Claude Chabrol’s thrillers balance, sometimes artfully, between parody and homage. Traditionalist film buffs may prefer his efforts that can be labeled “Hitchcockian,” but the more interesting ones give the old-line Hollywood suspense picture an odd, sometimes comic, spin. The underseen and underappreciated The Cry of the Owl, which made a brief appearance at the Biograph last year, was a murder mystery without a murder, set among people none too sure they wanted to be alive anyway; now Betty refracts the escapades of an amoral young woman through a Resnaislike prism, giving a fundamentally pedestrian tale a wealth of unexpected facets.
As choreographed by Chabrol, who adapted the screenplay from a novel by prodigious detective-story author Georges Simenon, Betty is such a masterful piece of storytelling that it’s not till the film is over that it registers that it’s not such a great story: The wide-eyed, waifish-yet-chic Betty (Marie Trintignant) is introduced in Paris, already drunk and being lured by a man who says he’s a doctor to a strange hangout, the Hole, in Versailles. Chabrol suavely establishes the curious atmosphere of the restaurant, a haven for social outsiders; then, at a crucial moment, the young woman is rescued from her ominous escort by an older woman, Laure, a Hole regular who also drinks a little. (Laure is played by Stéphane Audran, ex-wife of both Chabrol and her co-star’s father, actor Jean-Louis Trintignant.) Laure takes Betty back to her fancy hotel, the Trianon in Versailles, where the older woman lets her guest alternately sleep it off and tie it back on as she gradually reveals the circumstances that led her to the Hole that night.
Chabrol’s exemplary use of flashbacks to reveal certain pieces of the puzzle is the film’s principal asset, so it’s best to leave the details of Betty’s past—and what little is shown of her future—untold. A sexual adventuress without remorse or compassion, Betty has recently been banished from an aristocratic family, but her previous mischief, despite its far-reaching consequences, seems minor compared to what’s yet to come.
Simenon derived his novel from the imagined biography of a drunken woman he met in 1960 at a nightclub near the Trianon; both the origin of the tale and the time frame seem about right. The characterization of the film’s protagonist suggests once-shocking and now-quaint words like “nymphomaniac,” relics from the early days of the sexual revolution, when a ruthless, ravishing creature like Betty might have seemed both fascinating and frightening, rather than merely a promiscuous brat. Though her stuffy husband and hateful mother-in-law (whose bourgeois demeanor is also very ’60s) are far from sympathetic, it’s impossible to blame anyone but Betty for the absurd wreckage she’s made of her life.
Unlike The Cry of the Owl, Betty doesn’t linger; it’s an entertainment with no implications worth mulling over. Still, it’s engagingly playful: Betty’s mother-in-law complains that she just saw a movie, “something about an abortionist. I didn’t like it in the least,” a reference to Chabrol’s Story of Women; after spilling something on him at their first meeting, the to-be-tainted Betty asks her future husband, “Shall I remove the stain?”
The film’s most frolicsome aspect, though, is its fragmented structure; Chabrol de- and reconstructs the events of Betty’s fall with an audacious glee worthy of Resnais’ Providence. The pivotal scene is revisited again and again, shot from different angles and different starting points, until the centrality of the film’s title finally be comes clear. There are developments yet to come, but when that crucial moment is reassembled the film provides a formal pleasure mere narrative can’t rival. But then Betty is much less interesting than Betty; it’s a deft, rollicking fugue that transfigures a worn-out theme.
In the first few minutes of The Ballad of Little Jo, Josephine Monaghan narrowly escapes two rapists who have “bought” from her a peddler she befriended; runs a desperate, stumbling course through unfamiliar wilderness; makes the fateful decision to try to pass as a man; and slices open her cheek to create a scar that will distract onlookers from her feminine features. This prologue, which also quickly flashbacks to the affair and illegitimate child that led her wealthy father to throw her out of her home back East, promises drama aplenty, but in fact the theatrics are almost over. “Little Jo” Monaghan (Rich in Love‘s Suzy Amis) moves on West, finds that the seclusion of sheep ranching suits her (and her imposture), and lives manfully ever after.
It’s not that Little Jo, the third film by writer/director Maggie Greenwald, is uneventful. Indeed, Jo faces a series of crises, from the realization that her seemingly buttoned-down friend Percy (a hammy Ian McKellen) is a violent misogynist who likes occasionally to get drunk and brutalize a prostitute, to Percy’s discovery that Jo’s a woman and his subsequent attempt to blackmail her, to a ruthless corporation’s attempt to dispossess Jo and her neighbors in order to assemble vast acreage for cattle ranching. The film, though, is frequently as distant as Jo, who fellow sheep-rancher Frank Badger (Bo Hopkins) wonderingly calls “the unfriendliest fellow I ever met.”
Shot with natural light that conveys both the luminosity of the wide-open Montana locations and the cramped dimness of frontier-town interiors, Little Jo is fine when it’s just Amis and the camera, perhaps joined by some sheep and sheepdogs and the intermittent coyote. When depicting the protagonist’s relationships with others, though, the film seldom adds up. Jo, for example, finds the Russian-immigrant family she’s befriended massacred by cattle-company goons, and watches without interfering as the thugs kill the family’s last living member. (Her response is to go home, put on a dress, and make a pie.) The implication is that the company is just too big for Jo to wrangle with, but when the enforcers later attack her and Frank, she blows them away without hesitation—and without any repercussions.
An opening title explains that Little Jo was “inspired by a real life”; there really was a Josephine Monaghan, one of several documented cases of 19th-century American women who posed as men in order to lead less circumscribed lives, but little is known about her. Greenwald is fastidious about period detail—the coarseness of hinterland food, clothing, manners, life—but steps wildly out of time to suit contemporary sensibilities. Most egregiously, the director presents her heroine with an ideal, if unlikely, lover.
Rather than have Jo lead a life of quiet romantic desperation, Greenwald introduces former railroad worker Tinman Wong (David Chung), a prototypical sensitive man who Jo rescues from a possible lynching. Theirs is an alliance of “others” that probably works better in 20th-century theory than it would have in 19th-century practice: She’s the only white guy in the area who’s not prejudiced against the Chinese, while he’s the only Chinaman of his generation who doesn’t believe in male superiority. (Plus, as Greenwald’s camera indicates by caressing Tinman’s well-defined torso, Jo digs his body.)
Amis’ reticent performance expresses Jo’s predicament; too bad Greenwald didn’t leave it at that. Instead, in its final reels, The Ballad of Little Jo gets all chatty about its theme: “Who is this society girl?” asks Tinman of a picture of Josephine, adding implausibly, “I like you much better as you are.” Later, Jo wonders, “Why can’t we just live as we are?” It’s a question a subtler film wouldn’t have asked out loud.
After making a questing-yuppie melodrama as clean as the lines of its characters’ furniture and as contemporary as its videotape footage, a mock-paranoid trifle that paid tribute to German expressionism, and a sepia-toned Depression-era fable of youthful self-reliance, Stephen Soderbergh can be credited with a certain facility of style. Substance, however, is another matter. Probably because it’s based on A.E. Hotchner’s Depression-era childhood memoir, Soderbergh’s King of the Hill is meatier than his previous work. It’s still glib, though, and its blend of naturalism and fabulism is far from smooth.
An art house Home Alone, King recounts the adventures of 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), who must fend for himself after his younger brother, Sullivan, is sent to live with relatives, his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) goes to a sanitarium, and his father (Jeroen Krabbe) hits the road to sell watches throughout the Midwest. The sort of earnest youthful liar audiences are supposed to find charming, Aaron is introduced telling his classmates of his imagined association with Charles Lindbergh; later, his gifts for subterfuge and deceit will help him survive being parentless and penniless in a St. Louis hotel whose residents are frequently locked out of their rooms for not having paid their rent.
Aaron is sometimes aided by his light-fingered pal, Lester (Adrien Brody), his teacher (Karen Allen, in a more sympathetic version of her Malcolm X role), and Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray), an alcoholic hotel neighbor who attempts to keep up appearances until the end. Finally, though, the boy is alone. Seizing the head-of-the-family role from his absent, ineffectual father (who’s no more prone to self-delusion than is his older son), Aaron has Sullivan sent back in an attempt to reconstruct the family. His bold move, which follows a unsuccessful attempt to breed canaries and a graduation party in which his tissue of lies is shredded, is no solution, though. Both Aaron and the continuity have to be rescued by a pater ex machina, and the film ends with parents and children unexpectedly reunited and Depression money woes suddenly banished.
A hymn to imagination that features such scenes as one where the hungry Aaron cuts out, eats, and attempts to savor pictures of food from a magazine, the film itself comes up short on invention. Its villains, a cop who’s too friendly with the local loan sharks and abellhop who seizes hotel residents’ rooms and possessions, are paper- thin themselves, while Aaron’s youthful resolve sometimes seems more a narrative device than a character trait. King of the Hill again demonstrates that Soderbergh’s interest is lies and delusions, but the director’s own fabrications have yet to be worthy of his theme.