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Jean-Luc Godard may love American movies, but there’s never been any question that he had a European education. Even his flippest ’60s films feature references to classical art, literature, music, and mythology, and since abandoning Paris for small-town Switzerland 16 years ago his inspirations have ranged from Ingres to Carmen to, most notoriously, the New Testament. The writer/director’s new Hélas Pour Moi contemplates the romantic pessimism of Italian romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi, the myth of Amphitryon and Alcmene, and much more, all in the arch style that could be called familiar if only it weren’t so consistently unsettling.
The distributor of Hélas, the first Godard effort to get a commercial booking in Washington since 1987’s King Lear, describes it as “more dramatic and accessible than most of his recent works,” but in fact the film much resembles the exquisite but resolutely oblique Nouvelle Vague, the 1990 Godard conundrum that showed at Filmfest DC. (The principal boost to the new film’s accessibility seems to be the presence of Gérard Depardieu, a bigger name these days than Vague star Alain Delon.) Both films are intricate, elusive works whose deft use of sound and image alone is sufficient compensation for the almost mockingly obscure narrative style. Many viewers, though, will likely find maddening Godard’s refusal simply to tell his tale—and will probably not be consoled to learn that a second viewing does clear some things up.
In Greek legend, Alcmene was the woman visited by Zeus in the form of her husband, Amphitryon. (The duplicitous union produced Hercules.) In Hélas Pour Moi (roughly, “woe is me”), Zeus speaks in a metallic rasp that recalls Alphaville‘s computer and travels with a tennis-racket-toting herald, Max Mercure. While Simon Donnadieu (Depardieu) travels to Italy to look at a hotel he might buy, Zeus (played by Depardieu with a deeper voice) takes Simon’s guise in order to seduce his wife Rachel (Laurence Masliah). She rejects the visiting god-made-flesh’s offer of immortality, but the rest of their liaison is left obscure.
Straining against his own disengagement with the contemporary world, Godard has included references to Bosnia and set a discussion of evil in a video store where a customer selects horror movies. Also invoked are Conrad, Mallarmé, Flaubert, The Thin Man, Citizen Kane, Kierkegaard, the theoretical discovery of antimatter, and From the Clouds to the Resistance, Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet’s meditation on gods and man.
Hélas also notes that “the Communist Manifesto was published in the same year as Alice in Wonderland,” but Godard’s concerns are rooted in more ancient texts than those. “Our age is in search of a lost question,” the film suggests, as the publisher (Bernard Verley) who’s come to town to discover the story of the Donnadieus explains that man has lost the meaning of his myths and rituals. (All we know now is “how to tell the story,” an ironic claim for anti-storyteller Godard.) The film is not a statement of faith, but of the quest for faith—for a God that is palpable, as Zeus is to Rachel.
The creator of the rich universe that stretches from Breathless to Hélas, Godard must sometimes feel like a god—and here he presides, Zeuslike, over his customary array of beautiful young actresses. At 63, however, the director has reason to be contemplating mortality. “Rage against the dying of the light,” demands the film’s voiceover reading of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” and a stuttering trash collector explains that “life is like so-so-soap. It-it-it’s melting away.” Cinema, Godard famously noted, is truth 24 times a second, but the truths he pursues today are less jumpy. Like his other recent efforts, Hélas is less interested in the flicker of celluloid than the ripple of water or the dapple of light—the motion of eternity.
Adifferent sort of Gallic sophistication is on display in Love After Love, the latest installment from the diary of bourgeois erotic adventurer Diane Kurys. Unlike most of the writer/director’s films, this delightful if untraditional romantic comedy is not derived from her childhood, and thus lacks the perspective of Peppermint Soda or Entre Nous. It has comparable supplies of wit, style, and grace, though, and will likely charm viewers not too offended by the sight of well-to-do people indulging themselves—think of it as Four Affairs and a Wedding.
The film opens, to the strains of the Black Crowes’ “Hard to Handle,” at the birthday party of Lola (Isabelle Huppert), a successful author of autobiographical novels. (I don’t know how literally the scenario should be taken, but the leap from autobiographical novelist to autobiographical filmmaker is not formidable.) As her lover David (Bernard Giraudeau) looks for her, the guest of honor disappears; she’s outside in a car, making out with her other lover Tom (Hippolyte Girardot). David, an architect, is irked, but it soon turns out that he has little ground for complaint: He too has another lover, Marianne, the mother of his two young sons, who’s aware of the arrangement (if less than thrilled about it). The only person being actively deceived is Tom’s wife Elisabeth, who merely suspects Lola’s existence.
With David’s flirtatious secretary Rachel added to the dance card, this promiscuous pavane spirals through France and on to Italy, where Lola meets Tom, a touring musician, for a tryst in the ruins of decadent Pompeii—and an unexpected visit from Elisabeth and the couple’s children. Such complications have elements of farce, but—as in A Man in Love, Kurys’ account of romantic indiscretions at a younger age—the director manages to make them poignant as well. The scene where Lola first awkwardly meets David’s kids, who are sleepy-eyed after Marianne’s evicted them and their father in the middle of the night, is both funny and sad, as is the one where David’s informed that his “wife” is in the hospital and doesn’t know whether it’s Lola or Marianne. Though Lola’s jottings sometimes seem overwrought—“I’m pathetic,” she writes in Italy—most of the time her attitude is winningly good-humored, even serene. When Tom shows up after a long absence to tell her that Elisabeth is having an affair, Lola’s reaction seems apt: She laughs.
Tom, however, is seriously upset, and his subsequent actions make it clear that the fun is winding down. When David’s half-brother Romain gets married, it’s to a tune from an earlier, more innocent age, Paul and Paula’s 1963 hit, “Hey Paula.” Lola too is touched by the family-values imperative, but at the year-later birthday party that ends the film it’s clear that her relationship with David will not change significantly.
Perhaps the only contemporary filmmaker to make anything interesting of the Hollywood “woman’s picture” tradition, Kurys here exquisitely balances satire and psychological drama. This effervescent entertainment isn’t her most profound work, but it’s as sumptuously photographed and elegantly crafted as any of its predecessors. It’s a portrait of sophistication and its discontents that’s sometimes sexy, frequently hilarious, and always acute.
Astiff, stagy face-off, Oleanna is apparently supposed to encapsulate some battle of the sexes. Certainly writer/director David Mamet’s film, adapted from his reputedly controversial play, can’t be intended as the tale of two actual people. Over the course of their three-act confrontation, college professor John (William H. Macy) and student Carol (Debra Eisenstadt) seldom ring true, and the escalating emotion between them—as the dislikable Carol undermines the unpleasant John’s tenure procedure by accusing him of sexual harassment—is explained only by events that are neither shown nor credible.
In transferring the scenario from the stage to a leafy campus (in reality an abandoned Massachusetts asylum), Mamet has filled in some details: Both characters are occasionally glimpsed outside the office where their three meetings transpire, and the playwright and his wife (actress/composer Rebecca Pidgeon, who originated the Carol role) have even written a college song. All this back-story evaporates, however, as soon as the two principals open their mouths to emit the overwhelmingly artificial dialogue. (Macy’s early bit on the phone is a Bob Newhart routine without the jokes.) Oleanna would have played better if filmed on a bare stage; there its theatricality would have been conceded rather than clumsily disguised.
Mamet’s always been better at language than ideas, and here the promised theme is almost all talk. Carol is failing John’s course, and he offers to help her, based on a sense that her feelings of inadequacy parallel those he had as a kid. She finds him pedantic—uh oh! a college professor who uses words like “paradigm”—and, with the help of an unidentified “group,” comes to see his pretensions as patriarchal oppression. By the time she makes this leap, however, she’s become an academic-leftist harridan, as capable of grand talk as he is.
For Mamet, language is power, and Carol (improbably) learns to use the lingo of victimization as effectively as the con-man protagonist used psyhochatter in House of Games. (That was a battle of the sexes too, but a subtler one than this.) If Carol is a con artist, though, then Oleanna‘s whole premise—“whatever side you take, you’re wrong,” promises the ad tag-line—is a con too. The film is just another Mamet power trip, and the issue of sexual harassment is merely a trendy gloss.