In a Prague alley, a man pulls a dismembered leg from a trash can. One end of the leg appears to be wooden, but the other seems —both to the viewer and the dog that pursues it—to be actual flesh. This offhand incident encapsulates Jan Svankmajer’s technique for retelling the Faust legend: A riot of mutability, the Czech writer/director’s Faust regularly (and irregularly) shifts from claymation to live-action to puppetry, from city to countryside to netherworld.
Only the second feature-length film to result from Svankmajer’s 30-year, mostly underground career as a stop-action surrealist, Faust takes its text(s) from versions of the tale by Goethe, Marlowe, Gounod, and Grabbe. (The mostly silent characters only speak, apparently, when mouthing words from those works, an effect underscored by the fact that the film is dubbed into English by one actor, Andrew Sachs.) The director’s central character, however, owes more to Kafka than Goethe. Led into the events simply by a flier handed him on the street, this Faust (Czech stage veteran Petr Cepak, who died soon after the film was completed) is not a bold intellectual adventurer willing to challenge the devil; he’s just an average guy thrust into playing the role. Like so many Eastern Europeans for so long, he’s caught up in inscrutable events beyond his control.
Faust begins in the real world, and its protagonist at first is reluctant to leave it. Initially, instead of following the map that’s handed to him, he goes home, only to confront a few odd portents: a doll’s head slammed rhythmically in a door; a chicken inexplicably roaming his apartment; an egg, baked inside a loaf of bread, that when cracked instantly summons the night. Eventually, the man accepts his enigmatic calling and goes to the appointed site, where he puts on a costume and begins to read Faust’s lines.
This character is both playing Faust—sometimes in front of an audience, sometimes on the stage of the real world—and embodying him. He sometimes turns into a puppet, and sometimes sees his own face on Mephisto, the herald of Lucifer. His fate is Faust’s, yet when he signs a pact with the devil—writing with blood drawn from a wooden arm—he’s merely playing a part. This Faust is not Goethe’s romantic hero, and Svankmajer calls his rendition “the civil version of the myth.”
In the pre-Goethe versions of Faust, the title character was not a scholar but a necromancer or alchemist, a role that suits Svankmajer better than it does his commonplace protagonist. It’s the director who’s forever transforming things and conjuring fantastic, stunning apparitions: a glass-bound fetus that develops into a baby in a matter of seconds, disembodied hands that grow from the ground to beat on drums, a burning cart that rolls toward Faust and then out of the theater (pursued by the comic relief, a security guard with a fire extinguisher). Svankmajer has set these outlandish occurrences in everyday Prague, but their pertinence to everyday life is unclear.
Though it eventually reaches a resolution, Faust is not exactly a shapely piece of storytelling. Used to making shorter films, Svankmajer stops and starts his narrative, interjecting such eccentric asides as a scene of grain-harvesting ballerinas. The director’s modern sensibility clearly has little to do with Goethe’s 19th-century one. To Svankmajer, the notion of mastering the world is preposterous; the director uses his consummate control of his universe to show that the universe is uncontrollable.
Reconfiguring Thelma and Louise for viewers who don’t like any appreciable conflict in their movies, Camilla sends two women—one in her 20s, one in her 80s—on a mild-mannered rampage from Georgia to Toronto. It’s the kind of hegira that could have been really irritating, if only director Deepa Mehta and scripter Paul Quarrington had thought to give the central characters some personality. Instead, Camilla (Jessica Tandy) and Freda (Bridget Fonda) just amble from one innocuous escapade to another—fibbing! giggling! skinny-dipping!—as the soundtrack tries to hype the events with such burned-out songs as “Born to Be Wild.”
Camilla and Freda meet when the younger woman and her husband Vince (Elias Koteas) rent the older woman’s Georgia coastal island cottage for a vacation. Freda is an aspiring songwriter burdened with stage fright and low self-esteem; Camilla is a retired musician who blithely lies about the glories of her former career. “I wish I had your attitude,” Freda tells Camilla soon after they meet; “Help yourself,” Camilla replies. This, of course, is just what the film intends to persuade Freda to do. Lest anyone doubt the old woman’s therapeutic effect, the script even has Freda deliver a testimonial: “I think you’re fucking amazing,” she tells Camilla in their last scene together.
Camilla is both an incorrigible liar and incisive truth-teller, two annoying habits that are supposed to be endearing; soon enough, she’s informing her young friend that the latter has “a loveless marriage.” As the duo makes its way toward a Brahms concert in Toronto and Camilla’s old lover (Hume Cronyn)—with Vince and Camilla’s porn-film-director son Harold (Maury Chaukin) in warm pursuit—the old woman charms everyone from some egregiously stereotypical black resort-hotel workers to a kindred spirit, a lighthearted prevaricator named Hunt (Graham Greene). (When Freda figures out that Hunt is a charlatan, however, she becomes alarmed; apparently male deceit is more dangerous than the female variety.)
Despite the presence of such New Canadian Cinema figures as Koteas and (in a bit part) Don McKellar, this Canadian/British co-production is a throwback to the days when virtually all Canadian films were numbingly bland. Camilla and Freda’s insurrection is as modest as Mehta and Quarrington’s work, and about as stirring. Ultimately, Camilla poses as a tribute to the late Tandy, whose last role this is. That’s fitting, but in the long term this won’t be one of the movies for which she’s remembered.
Since Losing Isaiah is the second awkwardly well-meaning film Stephen Gyllenhaal has made from a screenplay by Naomi Foner, his wife, it probably won’t do anything for his domestic tranquility to suggest that Gyllenhaal is a better director than he is a judge of scripts. Nonetheless, there are individual sequences in Isaiah that are as cinematically fresh as the overall project is hopelessly stale, which argues that the director did his best to animate the predictable material Foner adapted from Seth Margolis’ novel.
Born to an African-American crack addict in a nightmarish Chicago neighborhood, Isaiah is lost twice, first to his mother Khaila Richards (Halle Berry), who leaves him in the trash as she goes to get a hit. (Naturally, he’s discovered just as the trash compacter is about to crush his newborn skull.) Adopted by formidable (and white) social worker Margaret Lewin (Jessica Lange) and her wimpish husband Charlie (David Strathairn), Isaiah (Marc John Jeffries) grows to be a bright-eyed toddler with a credible relationship with his teen-age stepsister Hannah (Daisy Egan). Then Khaila does a spectacular job of cleaning up and sets an Afrocentric attorney (Samuel L. Jackson) to the task of winning back her son. Thus Isaiah will, presumably, be lost again, either by Khaila or Margaret.
Gyllenhaal provides vivid disorientation scenes for both Khaila and Isaiah, but most of the proceedings are stolid, and not always believable. Khaila’s transformation is staggering: She turns into Halle Berry, whose former-beauty-queen looks are so striking that Margaret is called upon to weep, “She’s so beautiful!” Yeah, but would Khaila’s attorney—smarmily omniscient about both his client’s and the Lewins’ sexual indiscretions—really have allowed her to wear those form-hugging dresses to court? And would Margaret’s attorney (La Tanya Richardson, Jackson’s wife) really not have prepared her client for questions about the black role models the Lewins are providing for Isaiah? For that matter, wouldn’t the significance of black role models have already occurred to a white-liberal social worker?
Isaiah is defined in terms of black and white, but the racial divide can only be so lucid because there is no other issue: Both mothers are clearly responsible and loving. As the film moves toward its glib compromise ending, it becomes increasingly irrelevant. The problem facing most abandoned kids, after all, is not a surfeit of perfect parents.