There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Almost certainly not a trustworthy portrait of the plight of single women in Germany today, writer/director Doris Dörrie’s Nobody Loves Me is nonetheless charming and perhaps even pertinent. In outline, the film is nothing more than the sort of lonely-gal comedy Americans regularly produce: A solitary woman, about to turn 30, faces life, death, and romantic disappointment with the help of a wacky gay-male neighbor. In this case, however, both God and the devil are in the details.
Fanny Fink (Maria Schrader, a Mary Louise Parker look-alike in a Mary Louise Parkerish role) has few friends and no romantic entanglements. Her most intimate moments come at work, where she frisks airline passengers before they board their flights. She also has what American guidance counselors call a bad attitude: Taping a self-introduction for a video-dating service, she comically describes the course of a typical relationship and concludes that “I wouldn’t fall in love with me if I were you.”
Fanny gets little support from her mother, a self-absorbed author of popular novels, while her lone friend seems to value Fanny mostly as a baby sitter. Once she’s finished building her own coffin and being buried alive in it, Fanny will have finished her principal extracurricular activity, a course in “conscious dying” that includes suicide tips. No wonder she’s drawn to Orfeo (Pierre Sanoussi-Bliss), a neighbor in the decrepit Cologne apartment block where she lives. Though initially intimidated by his Senegalese-style white body painting and his recordings of thunderous African drums, she soon comes to accept him in one of his roles, that of witch doctor and fortuneteller.
As Fanny will later discover, Orfeo has another calling: At night, he’s a female impersonator in a local gay club, lip-syncing to Edith Piaf. An exotic novelty at the club, the part-African Orfeo is less popular on the city streets, where he tries to make money reading tarot cards and prognosticating. (When business is slow, he switches his sign to “Need Money to Go Back to Africa,” which usually summons a few marks from racist passers-by.) He’s also a few months behind with the rent, which makes his case a priority with the building’s new manager, Lothar Sticker (Michael von Au).
Throwing bones to augur Fanny’s romantic future, Orfeo describes Lothar as the man of her destiny. Perhaps Orfeo hopes that Fanny’s pursuit of Lothar will distract the building manager from collecting the rent, but the suggestion is a troublemaking one. Lothar turns out to be a vain, callous philanderer, albeit one with a little impotence problem. Spurned and betrayed, Fanny turns back to Orfeo, who’s suffering heartbreak of his own. They create a tight, if unconventional, pseudo-family unit of their own.
Though presumably intended as a provocation in uptight Germany, the character of Orfeo seems a little quaint by U.S. standards, and the film’s ending is as sweet as any sitcom’s. Still, Dörrie’s portraits of Fanny, Orfeo, and the building’s other eccentrics—whose peculiarities are contrasted with the culturally sanctioned outlandishness of the annual Cologne carnival—is as lively, funny, and fundamentally humane as those in the director’s only previous American commercial release, Men. Nobody hardly needs to end with the cast singing together jovially as the credits roll; the film’s warmth and good nature are established well before that.
Judging from Total Eclipse, screenwriter Christopher Hamp ton would not seem to have a knack for portraying the unorthodox sexual relationships of proto-modern literary figures. Yet Carrington, Hampton’s directorial debut as well as the latest unearthing of one of his ancient scripts, is surprisingly agreeable. Perhaps it’s because hero Lytton Strachey’s witticisms are so easily transformed into sparkling dialogue, while his then-controversial quirks (homosexuality, pacifism) never flirted with the psychodrama of Rimbaud and Verlaine.
One reason this works is, of course, Jonathan Pryce, a fine actor despite those irritating TV car ads. Perpetually wrapped in winter clothes and a bushy beard, he seems to inhabit the crabby, narcissistic, but mild-mannered Strachey. (Apparently, there’s even a physical resemblance between the two, although Pryce’s blue-collar North Wales background has little to do with Strachey’s indolent Bloomsbury existence.) Altogether unexpected, however, is the performance of Emma Thompson, who plays the title (but secondary) character, brashly self-effacing painter Dora Carrington. She’s just the sort of oddball likely to inspire the most annoying of Thompson’s quivering tics, but here the actress effectively underplays. (Can this subtlety be to the credit of Hampton, who stepped in as director at the last minute, after Mike Newell unexpectedly withdrew?)
Strachey was a member of the Bloomsbury set, and Carrington (as she preferred to be called) knew that group as well. Carrington, however, is set principally in two country refuges where Strachey and Carrington set up housekeeping and lived for most of the 16 years they were acquainted. A virgin when they meet in 1915, Carrington seems quite content to declare her undying love for the older, prematurely frail Strachey—and thus avoid the sexual demands of her disgruntled boyfriend Mark Gertler (Rufus Sewell). Strachey is a “bugger,” Gertler informs Carrington, and once it’s explained to her what that means it’s fine with her; after all, she informs Strachey, she always wanted to be a boy.
Though the duo’s relationship is always platonic, they later share lover Ralph Partridge (Steven Waddington), who Carrington marries in order to keep both men in her ménage. Partridge and Strachey eventually find other lovers (female and male, respectively), as does Carrington, who takes up first with Partridge’s friend Gerald Brenan (Samuel West) and then with yachtsman Beacus Penrose (Jeremy Northam). By the time Strachey’s health begins its final decline, however, he and Carrington are alone together.
Exactly when Carrington came to like sex is unclear, as are some of the other details of the duo’s unconventional erotic lives. Though it’s forthright about Strachey’s gayness, Carrington seems a little squeamish about depicting it in practice; the film portrays his lovers, but of the two, only Carrington is actually seen making love. (And only with men—her bisexuality has been written out of the script altogether.) Carrington, meanwhile, aspires to be nothing more than Strachey’s dutiful wife; “I’m your pen-wiper,” she informs him, an obsequious sentiment that certainly wasn’t as ahead of its time as her controversial bobbed hair.
Strachey’s bone-dry bon mots continue even as he’s dying, and Carrington greets her beloved’s demise with decisive but unhysterical action. Carrington is so genteel, in fact, that its makers engaged Michael Nyman to provide a score suitable to one of Peter Greenaway’s cerebral outings; unfortunately, the composer’s work is frequently as overbearing as its recycling of motifs from previous scores is distracting. (In some scenes, the music is so emphatically Nymanesque that I figured they must have hired an imitator to provide it.) Still, the soundtrack is a rare instance of blatancy in a film that admirably captures the quietly ironic tone of Lytton Strachey’s voice.
With his first feature, director Noah Baumbach has achieved a remarkable correspondence between subject and form: The protagonists of Kicking and Screaming, a quartet of aimless recent college graduates, are not as interesting as they think they are—and neither is the film.
As the terse directorial bio in Kicking‘s press kit does not say, Baumbach is the son of film critics Georgia Brown (Village Voice) and Jonathan Baumbach (formerly of the Partisan Review). That explains the attention the movie has gotten in New York, but not the director’s relatively modest ambitions. The ad campaign and the presence of Metropolitan and Barcelona star Chris Eigeman suggests that Baumbach aspires to be Whit Stillman, and the film itself doesn’t argue for any grander intent. The tale of four 22-year-olds who can’t bring themselves to depart an unspecified campus even though they’ve graduated, Kicking is precious and pretentious, but in a lackadaisical sort of way.
Opening at a graduation-night fete, the film quickly provides the sort of character details that, it will turn out, it’s unable to expand upon: Aspiring writer Grover (Josh Hamilton) is peeved because his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo) has actual post-graduation plans: to study in Prague. Max (Eigeman) is cynical, caustic, wealthy, and unmotivated. Otis (Carlos Jacott) wears pajama tops in place of shirts, and can’t sustain a reflexive denial of this (or anything else) for more than a few seconds. Skippy (Jason Wiles) can’t bring himself to leave campus while there are still courses he hasn’t taken. The somewhat older Chet (Eric Stoltz) is an illustration of the danger this quartet faces: The perennial student unable to finish his thesis, he has no intention of ever leaving.
To the extent that the film has a focus, the presumably semi-autobiographical Grover is it: He’s the only character who has an on-screen parent (Elliott Gould as a dithering divorced dad), and his struggle to either forget or follow Jane is the principal dramatic thread. Theirs is the only relationship that rates flashbacks, although these passages’ visual style is more annoyingly contrived than their narrative content is revealing.
In what passes for self-criticism, the women in this demimonde are more mobilized than their mates. Though Baumbach focuses on such girlish traits as her constant toying with her retainer, Jane wins points for heading for Prague, even if the city is (as Grover protests) “a cliché.” Miami (Parker Posey) decisively cheats on and then dumps the feckless Skippy, while Max’s weak drive is nearly swamped by that of Kate (Cara Buono), the pushy teen-age townie he starts dating. In narrative terms, however, none of these assertive women exists as anything more than a contrast to the becalmed guys.
Indeed, all the female life force strikes a discordant note in this latter-day drawing-room milieu, where both the situations and the dialogue, though intermittently amusing, are dryly artificial. It seems altogether apt that one of the most animated sequences comes when Otis scores a job in a video store.