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Avision of a lost world, The Silences of the Palace unfolds slowly, but not too slowly. After it establishes itself, the film’s deliberate pace and hushed tone seem just right. “In the palace, we were taught one rule: silence,” explains the film’s heroine, so writer/director Moufida Tlatli’s tentative violations of that rule are quietly shattering.
When we meet Alia (Ghalia Lacroix), she’s adult and more or less on her own. A singer, she’s often hired to perform at weddings, where she sings as she contemplates the fact that her longtime lover, Lotfi (Sami Bouajila), has refused to marry her and is currently insisting that she have an abortion. Her mood is interrupted by the news of the death of Sidi Ali (Kamel Fazaa), the former bey (a Tunisian noble) in whose household she grew up. When she goes to the palace to pay her respects, the past overtakes her.
The bulk of the film is in flashback, as the younger Alia (Hend Sabri) begins to understand the palace’s paternalistic power structure. Alia is a close friend of her contemporary, Sidi Ali’s daughter Sarra, and is so favored by the bey that she sometimes forgets her place. (When a photographer stages an official family portrait, he has to order Alia out of the frame.) Indeed, Alia may also be Sidi Ali’s daughter, although her mother Khedija (Amel Hedhili) steadfastly refuses to name the father of her child.
As the newly adolescent Alia is beginning to realize, the attractive female servants in the bey’s household are expected to do more than cook and clean; she glimpses her mother making love with her master. An enthusiastic performer, Alia is thrilled to be asked to sing at one of Sidi Ali’s parties. Khedija, however, wants her daughter to stay out of sight in the servants’ quarters, so that it won’t occur to the bey or his even less savory brother to take her as a concubine.
Silences is set in the ’50s, as colonial rule is ending and the beys’ privileged position is threatened. The war for independence has already begun, although inside the palace, social revolution still seems a theoretical issue. In a few years, Khedija’s sexual servitude will be obsolete; Alia is already being courted by a teacher who hopes to free—by teaching her to read and write—rather than enslave her. As the grown Alia’s plight reveals, however, the fall of the beys did not radically transform women’s status in Tunisian society.
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In her directorial debut, veteran editor Tlatli shows the assurance earned in her 25 years in the French and Tunisian film industries. Working from a script she co-wrote with Nouri Bouzid, she elegantly balances the exotic and the everyday, the universal and the specific. With its rich visual and narrative detail, Silences evokes a vanished way of life, yet it never seems merely picturesque. Though the film doesn’t mention the pressures that Islamic fundamentalists are currently putting on secular Tunisia, Alia’s tale makes it abundantly clear that the country’s past is not dead.
Indeed, it’s the film’s dense tapestry of oppositions—past and pres ent, master and servant, gentility and coarseness—that provides its texture. The film captures both the palace’s tranquil insularity and the buzzing activity beneath that quietude. Short on emphatic moments, Silences instead builds painstakingly to a cumulative impact more powerful than a dozen Hollywood blowups.
Recounting the final days of an alcoholic who has decided to drink himself under one last table, Leaving Las Vegas earnestly resists Hollywood’s usual insistence on redemption. That doesn’t mean, however, that writer/director Mike Figgis’ view of protagonist Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) is entirely clear-eyed. Indeed, this film has its own brand of whiskey-marinated romanticism; it makes Ben’s death wish seem almost as glamorous as Declan Quinn’s rich super-16mm cinematography.
From the moment Ben is introduced, blithely whistling as he fills a supermarket cart in an L.A. liquor emporium, it’s clear that he is not to be saved. Still, he’s not an altogether disturbing figure. A mostly happy drunk, he seems to have reached a state of alcoholic enlightenment that’s only occasionally disturbed by outbursts of temper or—most disorienting of all—moments of sobriety.
Though they’re clearly beginning to tire of him, Ben’s friends and associates fundamentally like him. When his boss finally fires him, it’s with the guilt-allaying gambit of a large severance check. Ben seems to find his dismissal, like the other evidence of his decline, liberating. He burns his possessions, abandons his home, and sets out on a fast-mo car trip to a Vegas that’s glisteningly abstracted by 16mm’s shallow focus.
In the gambling resort, Ben soon happens upon Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a beautiful hooker. Like Ben, Sera is debased but doesn’t look it. Enslaved by a nasty Russian pimp (Julian Sands) who will conveniently disappear halfway through the film, Sera sells her body to drunken casinogoers and gets beaten as her reward. (Her most humiliating moment comes, however, when she tries to pick up a middle-aged family man who’s offended by her proposition.) Just to demonstrate that he knows that hers is a dangerous game, Figgis subjects Sera to a nasty rape by three young thugs. Still, with her college-girl looks eroticized by a Vivienne Westwood wardrobe, Sera seems intended as an icon of female sexual self-determination.
An alco-spiritual adept, Ben is beyond sex. He wants Sera for companionship, kindness, and a bit of mothering, and she’s enigmatically willing to oblige. (Sera’s occasional comments to an unseen listener don’t really explain Ben’s appeal to her.) She insists Ben move in with her, and even instinctively fulfills a fantasy he has already voiced (though not to her), sloppily chugging whiskey and—a boozy madonna—spilling streams of the liquor down her breasts for him to lick up. As a nonjudgmental helpmate to an unrepentant drunk, Sera offers succor that goes beyond enabling to angelic. When Ben finally asks, “How can you be so good?,” he’s only echoing a question most viewers will have already asked.
Ultimately, Ben is faithful only to the bottle, and his pickled self-absorption leads to a split with Sera. Like more conventional lovers in more conventional movies, however, the two won’t stay separated for long. Sera can’t rescue Ben—that’s against his and the film’s rules—but she can be there when he takes his last shot.
Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by John O’Brien—who gave up drinking only to shoot himself—Vegas apparently means to chart a contemporary season in hell. The mood established by Figgis’ jazz-ballad score and Quinn’s darkly luminous palette is too studied, however, and Cage’s performance is as mannered as Sera’s indulgence is incredible. Decorated with ostentatious cameos—Julian Lennon tends bar, Lou Rawls drives a cab, Valeria Golino spurns Ben in a bar—the film is more in-group than down-and-out.
Made after two studio films, Mr. Jones and The Browning Version, over which Figgis lost control, Vegas is a compelling low-budget calling card. It proves the director a master of style, if not necessarily the style most apt to his story: Though Ben’s alcoholic monomania gives the movie its intensity, Vegas declines to follow it into the gutter. All drunks are ultimately sloppy drunks, but to the end Figgis confoundingly insists on maintaining the beauty of Ben and Sera’s loserdom.
Why does The Doom Generation feature decapitation by shotgun, castration by garden shears, and rampaging frat-boy types who paint swastikas on their chests and play the national anthem before gang-raping their victim atop an unfurled American flag with a statue of the Virgin Mary? Because writer/director Gregg Araki is trying to show that he has a sense of humor.
Actually, the funniest thing in Araki’s latest teen-apocalypse dispatch is the opening title: “A heterosexual movie by Gregg Araki.” It’s a rare puckish moment for “queer” cinema’s most bombastic Godard acolyte, who otherwise prefers to work with a bludgeon whenever possible.
This road movie does indeed recast The Living End, Araki’s first film about murderous teens on the run, with a heterosexual couple, speedfreaking Amy Blue (Rose McGowan) and gentle, almost Christlike Jordan White. (This is the Keanu Reeves role, played by James Duval, who also appeared in the director’s Totally F***ked Up, a remake of Masculine/Feminine that largely avoided the latter.) But these two blissfully bummed-out young lovers are quickly joined by Xavier Red (Johnathon Schaech, Winona Ryder’s boy toy in How to Make an American Quilt), an “ambisexual” troublemaker who’s soon interrogating Amy about Jordan’s penis as he screws her.
The first word of the film—delivered by Amy—is “fuck,” and fucking both as an activity and an expletive is among the film’s principal agendas. The trio’s is a joyless sort of passion, though. Araki presents some of the reasons to be cheerless—AIDS, gay bashers, the Smiths’ breakup—but it’s clear that all of Amerika is draining the life force of young Nine Inch Nails and Meat Beat Manifesto fans. (These and many other college-rock bands are on the soundtrack album, which the end credits demand that viewers purchase.) Everything from traffic jams to their parents to quick marts (where the cash register total is always $6.66) depresses these kids. “I feel like a gerbil smothered in Richard Gere’s butthole,” whines Jordan, a joke that shows how little distance there is between Araki’s “radical” queer consciousness and the rectal obsessions of Mallrats‘ apolitical slackers.
The trio’s troubles begin when a convenience-store clerk pulls a shotgun on Amy for dropping a cigarette butt on the floor. In the resulting slapstick-violence melee, the clerk’s head gets blown off and the kids become the sort of dangerous fugitives that pandering TV newscasters alarmedly announce may be Satanists or “ho-mo-sexuals.” The real problem, though, is Amy, who keeps attracting the unwanted attention of men (and one woman) who believe she’s their lost love. (Araki’s anti-breeder joke, apparently, is that straight men find women both utterly irresistible and utterly interchangeable.) The last of these encounters leads to a bloody confrontation that portentously pits the film’s lethargically liberated heroes against the forces of Gingrich-era reaction.
Rendered with a preponderance of hot reds and greens, Generation is a succession of in-jokes looking for a movie: Amy sports a ’60s-style transparent raincoat and the hairstyle, last seen in Pulp Fiction, favored by Godard star Anna Karina, while Cocteau Twins song titles double as dialogue. Porno for Pyros frontman Perry Farrell mans one convenience store, Amy communes with the This Mortal Coil box set, and Heidi Fleiss, Parker Posey, and various obscure sitcom stars make cameos. As usual, though, Araki isn’t commenting on American pop-cultural junk so much as he is simply adding to it.