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Jane Campion has been faithful to Henry James, in her manner. The New Zealand director’s adaption of The Portrait of a Lady follows the essential outline of James’ plot, and the script (by Laura Jones, who also wrote An Angel at My Table for Campion and High Tide for Gillian Armstrong) takes its most pungent lines directly from the novel. Yet James would surely be astonished by this film. So, most likely, will be devotees of both James’ writing and the recent vogue for slightly stuffy films derived from 19th-century British novels.
Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady has its difficulties, but stuffiness is not among them. The film approaches the Victorian dilemma of American Abroad Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) with arch modernism: It’s jumpy, angular, dark, and sometimes totally freaked-out, notably in a hallucinatory interlude that culminates with a naked, mesmerized Isabel pulled toward her husband-to-be. Indeed, Campion has shot The Portrait of a Lady as if it were The Turn of the Screw, turning James’ society novel into a ghost story, haunted and coolly lurid.
The awkward relationship of Americans and Europeans is a frequent James theme, but there are actually very few Europeans in The Portrait of a Lady. At 23, Isabel visits her uncle, Mr. Touchett (John Gielgud), and family in Britain, where her freshness and spirit cause a sensation. She declines marriage proposals from Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), one of the few actual English people in her new circle, as well as American suitor Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen), who arrives regularly from Boston. She also makes a powerful impression on Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan), who would probably propose if only he weren’t her cousin and dying of tuberculosis. Her only female friend, Henrietta Stackpole (Mary-Louise Parker), is also American.
It’s Ralph who decides to permit Isabel her fantasy (then quite improbable) of staying single; he persuades his father (who’s expiring even faster than his son) to leave her a fortune so that she may live independently. This bequest has the opposite effect, however. It attracts a friend of Mrs. Touchett (Shelley Winters), the manipulative Madame Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey), who introduces Isabel to Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), a haughty American expatriate who has established himself in Rome. His imperiousness fascinates Isabel, and they are soon married.
There are manipulations and revelations yet to come, as Osmond insists that Isabel join him in a plot to marry his convent-raised daughter Pansy (Valentina Cervi) to Lord Warburton, foiling Pansy’s wishes to marry a contemporary, Edward Rosier (Christian Bale). Eventually, Osmond’s sister, Countess Gemini (Shelly Duvall), tells Isabel the various secrets she should have known before entering into her incarcerating marriage. By then, it’s too latefor Isabel, and probably for most of the audience as well.
Campion’s work is as mannered as James’, but hardly as stylistically unified. From its curious prologuein which apparently contemporary young women discuss romance in a manner as naive as Isabel’sto its ambiguous final sequence, The Portrait of a Lady is scattered and self-conscious. Even Fassbinder couldn’t have made a more disaffected version of a 19th-century classic. But while Campion’s alienation devicesespecially Stuart Dryburgh’s vertiginous, chiaroscuro cinematographyare assured and powerful, their impact is disrupted by the film’s wavering tone.
Perhaps Campion’s most curious touch is a central one: the casting. The earnest Kidman consorts with Donovan, a veteran of Hal Hartley’s deadpan New York comedies, and Grant, known for a higher-pitched comic style, under the eye of Gielgud, the emblem of an earlier, class-ier British theatrical tradition. When Hershey and Malkovich appear, seemingly re-enacting Dangerous Liaisons for their own amusement, the drama stops dead. Malkovich is so reflexively odious that Osmond’s seduction of Isabel is tedious. It’s hard to sympathize with Isabel when she’s being undone by a guy who does this shtick virtually every time he’s called before a camera.
At a time of so many literal-minded literary adaptations, The Portrait of a Lady qualifies as bracing. That doesn’t make it satisfying, though. Stiff and perverse, the film seems a no-win proposition. Those intrigued by its stylistic flair will probably be impatient with its Victorian melodrama, while those who prize the novel will surely be nonplused by the film’s arty playfulness. Ultimately, this a private conversation between Campion and James, and only scholars of one or the other will want to listen in.
It’s easy to loathe Woody Allen. Loathe him for his improprieties, both alleged and admitted, with his stepchildren. Loathe him for the narcissism and self-regard embodied by his semi-autobiographical protagonists. Loathe him for ceaselessly working the tiniest of variations on his recurrent theme of Upper East Side serial monogamy. Loathing Everyone Says I Love You, however, is hardly worth the effort.
That’s not to say that the filmAllen’s first “musical,” packed with mostly lesser-known Depression-era tunesis free of annoyances. As usual, Allen plays an aging stud whose allure to a much younger woman (in this case Julia Roberts) is less than convincing. In addition, the relationship the writer/director has devised for his character, expatriate writer Joe, and the unhappily married Von (Roberts) is predicated on a plot twist better suited to a unsavory teen comedy: DJ (Natasha Lyonne), Joe’s teenage daughter by ex-wife Steffi (Goldie Hawn), vacations with dad in Venice, where Von also appears. It happens that Von’s shrink is the mother of one of DJ’s pals, and the girls have been amusing themselves by listening in on Von’s sessions. DJ informs Joe of Von’s deepest desires, which he uses to seduce her. Soon, Von has abandoned her husband to join Joe in Paris, where he must quickly rearrange his life to become the romantic figure he has pretended to be.
This fraudulent relationship is basically a form of date rape, but Joe and Von are not the only couple in the film. There’s also Steffi and Bob (Alan Alda), absurdly upscale New York patricians with a blended brood that includes DJ, Laura (Natalie Portman), Lane (Gaby Hoffmann), Scott (Lukas Haas), and Skylar (Drew Barrymore). While Scott confounds the family by spouting right-wing dogma, Skylar plans her wedding to Holden (Edward Norton, Larry Flynt’s lawyer). Indeed, Skylar and Holden open the film, singing “Just You, Just Me” (reportedly Barrymore is lip-syncing) as they frolic through a moneyed, picture-book Manhattan. (Allen, of course, would not even recognize the neighborhoods that inspired Rent.)
Very concerned about prisoners’ rights, Steffi is the sort of “guilty liberal” who pretty much vanished with the publication of Radical Chic 25 years ago. (Rather than Leonard Bernstein, she and Bob have Itzhak Perlman play at one of their parties.) When one of her pet projects is released on parole, Steffi invites him to the family’s palatial apartment, and Skylar is smitten. Charles Ferry (Tim Roth, parodying the sort of gangster role that has turned his career into a parody) wins Skylar from Holden, thus precipitating both a romantic and a family crisis. This is a musical comedy, though, and the family is reconciled in time to spend Christmas in Paris, where they meet Joe for a Marx Brothers-themed ball that allows Allen to invoke another of his faves. Demonstrating his powerful (if fleeting) appeal to women, Joe then takes Steffi to the banks of the Seine for a dance number.
Yes, a dance number. Everyone Says I Love You’s most appealing moments are the choreographed scenes, which mock the genre the film celebrates. While the singing is in earnesteven Allen delivers a song, the much-repeated “I’m Through With Love,” although he can’t exactly be said to singthe production numbers are positively edgy. Strange things happen when Graciela Daniele’s dancers appear: In an emergency-room scene, pregnant women sing a verse of “Makin’ Whoopee,” accentuating the link between recreation and procreation. When DJ and a new love sing “Cuddle Up a Little Closer” in a taxi, a verse in Hindi is added by the driver, one of the few dark-skinned people ever to open his mouth in an Allen movie. At a funeral, ghosts do the calypso to “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think).”
Such sequences mate humor and dread more effectively than anything Allen’s done in years. If only he’d been able to spare us Joeand the many scenes in which attractive women extol his humor, his influence, his sexual prowessthere might have been room to develop this breakthrough. It is indeed later than you think, but Allen no longer seems capable of adding anything significant to his legacy. CP