In a sense, Eric Rohmer always works in miniature, so a film comprised of three half-hour episodes is entirely appropriate to his style. Indeed, the writer/director has already made a movie like the new (to us; it’s not his most recent film in France) Rendezvous in Paris. 1986’s Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle was also a collection of short stories, although they had their central characters in common. Rendezvous shares only one central character—Paris itself—but, as usual with Rohmer, the stories are more carefully structured than they at first seem. Eminently engaging at first, these tales grow far richer as they progress.
In the first, “The Seven O’Clock Rendezvous,” easygoing law student Esther (Clara Bellar) accepts the explanation of her boyfriend, Horace (Antoine Basler), as to why they can’t meet for dinner the following night. Then her trust is undermined when an acquaintance insists that Horace is often seen with other women at a cafe near the Pompidou Museum—a touristy section of Paris that Esther is known to avoid. Two strangers, a man who chats her up at an outdoor market (Mathias Megard) and Aricie (Judith Chancel), another student with whom Esther has more in common than she initially realizes, propel her toward the cafe, where several people will be surprised.
The second episode, “The Benches of Paris,” has only two human characters, a math student (Aurore Rauscher) and a literature student (Serge Renko), although it features an extensive cast of Parisian parks. There’s also much talk of Benoit, the live-in lover with whom the woman is gradually falling out of love. Meeting only in public places, the man tries to convince her to spend some time alone with him. She rejects the idea, perhaps because he lives in the suburbs, perhaps for one of the other reasons she proffers. When she finally agrees to an assignation, there’s an unforeseen complication.
“Mother and Child,” the final chapter, is an unfinished triangle: A painter (Michaël Kraft) has been set up with a young Swedish interior decorator (Veronika Johansson), a pretty but vapid blonde. He escorts her to the nearby Picasso Museum, where he abandons her, claiming that seeing the Picassos will disrupt his own creative process. On his way back to his studio, he spies an attractive, young, dark-haired woman (Bénédicte Loyen), who he starts to follow. She leads him back to the museum, where he encounters the blonde again. After devising a suitably artistic excuse for why he has returned to the galleries, he follows the dark-haired woman back out of the museum, which leads to a frank conversation.
All three of these tales end with punch lines of a sort, so fully describing what happens would spoil part of the effect. Only part of it, though: As always with Rohmer, the radiant young performers and sparkling dialogue are pleasure enough. The director is famous for making films where nothing happens, but—aside from the fact that this isn’t literally true—no one makes nothing happen so enchantingly as Rohmer. (The danger in his approach is that if you don’t like the characters themselves, you’ll find the film tough going, and I must admit I found the self-absorbed young nonlovers of “The Benches of Paris” fairly annoying.)
In retrospect, these three episodes have much in common, and not just that each ends in romantic disappointment. All happen in the shadow of art: the Pompidou Museum in the first; the outdoor sculpture of Paris’ parks and cemeteries and the Bateau-Lavoir, the original Cubists’ studio, in the second; and the Picasso Museum in the third. All also involve truth-telling between a Parisian and an outsider: Esther is a native, while Aricie is from Montpellier; the literature student is Parisian, while the math student hails from Marseilles; and the painter is a local, while the dark-haired woman is from Geneva.
In these conversational pairings, there is talk of love, but also of Paris itself. Indeed, Rendevzous’ characters talk about Paris and also talk through Paris: All of these characters chat as they stroll through the city’s rich public realm, enjoying confidences as agreeably commonplace as their surroundings. (Handheld camera is crucial to the casual shooting style Rohmer has developed since finishing his “Comedies and Proverbs” series in 1987.) Place is important to all these characters, from Esther’s disdain for the area around the Pompidou Museum, to the two nonlovers’ careful survey of potential meeting places, to the painter’s defense of Paris against the Swede’s accusation that it’s dingy and gray.
This is an aspect of the film that might mean more to Americans than to Parisians, who can afford to take the public sphere for granted. None of these chance encounters, spontaneous infatuations, and pivotal dates at cafes would be possible in the sterile, use-segregated world most Americans inhabit. That, more than their wry banter and humane worldview, is why Rohmer’s films are comedies and not tragedies: Even when their stories end in heartbreak, his characters live in a world of possibility.
Perhaps all you need to know about The Island of Dr. Moreau, director John Frankenheimer’s somewhat campy version of the oft-filmed H.G. Wells novel, is that David Thewlis looks normal in it. The ectomorphic Thewlis, a demented poet/prophet in Naked and Total Eclipse, here plays against Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, perhaps the two strangest Hollywood leading men of their respective generations. Oh yes, and dozens of actors in heavy prosthetic makeup and fake fur.
Most Moreau viewers will probably already know the premise of Wells’ book, first published exactly 100 years ago. Indeed, screenwriters Richard Stanley and Ron Hutchinson assume such a familiarity in the film’s opening scenes, in which the gag is that stranded U.N. diplomat Edward Douglas (Thewlis) is the only sentient creature on the South Pacific island who isn’t aware that Dr. Moreau (Brando) and his smirkingly creepy assistant Montgomery (Kilmer) are engaging in gene-splicing experiments that have created a menagerie of human/animal hybrids. When Douglas asks if Montgomery is a doctor, he answers that he’s “more like a vet,” and when Douglas is entranced at his first meeting with Moreau’s “daughter” Aissa (Fairuza Balk), Montgomery remarks that “she’s a pussycat.” This sort of knowing wit might be called “remake humor.”
The first half of the film riffs on Douglas’ bewilderment and Moreau and Montgomery’s weirdness. As the island’s horrors are revealed, Douglas is the audience surrogate, although he’s more shocked than most viewers will be. After all, moviegoers have seen a lot of this before: Kilmer has played similar dashing, substance-abusing cads in The Doors and Tombstone, while the pale, mumbling, immense Brando imitates his own much-imitated performance in Apocalypse Now. (To make this doubly self-referential, later in the film the addled Montgomery poses as Moreau.) When the doctor plays his piano while a mutant midget plays a toy piano sitting atop the real one, the joke seems to be on Brando himself: that the actor is a bigger monstrosity than any devised by Oscar-winning special-effects man Stan Winston.
Eventually, though, the freak-show exposition is over, and the real action must begin. Emboldened by some new information about how Moreau controls them, Hyena-Swine (Daniel Rigney) and Azazello (Temuera Morrison) lead a rebellion, though this alliance (between what in the parlance of American slavery would called a field slave and a house slave) is as inherently unstable as the creatures’ genetic makeup. This leads to widespread death and destruction, but of a mechanical sort. The eccentricities of the first hour are blown away by the routine payoff.
Now that the biotech industry has come closer to Wells’ fantasy than could have been imagined a century ago, Moreau could function as a cautionary tale. But Frankenheimer (whose The Manchurian Candidate was rendered timely after the fact by Lee Harvey Oswald) doesn’t have much to say about biotech or other possible subtexts—slavery, colonialism, or vivisection (Wells’ own concern). Instead, he (and Brando and Kilmer) treat the film as a playful, self-involved commentary on the exotic creatures of another jungle, Hollywood.
Perhaps the scene in which Moreau tries to explain the virtues of civilization to the rebellious man-beasts by comparing Schoenberg to Gershwin is more than just an aside. Extolling the virtues of melodic light-classical over the modern
barbarism of serialism, Moreau suggests why the film seems to have little enthusiasm for its noisy, effects-driven denouement. Frankenheimer may be nostalgic for the days before special-effects spectacle—and before directors felt compelled to include Salt and Einstürzende Neubauten on the soundtrack in the hopes of attracting the uncivilized man-beasts of the under-30 audience.CP