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I can’t recall its provenance, but PBS used to run an excruciatingly funny fake documentary about the life and times of Sir Norbert Smith, a fictional English filmmaker whose work spanned every miserable and/or laughable trend going, all the way up to a mid-’60s Where Eagles Dare parody in hideous full color that gave every washed-up drunk of the day a chance to swig bourbon on camera and pretend that people still wanted to see cast-of-dozens anti-Nazi movies. But the best parody clip was for Sir Norbert’s It’s Grim Up North, a brilliant sendup of the self-flagellating black-and-white films of the early ’60s that ruthlessly exposed the poverty and hopelessness in rural-industrial England. The sad news is they’re still making the likes of It’s Grim Up North, this time with a straight face and stultifying American touches like pastoral suburban settings and the occasional accented Yankee featured player.

As Hollow Reed tells it, it is grim inside the oversize house of Hannah Wyatt (Joely Richardson, who looks like a llama), where all the walls are painted dreary gray-blue, as if she couldn’t get enough of the oppressive English sky. Hannah has a 9-year-old son, Oliver (Sam Bould), and a slick new boyfriend, Frank (Jason Flemyng), whose enviable head of hair assumes the alluring shape of a Tastee-Freez and whose smile is mean and phony. Hannah’s estranged husband Martyn (American Martin Donovan) lives with his record shop-keeper lover Tom (Ian Hart), so the scene is set for young Oliver to find himself at the mercy of grown-ups’ resentments and mind games.

Ollie begins to appear at his father’s house bruised and bleeding, and enigmatic about how he got that way. He is severely cut over one eyebrow, and later the school nurse calls in the parents about a crushed hand. Martyn is suspicious of Ollie’s vague stories, but Hannah pounces on them; it’s more important to her that Martyn’s interaction with his son not violate their court agreement than that Ollie’s stories check out.

Martyn begins to suspect Frank of beating the child; because we see the beatings (and would not put such behavior past Frank on sight), Martyn seems a little slow on the uptake and Hannah, for her willingness to scoff at her ex’s suspicions, downright moronic. Although Martyn has not demonstrated that he’s the type of person who would indulge resentments in this way, she still accuses him of trying to spoil her happiness out of sheer petulance. But he only wants what’s best for the kid; Hannah, on the other hand, is such a snakepit of resentment and low self-esteem that she literally puts her son’s life in jeopardy rather than letting go of her neuroses.

Even after Hannah witnesses Frank’s violence, she’s promptly seduced into taking him back and telling her kid it will never happen again. Appalled, Martyn decides to seek custody, triggering a nasty courtroom battle in which his sexuality is the chief issue.

Fuddled good intentions render this a tiresome “issue film,” frustratingly lacking momentum, with a slow pace, repressed English emotions, and sincere, unbecoming photography. Angry people who feel an urge to speak out against injustice and intolerance should have either a clearer idea of what’s bothering them or a more realistic sense of the complexity involved, but Paula Milne’s script rakes the hot-button talking points toward us with the mechanical randomness of that casino game where a shelfful of quarters threatens to spill into the slot below.

Martyn and Tom’s relationship is the sane, loving, sexually charged counterpoint to Hannah and Frank’s ménage of dependence, duplicity, and dominance. A modern movie that feels a need to make the case that homosexuals are human beings is rather a quaint thing. Apparently across the pond, as the pondits say, they haven’t gotten around to actually portraying gays as human beings yet; they’re still trumpeting how theoretically tolerant they are. (To be fair, our film version of gay life is hardly realer, although its simplifying takes different forms, notably the cheery, celibate best friend of the romantically perplexed lead; such characters always have time to worry over whether Sandra Bullock is getting any.)

But to make it clear that neither local yobbos like Frank, nor wispy, educated women like Hannah, nor the judicial system have reached such an epiphany, Milne draws the gay couple as a paragon of patience and commitment, and heaps the blame on the hysterical, repressed, easily seduced hotbed of illogical emotion that is Woman. Hannah would rather wallow in the skin-deep charms of her smooth-talking boyfriend than shield her kid from danger, because she resents the sexual rejection implied by Martyn’s homosexuality. As for Martyn, all he does is purse his lips, run his fingers through his hair (Hannah has a thing for extravagantly coiffed men), and turn away from questions, his mouth compressed with pain unspoken. Everyone’s so Englishly hurting and inexpressive that you sort of hope Frank could turn some of that refreshing violence on other members of the cast.

Greta Schiller is known by fans of film and other arts for choosing terrific subjects and flubbing short documentaries about them. Paris Was a Woman has its troubles—awkward rhythm, too many badly aged scene-setting clips, poorly planned narration in which sources are cited after the quotations, and the inevitable Schiller emphasis (girls! girls! girls!), in this case not exactly an occult proposition.

Her subject is women in pre-WWII Paris, and her reasoning—in the press kit and, less forcibly, the film’s narration—goes thus: “Accounts by American male expatriates invariably emphasize the bars and brothels of Paris, the macho hard-drinking artists and their nameless, ever-patient wives.” But that is simply untrue. The names of Janet Flanner, Sylvia Beach, Djuna Barnes, Colette, and the twin goddesses of Left Bank artistic life, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, are not strange to the American student of culture.

Nevertheless, the time, the place, and those difficult, mercurial, astonishing women rise effortlessly above the spurious political justifications of the filmmaker. Though many of the women formed couples—Beach and fellow bookseller Adrienne Monnier, Barnes and the sculptor Thelma Wood, poet Natalie Clifford Barney and painter Romaine Brooks (both became fascist sympathizers)—Paris Was a Woman is not merely about lesbians of that milieu, but the freedom and rebellion that led to such attachments.

But even Schiller finds Left Bank bohemia a bit difficult to discuss without referring to its male population; that’s why her premise seems so arbitrary—it’s equally impossible to consider this world as exclusively one of men. In addition to the many subsidiary male characters whose presence weaves in and out of these women’s lives, there are the big, impossible-to-overlook names: Picasso’s tough early experiments were championed by his good friend Stein, Paul Valéry provided friendship and advice to the bookshop muses of the rue de l’Odeon, and James Joyce brought controversy and bankruptcy to these same women when they agreed to risk publishing Ulysses and Joyce broke his contract, selling his succès de scandale to Random House for $450,000.

Old footage, stills, interviews with some of the subjects (many of the interviews, of course, were conducted decades ago for other documentaries) and the subjects’ friends and servants, as well as readings from their works, make up the bulk of the story. Many of the talking heads are delights—Stein expert Catharine R. Stimpson, who looks like the biological graft of Stein and Toklas, the photographer Gisele Freund, who adds Gallic acid and sparkle to her recollections, and grandmotherly Sylvia Beach, who aged into a face of misleading harmlessness and who sounds just like Billie Burke. In spite of its flaws of conception and execution, Paris Was a Woman is a foolproof project, a portrait of a time that has etched itself on the soul of artistic America—vivid, romantic, and inspirational.CP