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As Europe got fat, it largely forgot that its filmmakers had invented neorealism in the smoking ruins of World War II. More recently, however, the spirit of that cinematic era has rallied for a new cause. It’s no coincidence that many of the films that have roused European cinema in the ’80s and ’90s—My Beautiful Laundrette, Hate, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Lamerica, even Wings of Desire—are about Europe’s new dispossessed: the refugees, “guest workers,” and illegal immigrants.
Writer/directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s bracing, unsettling La Promesse is a dispatch from the front lines of the new Europe. It’s set not just in Belgium, reportedly one of the more economically robust countries of that stagflated continent, but in Seraing, a formerly industrial town where housing designed for local factory and quarry workers has become a refuge for immigrants, both legal and illegal. Roger (Olivier Gourmet) and his son Igor (Jérémie Renier) specialize in the latter.
The implacably scuzzy Roger smuggles illegals into the area and puts them to work rehabilitating housing—to hold more illegals, presumably. Roger’s not gratuitously cruel, just remorseless in the pursuit of profit. He doesn’t want his charges to suffer, but neither will he budget any time or money toward making their lot easier. (Put him on the spot, and Roger will say he’s doing it all for his son.) Officially, 15-year-old Igor is an apprentice to an auto mechanic. (He needs the apprentice’s certificate to avoid going to school.) Most of the time, however, he’s actually apprenticed to his father, keeping his eyes open for building inspectors and immigration officials as he zooms around town on his moped, doing diabolical errands and occasionally picking a nice old lady’s pocket.
Neither Roger nor Igor seem to have given this life much thought, and the Dardennes don’t provide any family history. (Igor’s mother goes unmentioned.) The film starts no sooner than it must, with the arrival of the agent that will destroy the unspoken father-son pact: Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), an African woman with an infant son.
Assita has arrived legally, to join her husband Hamidou (Rasmané Ouedraogo), who’s illegal and one of Roger’s construction crew. When Hamidou falls from a scaffold with labor inspectors about to arrive, Roger and Igor must dispose of the corpse—well, he’s almost dead—in a hurry. Before he’s buried in concrete, however, Hamidou extracts a promise from Igor. The boy vows to take care of Assita and the baby, a pledge that guarantees his split with Roger.
Shot in the harshly lighted, handheld-camera style identified with cinéma vérité documentaries—of which the Dardennes are veterans—La Promesse is not looking for an opportunity to lapse into sentimentality or uplift. Yes, Igor tries to keep his promise, but the result is not peace, happiness, and cross-cultural understanding. Assita doesn’t trust the boy and resists his efforts to help, even as it becomes clear that he’s taking significant risks to do so. As for Igor, he knows how to play his father’s game, but he’s almost as lost as Assita when confronting the bureaucratic gatekeepers of Belgian hospitals and police stations.
In a sense, Roger and Igor and the state of Belgium are guilty of the same inhumanity. When Assita goes to the police station to file a missing-persons report, she’s told that Hamidou legally doesn’t exist because he entered the country illegally; his actual disappearance into the concrete is paralleled by his official nonexistence on paper. Dumping illegals over the border is everyone’s strategy; when he decides that Assita’s search for Hamidou is a threat, Roger tries to lure her to nearby Cologne, obviously hoping that she won’t make it back into Belgium.
Although the film’s sympathy is with Assita, it doesn’t romanticize her. The woman’s belief in magic is presented as dispassionately as Roger’s preoccupation with cash. Assita slaughters a chicken to look for answers in its entrails, and the response is correct: that Hamidou is nearby. When a fellow African immigrant performs a ritual to ascertain if Hamidou is alive, however, the result is quite wrong. None of the film’s central characters—portrayed with naturalistic rigor by Gourmet, Renier, and Ouedraogo—can see far beyond his or her central predicament.
La Promesse is a coming-of-age picture, one that finds possibility in the child of a brutalizingly diffident system. Yet the film doesn’t end on anything resembling a moment of triumph. It concludes as it begins: in the midst of a messy, intractable problem. That’s integral to the breakneck style, in which the camera prowls through long takes, and the tightly framed scenes open and close in the middle of the latest development. But the ending is equally central to the film’s message: Lives begin, end, and are transformed, but the system remains unchanged.
Deliriously literal-minded, Face/Off takes the shopworn observation that good and evil are two faces of the same coin and makes it a medical procedure. According to Mike Werb and Michael Colleary’s script (which spent seven years on the shelf), a top-secret government surgical team can peel off someone’s face and attach it to someone else’s head. Good thing it can, too, because that’s just what crack FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) needs. There’s a nerve-gas bomb ticking in Los Angeles, and the only man who can tell Sean where it’s hidden is incarcerated psycho terrorist Pollux Troy (Alessandro Nivola). Sean figures that Pollux might talk to him if he’s wearing the face of Pollux’s lascivious brother Castor (Nicolas Cage), an even more psycho terrorist. Castor is in FBI custody and in a coma, so he’s not really using his face anyway.
Yes, this scenario is a little confusing, but that summary doesn’t even cover the prelims (seems that Castor shot Sean’s young son six years ago), let alone the complications. Castor wakes up, forces the doctors to attach Sean’s face to his cranium, destroys all knowledge of Sean’s undercover mission, and then takes over Sean’s life, including his job, his doctor spouse Eve (Joan Allen, the uptight wife yet again), and his troubled-teen daughter (Dominique Swain, the star of Adrian Lyne’s lost-in-limbo Lolita). This leaves Sean-as-Castor to fight his way out of a futuristic prison and bring Castor-as-Sean to justice while wearing the face of one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists.
This is also a John Woo movie, which means two-guns-blazing firefights, mass carnage in exquisite slo-mo, tsunamis of shattering glass, close-ups of hurtling bullets, and people diving, twisting, and seemingly hovering in midair. There’s nothing here to top Woo’s most poetically fevered Hong Kong flicks, The Killer, Hard Boiled, and Bullet in the Head, but Face/Off’s action sequences are the most exuberant of Woo’s three-film U.S. career.
Still, the movie’s nearly two-and-half-hour running time features fewer action set pieces than most HK directors pack into their 90-minute assembly-line product. With its elaborate setups for future confrontations, the script allows entirely too much time to contemplate the silliness of its central device. Nor is Chow Yun-Fat, Woo’s HK alter ego, on hand to lend the film class and dignity. Instead, Cage and Travolta mug rampantly; they’re supposed to be imitating each other, but at times the latter seems to be aping Jim Carrey.
Despite being overlong, temperamentally discordant, and fundamentally ridiculous, however, Face/Off is frequently winning. Woo and his associates manage to stitch together such divergent scenes as the one in which Castor wakes up to find himself faceless (which plays as a good-natured gross-out joke); a beachfront Latin funeral mass complete with sacred choral music and fluttering doves (Woo was educated by Jesuits, after all); and the Sean/Castor confrontation that finds them on opposite sides of a two-sided mirror, each with a gun drawn at his own reflection (another Woo homage to his mentor, Jean-Pierre Melville). Throw in more mirror images, notions of twinning (Castor and Pollux, of course), Castor-as-Sean posing as the crucified Christ, and the symbolic rebirth of Sean’s son (as the child of Gina Gershon’s sexy gangster), and you’ve got both a mess and the stuff of myth.
Longtime Woo collaborator Terence Chang, one of Face/Off’s producers, is now working on Chow Yun-Fat’s American debut film. If that’s a success, perhaps the director and the actor will be reunited. Woo’s American movies could use some of Chow’s gravity, as well as locations more distinctive than bland L.A. (Bustling, claustrophobic Hong Kong provided both a natural locale for and a piquant contrast to the director’s grand gestures.) In the meantime, though, Face/Off is the best summer action mess around.CP