City Paper is not for tourists
Most cinematic biographies try to tie up their narratives altogether too neatly, so it’s intriguing that Tom & Viv does not. I’m not sure, though, that ambiguity is actually what director Brian Gilbert and scripters Michael Hastings and Adrian Hodges had in mind.
The movie’s very first scene, after all, strains under the narration of Maurice Haigh-Wood (Tim Dutton), who quickly sketches the relationship between his sister Vivienne (Miranda Richardson) and her American beau, Tom Eliot (Willem Dafoe). Such helpful voice-over is usually designed to explain everything, and indeed Maurice wastes no time in informing us that “poor Vivienne misunderstood [Tom] completely” and that “tight little England is just what Tom wanted.”
The lamentable marriage of a free spirit and a fledgling prig is not all of Tom & Viv‘s story, however. The movie concentrates on its characterization of Viv, which is controversial (at least to Eliot’s defenders) and difficult to corroborate. As for Tom, Dafoe captures little other than his faux-British reserve, which is surely not all there was to the man who admired Ezra Pound and the French symbolists and wrote modernist touchstone The Waste Land before turning to the more austere style of Four Quartets.
Those two Eliot poems are the only ones quoted in Tom & Viv, and their use was allowed only grudgingly by his estate, which objects to the portrait of the poet advanced by Hastings, first in a play of the same name and now in this film. His thesis is that Vivienne, who was ultimately institutionalized, suffered from a simple hormonal imbalance, and that her treatment by her doctors and her husband was far worse than the ailment itself. The British-born Gilbert, whose Not Without My Daughter depicted a different sort of trapped woman, was a logical choice to direct.
Hastings’ thesis may be fundamentally correct, but the film is full of incidents and interpretations that seem dubious. Tom is alternately portrayed as a stuffed shirt embarrassed by Viv’s antics and outbreaks and as a dilettante led astray by the Bloomsbury “riff-raff.” The portrait of Virginia Woolf, presented as one of Viv’s principal enemies, is unconvincing, as is the notion that Tom’s pal, the Bishop of Oxford, would declaim Latin when formally accepting the poet into the church—a strange gesture for a leader of the Anglican congregation, which after all had broken with Rome some centuries earlier. (For that matter, would the upper-crust Viv have been likely to utter the phrase, “cor blimey”?)
Tom & Viv doesn’t always persuade, but it does have its compelling aspects. Foremost among them is Richardson’s performance as the tormented yet true Viv, whose doctors load her up with opiates and alcoholic elixirs as they explain (to Tom, not her) that she “can’t control her menstrual life” and suffers from “moral insanity.” Confronted by her accusers in a scene that transplants Gethsemane to ’30s London, Viv is locked away under the “Lunacy Act,” which denies her a passport, suffrage, driver’s license, credit, and the right to petition for her own release. If this account of Viv’s psychological crucifixion is fair, then Gilbert’s final flourish—intercutting between Viv, Maurice, and Tom, all glimpsed through frames or gates symbolic of imprisonment—is far too easy on the two of them who didn’t end up physically incarcerated.
Colonel Chabert opens with a scene of soldiers stripping the bodies of their fallen comrades after the 1807 battle of Eylau. Set to some magisterial Beethoven and elegantly composed in cold tones of white, blue, and gray—director Yves Angelo was the cinematographer on such films as Un Coeur en Hiver and The Accompanist—the scene is chillingly evocative. It promises a much more powerful experience than the film subsequently delivers.
Chabert was adapted by Angelo and co-writer Jean Cosmos from one of the many lesser-known novels of Balzac, but it doesn’t provide the sprawling canvas typical of the novelist’s work. That battalion of corpses aside, this is a chamber piece, with only a few essential characters. The central struggle is between Chabert (Gérard Depardieu), who turns up in Paris 10 years after his reported death at Eylau, and his remarried “widow,” Countess Ferraud (Fanny Ardant); the conduit between the two is their mutual lawyer, the pragmatic, workaholic Derville (Fabrice Luchini).
With Depardieu playing an enigmatic man returning from war and attempting to claim his estate, Chabert naturally suggests The Return of Martin Guerre. There’s no intrinsic mystery here, though, and precious little discord. Chabert doesn’t expect to resume his marriage to the countess, who now has two children with her second husband, Count Ferraud (Andre Dussollier); he merely wants a share of the fortune his wife inherited upon his alleged death. That, however, is more than she is prepared to yield; her former Napoleonic connections are a roadblock to her husband’s ambitions of a peerage, and she’s concerned that without her wealth the count will divorce her.
Only a few sparks fly between Chabert and the countess, which is perhaps why Angelo keeps cutting to the battle of Eylau. These flashbacks are shrewdly presented, and may even support a theme: France’s transition from a chivalrous empire where bighearted soldiers mattered to a modern monarchy where hardheaded lawyers have the upper hand. The characteristically intense Depardieu makes Chabert a powerful talisman of regret, but surely this theme was tattered even in Balzac’s day; it’s been a long time since Napoleon was commonly seen as an improvement over the kings he temporarily displaced.
Ultimately, it’s unclear why Chabert ever challenged his wife, or why Angelo and Cosmos focused on this chapter of the story; the colonel’s return from the dead and life behind enemy lines, explained away briefly, seem more interesting than the halfhearted struggle for the estate. Angelo keeps his camera darting and swooping throughout, but as in the better known of the features he’s shot, this film’s exquisite surface is largely free of the ripples of conflict; the crucial difference is that, in Chabert, there’s not much conflict beneath the surface either.
Assembled from bits of various western epics, The Quick and the Dead quotes, invokes, or at least suggests Shane, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Unforgiven. Watching it, however, I thought of the Runaways.
Friendly reviewers have suggested that director Sam Raimi’s latest live-action comic book is a “spoof,” and even that the film proves star (and co-producer) Sharon Stone’s worth as a “comedienne.” That Quick is not serious doesn’t necessarily mean it’s funny, though, and Stone’s taciturn turn as a gunslinger usually called “The Lady” (cf. Eastwood’s Man With No Name) is not especially amusing. Indeed, the principal thing that distinguishes Quick from Stone’s previous roles as chilly, glamorous killers is the lack of a sex scene. (One was shot, but it was cut.) Whether wielding six-gun or ice-pick, Stone’s Lady is still a predator—the sort of coldblooded avenger traditionally associated with men, contained in a former Playboy model’s body.
As is revealed by a series of clunky flashbacks, The Lady has a long-standing grudge against the clunkily named John Herod (Gene Hackman), the boss of the equally clunkily named town of Redemption. After a mythic lone-rider introduction, she arrives in town just in time for a quick-draw contest, in which Herod faces the winner of a series of one-on-one gunfights. (“At least this way I get to face my enemies,” he explains.) Other contestants include the cocky, boyish Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio), who might be Herod’s son; theme-dressed card shark/shooter Ace (Lance Henriksen); and Cort (Proof and Romper Stomper‘s Russell Crowe), a former Herod henchman who has renounced the gun but is forced to participate.
These showdowns are staged according to NCAA-style elimination rules (literally “sudden death”), which means that scripter Simon Moore has essentially transformed the western into a sports movie—and you know how dull those are. Terse to a fault, Quick is mostly enlivened by its anachronistic dialogue—“he’s so hot,” coos a young whore of the Kid, and the film’s first word is The Lady’s mumbled “asshole”—and by its cartoonish special effects. Raimi can’t resist overusing his bravura effect—a gunshot wound so large and so clean you can see the sky through it—so that it’s already tired by the big finish.
The effect that really sputters, though, is the role-reversal premise. The Lady does stick up for a barely teen-age girl who’s being fondled by a foul old lecher, but otherwise there’s little to distinguish her from her more sensitive male counterparts; by comparison, the heroines of the dreary Bad Girls look like feminist exemplars. That’s why the movie recalls the Runaways; it lacks the subversive wit to offer anything more than a dull mirror image of traditional macho posturing. And if Quick is the Runaways, The Lady’s not even Joan Jett—she’s Lita Ford.