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Jude the Obscure so outraged the Victorian reading public that Thomas Hardy never wrote another novel. To director Michael Winterbottom, though, this tale of disastrous love and destroyed ambition seems almost mild. After all, his first film was Butterfly Kiss, a poetically dour tale of female serial killers stalking the British motorways. Jude is also a road movie—and also poetically dour—but Winterbottom and scripter Hossein Amini do make one concession to the Victorian mode of storytelling: This time the characters have motivation.

Jude Fawley (James Daley) is a farm boy in Marygreen, a town near yet so far from Christminster (Hardy’s alias for Oxford). When Jude is young and impressionable, local schoolmaster Mr. Phillotson (Liam Cunningham) leaves for Christminster, telling the boy that he must have a university education “if you want to do anything in life.” Jude takes this advice very seriously, and turns to teaching himself the classics in Greek and Latin. Still pursuing his goal a decade later, Jude (now Christopher Eccleston, who played the first one to crack in Shallow Grave) is distracted by high-spirited Arabella (Rachel Griffiths). She introduces him to sex, and then to imminent fatherhood and marriage. The two are not true soulmates, however, and soon separate.

Jude moves to Christminster, where he works as a stonemason while trying to get admitted to the university. There he meets his cousin, Sue Bridehead (Kate Winslet), an independent woman whose irreverence enchants him. This “pagan” is Jude’s true love, even after she impulsively marries Phillotson instead. As they track each other through Hardy’s “Wessex”—the film faithfully reproduces the novel’s section headings, which include “At Aldbrickham and Elsewhere” and “At Christminster Again”—Jude and Sue are drawn back together. Left alone, the two are mostly happy. (Winterbottom even interjects an incongruous frolic-on-the-beach scene.) But their lives are complicated by busybodies who discover that Jude and Sue are each married to another, and by the arrival of three children: Sue and Jude have two, and Arabella unexpectedly turns her son by Jude over to his father. It’s the action of grim young Jude (Ross Colvin Turnbull), who makes his father seem exuberant by comparison, that finally drives Jude and Sue apart.

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Staying true to the novel, Jude depicts Arabella as feral—she matter-of-factly guts the pig that Jude cannot—and Sue as ethereal. It’s a little vague, however, on the reason that Jude is torn between them: Arabella likes sex, and Sue doesn’t. Sue resists both Phillotson and Jude’s desires, but once she submits to the latter, the film drops the subject. Indeed, each woman gets one sanguinary moment: Arabella’s gutting the pig is no less gory than Sue’s postpartum scene, one of the bloodiest in cinematic history. (Her childbirth agony is preceded by a visit to a ghoulish carnival performance, lest anyone miss that life is a horror show.)

Winterbottom imagines this a “modern” tale, as he announces with the film’s stark, sans-serif opening credits. Seeking something less comfy than the customary English Lit film landscape, he shot his wide-screen bleakness in northern England, Scotland, and New Zealand. Yet stripping the genre of its picturesqueness and sentimentality doesn’t make Hardy’s characterizations any less creaky, or Jude’s class-bound destruction any more contemporary. Despair is always timely, but despite Winterbottom’s most vehement efforts, Jude remains a bit quaint.

Two Merchant/Ivory pictures arrived in the flood of films that opened last week, one directed by James Ivory, one by Ismail Merchant. The former’s Surviving Picasso is no surprise; Ivory is supposed to direct well-crafted, unremarkable biopics like this one, his most presentable film (big deal) since the stolid but respectable Howards End.

Where that period drama featured Anthony Hopkins as a crusty, proper patriarch, Surviving Picasso stars Hopkins as the crusty, improper painter. Based on Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington’s Picasso: Creator and Destroyer—a source controversial in the art world—Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s script is really the story of Françoise Gilot (Natascha McElhone), the one of Picasso’s lovers and wives to successfully leave his orbit. In bit parts demonstrating various degrees of humor and sadness, Susannah Harker, Jane Lapotaire, Diane Venora, and Julianne Moore play the other wrecked, obsessive, masochistic Picasso women who threaten Françoise’s position. The effect, however, is exonerating: If Françoise (and her two children) can withstand Picasso, then the old goat must not have been so bad.

Perhaps. Certainly Hopkins’ impersonation of Picasso—bullying and self-absorbed, but never really threatening—is on the cuddly side. Whether playfully mocking the Nazis occupying Paris or delivering his own tyrannical ultimatums, this Picasso is playful, an overgrown boy. (That he’s a genius is taken for granted.) In one scene that seems designed to challenge Ivory’s reputation for drawing-room prissiness, the painter makes Françoise watch as an owl carries off a cat. Hopkins’ halfhearted attempts to give his Picasso that sort of primal cruelty, however, are unconvincing.

Merchant’s The Proprietor, the second fiction feature from the man who has long produced Ivory’s films, also has Nazis and art—and much more. The film is not exactly better than Surviving Picasso, but it is more interesting. A slightly cannier script and more assured direction could have produced something remarkably rich. Even without those advantages, it’s worth seeing for what it could have been.

Like Merchant’s previous effort, In Custody, The Proprietor is a meditation on the role of art. But it’s also about family, tradition, politics, and cross-cultural and transracial understanding. Jean-Marie Besset and George Trow’s script is overloaded with ideas and characters, which is why it has time only to sketch cartoons of such players as the smoothly avaricious auction-house buyer (Sam Waterston), the marketing-obsessed Hollywood producer (Sean Young), and—most cringeworthy—the loyal, truth-telling, soul-singing African-American maid (Nell Carter, playing a contemporary variant on her Glass Harp role).

At the center of all this is French-expatriate novelist Adrienne Mark (Jeanne Moreau), who decides to return to Paris when she discovers that her mother’s old apartment is about to be auctioned off. Mark (a name changed from Markowsky by her mother) hasn’t been comfortable in Paris since her mother was taken away by the Nazis, never to be seen again. Rather clunky dreams are calling her back, however, so she sells her Manhattan apartment, says farewell to the loyal maid, and invites the young American admirer (Josh Hamilton) she has just met to look her up in Paris.

There she reunites with longtime friends, including her ex-husband, the director of the groundbreaking ’60s film, I Am France, adapted from her novel, and the director’s son (Marc Tissot), who’s been hired to script a remake of the American remake, I Am French, by the Hollywood producer. She also learns that the breakdown in the social order she deplored in New York is paralleled by the rise of racist anti-immigrant thugs in Paris—and that she doesn’t have enough money to buy back the apartment.

In the manner of classic farce, The Proprietor eventually puts all these elements together, with some inevitable contrivances. The admirer arrives in Paris and proves to be helpful, the producer finally sees the original I Am France and Hollywood vulgarity is transformed by amour, and various real estate problems are solved. Adrienne takes a public stand against French racism and causes a bracing media scandal; meanwhile, she learns some things about the past and comes to a reconciliation with it.

Finding a unifying tone for all this would be difficult for any director. The Proprietor attempts to seriously contemplate the legacy of the Holocaust while including such puckish moments as the one in which Young’s producer announces her kinship with the central character in I Am French and Merchant cuts to that film to show Young also playing that role. If the result is a mess, it’s an amiable one. As a Bombay native who has established himself as a successful New York film producer, Merchant could hardly resist a script that mixes movie-producer jibes—”We own the concept of bears,” the producer brags at one point—with a multicultural agenda. A certain sort of film-savvy viewer should find the combination equally appealing.

(The Proprietor’s run ended Oct. 31.)

To really enjoy Man With a Plan, viewers should probably know Vermont extremely well—or not at all. A hit in its home state (and in bordering New Hampshire and Massachusetts), the film is the fictional account of the fictional congressional campaign of an actual retired dairy farmer, Fred Tuttle. Like Vermont Is for Lovers, this is the work of one-man Vermont movie machine John O’Brien, who wrote, directed, produced, and edited. And like that film, it’s well-meaning and little else.

Forget the plan; what Man needs is a script. The 73-year-old Tuttle is about as charming as an amateur actor without any decent dialogue can be, but a lifetime spent with cows hasn’t exactly polished his ad-libbing skills. There’s the occasional joke on Vermont’s own rustic self-image—when Tuttle is caught in an “orgy,” it’s with three young women wearing long underwear—but mostly the candidate is forced to flog his four-point, one-joke “plan,” which includes such ideas as blasting America’s garbage into outer space.

In California, where the reviews have been good, Man’s few gags have been taken as genuine insights into the musty old state of Vermont. The Los Angeles Times, for example, noted that Tuttle runs against “Vermont’s longtime U.S. representative, William Blachly…who in effect plays himself so smoothly that it’s worrisome (which is part of the picture’s point).” Well, maybe it would be—if only Vermont’s real U.S. representative weren’t Bernie Sanders, the House’s only independent and an avowed socialist. Which suggests that the Los Angeles Times should update its notions of Vermont—and that maybe John O’Brien should, too.CP