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It’s altogether appropriate that the leads of Daniele Dubroux’s icily charming Diary of a Seducer, Chiara Mastroianni and Melvil Poupaud, were seen together earlier this year in Raúl Ruiz’s Three Lives and Only One Death. Like Ruiz (or Jacques Rivette), Dubroux portrays all of Paris as a haunted house. To walk its streets is to be transported from reality into an alternative universe both eerie and droll.
If you’re going to cast a spell, you need a means of enchantment. In Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating, it’s the candy the heroines suck as they travel into the netherworld; in Dubroux’s film, it’s a book, Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer. The writer/director spent some time trying to adapt this fictional account of a young man’s seduction plans, but finally decided it would not yield a workable script. (The flat, phony In the Company of Men seems to prove her point.) Instead, she wrote a screenplay in which a copy of the Danish philosopher’s book itself has seductive powers.
Though it is adamantly deadpan, Diary of a Seducer is hardly straightforward. It opens with a character whose plight won’t be explained for an hour, then flashes back to college student Claire (Mastroianni) and her classmate Sebastien (Mathieu Amalric), who has just taken up residence on Claire’s couch. As a chapter title explains, Sebastien is “The Apprentice Seducer,” attempting to write his own real-life Kierkegaardian seduction saga. Claire quickly tires of the brash, needy Sebastien, who then turns his attention to her mother Anne (played by the director), a doctor who works the night shift. That leaves her home in the daytime with Sebastien, while Claire indifferently pursues psychology studies at the Sorbonne. “There are no men anymore,” laments Anne, an assessment that might mean she’s prepared to dally with a boy.
Psychology meets philosophy when Claire receives a copy of Diary of a Seducer meant for Gregoire (Poupaud), a nearly ectoplasmic philosophy student. She quickly falls in love with him, and thus is drawn into his ghost-story life. Gregoire lives in a large but shabby and old-fashioned apartment with his agoraphobic grandmother (Micheline Presle), a flamboyant former actress who’s still the obsession of Hugo (Jean Pierre Léaud), one of Gregoire’s professors and a former borrower of the enchanted tome. (In a joke on Dubroux’s own efforts, Hugo seems to have been driven mad by his failed attempt to adapt the Kierkegaard book.) Two other things add to the diabolical ambience of Gregoire’s home: One is an odd, and oddly protective, neighbor who serves as a sort of gatekeeper to the castle; the other is probably best left unidentified.
The mysterious book still has one more character to seduce. Trying to understand her obsession with Gregoire, Claire lends the volume to her psychiatrist (Hubert Saint Macary), who develops a powerful crushor, as he puts it, a “counter-transference”on her. Soon, the unhinged shrink is telling one of his patients what the pragmatic Claire and her puckish creator already know: that psychological analysis is not equal to the mysteries of everyday life.
This is the fourth feature from Dubroux, the former editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, although it’s her first to be distributed in the U.S. A comedy with few outright jokes, it could prove hilarious in the company of the right audience. Any film that includes a clip from Dreyer’s Ordet, though, clearly doesn’t intend to be a laugh riot. Ultimately, Diary of a Seducer is not merely a playful exercise in bringing a Borgesian sensibility to contemporary Paris. The film is a meditation on love itself, which it finds both profound and preposterous. Passion is so inexplicable, Dubroux suggests, that a magic book is as plausible as any other explanation.
By pushing back its opening date and declining to screen the film in time for opening-day reviews, Columbia may have made the commercial failure of Excess Baggage a self-fulfilling prophecy. The movie is a romantic comedy with prominent roles for veterans of Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, so it’s easy to understand how it must have flummoxed the marketing guys. Just because it’s a hard sell, however, doesn’t mean it’s late-August throwaway material.
In the first film of her production deal, Alicia Silverstone doesn’t travel far from her biggest success, Clueless. Her Emily is a spoiled, rich teenager who attempts to get the attention of her distant daddy (Jack Thompson) by pretending to be kidnapped. After setting the stage for her “rescue,” she locks herself in her BMW, which is promptly purloined by luxury-car thief Vincent (Benicio Del Toro). A series of screwball-comedy complications keep Vincent from dumping Emily, and they eventually come to enjoy each other’s company.
Young love is frequently problematic, but Emily and Vincent have other difficulties. Dad brings in “Uncle” Ray (Christopher Walken), a free-lance enforcer whose natural ruthlessness is tempered by genuine affection for Emily, while Vincent’s partner Greg (Harry Connick Jr.) is being squeezed by the thugs (Nicholas Turturro and Michael Bowen) to whom Vincent was supposed to deliver a shipment of stolen cars.
Kull the Conqueror features clanking sword fights, a howling heavy-metal score, and a woman who turns into a demon. Perhaps all you really need to know, however, is that director John Nicolella and producer Raffaella De Laurentiis found a part for Harvey Fierstein.
Kull was the creation of Robert E. Howard, the pulp writer and creator of Conan the Barbarian fictionalized earlier this year in the smart The Whole Wide World. Although star Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t seem in on the joke, John Milius’ 1981 Conan the Barbarian also added some needed humor to Howard’s earnest sword-and-sorcery universe. Where Milius imagined Conan’s adversary as the leader of a Moonie-esque cult, however, Kull scripter Charles Edward Pogue merely throws in the occasional jarring aside. His gags offer no fundamental relief from the movie’s silly scenario.
Kull (beefy Kevin Sorbo, TV’s Hercules) is a former galley slave and pirate who becomes ruler of Valusia by slaying the current king. He enrages the establishment by attempting to ban slavery and establishing freedom of religion, and becomes the target of a conspiracy led by an aspirant to the throne (Thomas Ian Griffith). He and the other plotters restore to life a long-dead evil witch, who beguiles Kull when she appears to him in the form of Wayne’s World babe Tia Carrere. Soon Kull’s only significant allies are a loyal fortune-telling concubine (Wide Sargasso Sea star Karina Lombard) and a kung-fu monk (Native American rapper Litefoot). They hire a ship from a duplicitous old acquaintance (Fierstein) and go to find the magic force that will destroy the witch.
In addition to the Conan flicks, De Laurentiis produced Dragonheart, and Kull travels to some of the same Eastern European locations. This suits Howard’s original vision, which conflated elements from classical, Celtic, and Indian mythologies with anything else he found exotic; so does the score, which combines Irish jigs with the heavy-metal bluster of The Rock. Being faithful to Howard’s overripe vision, however, is not enough. To make a compelling film from his influential but now-quaint work requires a distinctive perspective, not just beefcake, cheesecake, and guitar solos.CP