Showing frozen hearts gliding through picturesque European winters can chill a movie itself, if a director isn’t careful. In a costume drama about thawing passion, it’s easy to let the audience’s laziest perceptions about our repressed forebears point up the contrast between cold (the way they were) and hot (the way we get to be). Firelight screenwriter and director William Nicholson (he wrote Nell and Shadowlands) uses the theme of forbidden sexuality and underground love to make a Hollywood romance well within the moral demands of its 19th-century setting. The strictures of their culture keeps the lovers part, but family values and financial humility save the day.
Impoverished Swiss governess Elisabeth (Sophie Marceau) applies for an unusual position, as temporary mistress of an English landowner burdened with an invalid wife and desperate to produce an heir. She is clearly not that kind of girl, but needs a chunk of money for family reasons never adequately explained; the Englishman, Charles (Stephen Dillane), is impressed by Elisabeth’s very unlikeliness for the job, forthrightness, and good breeding.
The opening of the film is slow and very cold the strange, impersonal interview; Elisabeth’s frozen ship passage and solitary dinner; their first face-to-face meeting. That night, in businesslike congress with her host, she’s weeping and distant, but by the second tryst, she’s weeping and overheated Charles has screwed his hired help into love. A couple of brief, uninteresting conversations are supposed to cement their connection, but it sounds more like idle chitchat than two people falling in love. Firelight takes its characters on a journey developed by simplistic emotions and reactions: Something has been awakened in the prim governess and the distraught squire because they say it’s so.
After the child is born and removed to London, Elisabeth narrates her thoughts toward her “English daughter” they’re silly, but the lovely watercolors of flowers that she paints in a memory book are truly eloquent, and, like a real skill, her painting grows more sophisticated over the seven years of their separation. Finally, she tracks down the child and applies again, this time to be hired as her own daughter’s governess.
Up until now, everything has looked potentially rosy, bathed in the metaphorical heat of household fire that attracts the eye and implies hope and warmth. But when she appears at Charles’ grand house, the grate is cold. Little Louisa (Dominique Belcourt, who has her screen mother’s offended mouth and her unbecoming hairstyle) is a coddled brat and a snob. Charles has been indiscriminately lavishing permission on his child; she needs not only an intact, perhaps not so well-off family, but also some good old-fashioned discipline. Warnings abound “You’re the fourth one this year,” the slouchy maid tells Elisabeth. (The maid has a bit of Ginger Spice about her she may be Ginger Spice.)
The profitability and mechanics of bloodlines are one of the screenplay’s obsessions, implying broadly that genetics mean nothing while love conquers all. When the new governess appears to Charles, he and his associates are discussing the dangerous business of breeding sheep, that is. Elisabeth is consistently identified with breed ewes. The first sentence (actually a rebus) Louisa puts together with reading flashcards is unwittingly correct: “Papa loves sheep.”
His estate threatened by debts, his wife a zombie, Papa falls for his corseted ewe all over again. Their dialogue about “the time we were close” takes place in that liberating firelight, which she has taught Louisa is a magical force that makes anything possible. It can even turn a business arrangement into raging passion, as demonstrated by the composition on the screen Charles stands by the mantle while Elisabeth retrieves flashcards from the floor, her face and his crotch speaking directly into the camera.
Firelight is a somber Sound of Music, with the lovely governess warming up Papa and making a laughing little charmer out of the sour, spoiled child. Even the setbacks flatter them Charles loses his wife and his estate, leaving him free to create a real, humble family. For all the old-world moral conventions complicating the lovers’ situation, Nicholson twists out of treating his premise as anything more than a picturesque setup for a simplistic, but attractive, screen romance.
54 aims to capture the dreamlike atmosphere of the late ’70s and the phantasmic bubble in which the sensibility of that time its decadence, desperation, and treadmill pace was trapped. The habitues of the most famous nightclub in the world called it “Studio,” but the film is titled 54, so we know that this fictionalized portrait of its last heady days is just as unreal as its reign.
The script is pat and throwaway, but articulating the frenzy of desire that Studio 54 engendered was impossible then and remains so today. Instead, the film takes a dispassionate anthropological survey of the levels of power and fame within the disco’s pulsing walls. Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe) is the perfect naive apprentice, ripe to be sucked in and disillusioned by the worldly promises of disco celebrity. He has the name of a manufactured starlet, the body of a lithe angel, and a halo of curly blond hair just begging to be mussed by an uncaring world. From his clapboard Jersey house, Shane gazes across the river with wonderment. He can’t envision any future with his Schlitz-guzzling, Korean War vet father and his two gawky sisters, Grace (Heather Matarazzo, as usual, touching and tough) and Kelly (Aemilia Robinson), who weigh in with the Everyman commentary on cue: “Studio 54 that’s the big disco everybody’s talkin’ about.” “Where the stars go.”
But the dream that imprisons Shane once he gains entree is not his own. As his narration tells it, “A guy named Steve Rubell had a dream.” Shane is the pawn, Rubell the grandmaster, manipulating his beautiful busboys, rapacious bartenders, and hedonistic guests with equal amounts of generosity and deception. Mike Myers is spectacular in this difficult role, evoking the hubris, insecurity, and other contradictions of a man who couldn’t get into his own nightclub if he weren’t the guy running it. Myers’ Rubell is charismatic and sleazy, a slapdash administrator with a keen eye for others’ psychological weaknesses.
Shane rises from busboy to bartender, cutting out his new friend Greg (Breckin Meyer), a barback who refused to exchange a sexual liaison with Rubell for the job. Greg takes to dealing drugs at the club in an attempt to fund wife Anita’s (Salma Hayek) attempt to become “the next Donna Summer,” as if disco music will reign forever. Their desires are fatuous but understandable such glitzy, ephemeral stardom seems like the real thing within Studio 54’s confines. Rubell’s club is a set of Chinese boxes, secret realms within realms, each more difficult to get into than the last, where access is seen as a grand social achievement. The environment is intoxicating and confusing a pounding disco soundtrack and the crush of bodies addle the ambitious staff, who can imagine no world more fabulous, lucrative, or liberating than this one.
Drugs and drink aside, Studio 54’s main attraction was this warping of the senses, and inevitably naive Shane is brought down by his arrogance and grounded by his solid Jersey soul. He meets the girl of his dreams, a soap actress named Julie Black (Neve Campbell), with roots across the river as unassuming as his own. While the disco flounders there are a death, threats from the IRS, and a shift in the wind that ensures none of this will last Shane stops attending Park Avenue dinners where he’s been invited for the sole purpose of the sophisticated crowd’s amusement and goes bowling with his Jersey girl.
Shane’s story isn’t interesting he’s a type, not a person and the script is a mess, a textbook product of studio meddling and panic, with hastily inserted scenes, plot lines left to dangle, embarrassing dialogue, and sub-Saturday Night Fever narration. But the circumstances of Shane’s iconic rise and fall, circumstances made possible by the times and coaxed to ecstatic life by the infuriating, charming, utterly slimy Steve Rubell, remain fascinating.