes the baby to her sister Blossom (Neena Gupta), a wet nurse, saving the child’s life. Soon, Mary has moved into the MacIntosh household, easily occupying the leadership void caused by the frequently absent John and the distracted, depressed Lily, who spends much of her time gardening.
Working in a palatial British home is Mary’s dream, but the woman who’s lecturing her niece Rosie (Sakina Jaffrey, Madhur’s daughter) on the necessity of decorum—and arrives at the MacIntoshes to the strains of “God Save the Queen”—soon discards her own sense of discretion. Desiring more control over the household, she plots against Abraham and begins borrowing Lily’s clothing. By the time Lily realizes that something is wrong, Mary has lost her grip on her identity—and John is having an affair with Rosie.
In some ways, Cotton Mary is customary Merchant-Ivory stuff. Although scripted by former Washington museum exhibition installer Alexandra Viets rather than the duo’s customary collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, it features the usual snobberies, polite circumlocutions, and painful miscommunications: Lily is frustrated that John doesn’t really listen to her, but she’s equally inattentive to their 7-year-old daughter, Theresa (Laura Lumley), who’s the only member of the family who understands what Mary’s up to.
If Cotton Mary hardly constitutes a stylistic breakthrough, it is the best of the four features Merchant has directed during the interludes in his 40-year career as Ivory’s producer. The film presents culture clash in vividly picturesque terms, contrasting Indian almhouses with crypto-English estates, spare Christian churches with the vibrant Hindu festival of Divali. Even more potent is the race- and class-challenging premise, which is embodied by Madhur Jaffrey’s audaciously unhinged performance. It’s a pleasure to see a Merchant-Ivory film in which the title character acts out rather than buttoning up.
Winter Sleepers is the film Tom Tykwer made before Run Lola Run, and both movies share an interest in aimless youth and the random (but curiously tidy) machinations of destiny. But the earlier one is bigger—more principal characters, longer running time, grander vistas—and slower. Set in a German ski resort, Winter Sleepers takes its time, confident that fate will do its job without having to punch Lola’s time clock.
The color-coded story opens with red-clad Rebecca (Floriane Daniel), who makes her living translating steamy English-language romance novels. As she waits in an alpine cabin, three different people head her way, each by a different mode—train, car, and boat—but all impelled as much by Tykwer’s ever-moving camera as anything else. Green-wearing Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem) is a nurse, community-theater actress, and Rebecca’s roommate. Blue-favoring Marco (Heino Ferch) is a ski instructor and Rebecca’s new lover. Grayish Rene (Ulrich Matthes) is an eccentric, even somewhat ominous, cinema projectionist who has yet to meet the other three. And then there’s brown-garbed Theo (Josepf Biernbichler), who’s not part of the central quartet’s world: He’s a struggling farmer living an outmoded life on the edge of town.
The event that brings these five together is an auto crash on a winding, snow-swept mountain road. A drunken Rene takes Marco’s new sports car—Marco left the keys in the ignition in his hurry to get into Rebecca’s bed—and nearly collides with Theo’s car. Neither driver is seriously hurt, but Theo’s daughter, who sneaked into the trailer carrying the family’s horse, is critically injured. Because Marco’s car goes off the road and is buried in a snow bank, and the dazed Rene leaves the scene without ever being spotted, the police insist on declaring the wreck a single-vehicle incident. When Theo begins a crusade to find the other motorist, everyone assumes he’s either crazy or desperate to invent a scapegoat.
The people who don’t believe Theo’s story include Rene, who has no knowledge of the crash; as he reveals to his new girlfriend, Laura, he has a rare condition that has destroyed his short-term memory. Laura, of course, is one of the nurses caring for Theo’s daughter; she develops a growing affection for the gentle Rene while feuding with Marco, who has essentially moved in without asking either roommate’s permission. Rene may have caused the crash, but it’s Marco who’s gradually revealed to be a cad. And if fate must punish one of the heedless young adults for the injured girl’s lot, why must it necessarily be the one who’s directly responsible for it?
Adapted by Tykwer and Francoise Pyszora from the latter’s novel, Winter Sleepers moves at first to a techno beat—Tykwer wrote some of the score, as he did for Lola—but switches to grandly sad music, notably Arvo Part’s “Elegy for Benjamin Britten.” The film takes its sense of grandeur from its setting, its style of movement from ski runs down the slopes; where Lola jogged at its heroine’s frantic pace, this film glides acrobatically, frequently thrusting the camera’s vantage point into midair for dramatic and occasionally incredible shots. If Winter Sleepers is undeniably less urgent and arguably less winning than Lola, the Alps do seem to agree with Tykwer: The snows suit his chilly disposition, the slopes provide many opportunities for showy camera angles, and the craggy heights provide an epic backdrop for the director to play God with characters whose possible deaths are more interesting than their lives.
Some potential viewers are skeptical of Iranian films because they’re, well, from Iran. What good could possibly come from that embassy-occupying, woman-oppressing country? Yet it should be noted that the only Iranian director to have more than one film distributed by a major Western entertainment conglomerate is Majid Majidi, who began his career as an employee of the Art Bureau for the Islamic Propagation Organization. What he learned at that anti-American institution has made him the most Hollywood-friendly Iranian filmmaker.
Like its predecessor, the Oscar-nominated The Children of Heaven, Majidi’s The Color of Paradise tries to find a middle path between the austere work of Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s film-festival star, and the heartstring-grabbing style of American sentimentalists. The story of a blind boy who’s as close to nature as he is distant from his father, the film has some remarkable passages. When Majidi capitalizes on the documentary value of his scenario—a classroom of blind boys taking dictation in Braille, a woman and her granddaughters crushing flowers to dye yarn—his film is quietly enthralling. When the plot kicks in, however, the director loses pitch control.
Both of Majidi’s U.S.-distributed movies have simple but poignant scenarios: In the first, a brother and sister are so poor that they must share a pair of shoes; in the second, blind 8-year-old Mohammad (Mohsen Ramezani) is an impediment to the remarriage of his widowed father, Hashem (Hossein Mahjoub). Hashem first tries to abandon his son at his school and then apprentices him to a blind carpenter. A father’s refusal to care for his son is a grave offense, as a series of foreboding noises attempts to warn him. Hashem ignores the portents, and his rejection of Mohammad is quickly followed by a series of disasters.
Mohammad, too, is a child of heaven, of course. His highly developed hearing makes him unusually sensitive to his surroundings, and when his father takes the boy from Tehran to their home in the northern mountains—a region where strict Islam is tempered by traditional reverence for nature—Mohammad’s rapport with the physical world is presented as a divine communion. Indeed, both Mohammad and his devoted grandmother (Salime Feizi) are shown gently saving helpless creatures—respectively, a baby bird that has fallen from its nest and a fish stranded in a small puddle in the aftermath of a heavy downpour.
The Color of Paradise has some lovely scenes, especially in the mountains. Yet despite his gift for moments of simple beauty, Majidi doesn’t trust them to convey his theme. The director overdoes the lyrical slo-mo, depicts Mohammad’s privileged listening with overemphatic cuts and zooms, and swamps some scenes with musical treacle. And that’s not counting the final sequence, when the film suddenly turns into The River Wild (much as The Children of Heaven became Rocky). When his mode switches from folkloric to heroic, Majidi makes movies as if the old Hollywood studios had never been challenged by any revolutions.
In the ’80s, a new generation of Japanese directors—notably Juzo Itami—abandoned the stately mode of the country’s best-known auteurs for a comic style keyed to the hyperdrive, cut-and-paste sensibility of modern urban Japan. A title like Adrenaline Drive suggests that Shinobu Yaguchi’s road movie/yakuza farce aspires to the fevered, absurdist style of Itami’s Tampopo or Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family. But something—perhaps a decade of recession—has drained the adrenaline from Japanese comedies. Even though it features gangsters, chase scenes, and a lot of loot, Yaguchi’s film seldom moves faster than the ballroom twirls of Japan’s biggest recent overseas hit, Shall We Dance?
The movie’s plot is a contrivance to bring together two young people who are, even by Japanese standards, repressed. Suzuki (Masanobu Ando) is a car-rental worker who hates his obnoxious boss and dreams of quitting his job; Shizuko (Hikari Ishida) is a dedicated nurse who works hard while her colleagues eat, gossip, and speculate about the marriages that will someday rescue them from the working world. Through an elaborate but insufficiently madcap sequence of events, Suzuki ends up both in the care of Shizuko and in the custody of a suitcase full of a yakuza gang’s cash. The two decide to keep the money because they think all the gangsters died in an accidental explosion, but one is still alive, although badly injured. In fact, Kuroiwa (Yutaka Matsushige) is as cartoonishly unkillable as Wile E. Coyote, so when he escapes from the ICU, Suzuki and Shizuko hit the highway to escape.
The trip takes them on new freeways that don’t seem to go anywhere in particular—which is perhaps an ironic commentary on Japan’s frantic attempt to juice its stalled economy by building “infrastructure.” Thematically, however, these are the roads to romance and self-actualization: Meek Suzuki needs to become more assured and decisive; dowdy Shizuko needs to get a new haircut, contact lenses, and a slinky red dress to replace her baggy nurse’s uniform. (That she is then revealed as a knockout is just one of movie’s many nonsurprises.) When they check into a luxury hotel, Suzuki and Shizuko pose as the newlyweds they will surely soon be.
Marriage is a recurrent theme in the Japanese comedies recently exported to the U.S., although reviving stale middle-aged unions takes precedence over young love in such films as Shall We Dance?, Ping Pong Bath Station, and even Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald, the liveliest of the bunch. With such an unthreatening agenda, pointed satire of Japanese society must take the back seat to sentiment. So what is the crazed, unstoppable gangster doing in this amiable but underpowered comedy? Ultimately, not much at all. CP