Now (finally) showing
Our lead film critic breaks down the films that missed Chico but are now available for rent
Some of the most imaginative and accomplished movies of the past year have missed Chico-area theaters altogether but are now available on video. There’s nothing new about that, especially given the distribution system’s neglect of outstanding foreign films. But, in this year, some of the films in question are English-language productions with big-name actors.
Cases in point include a superb adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, with John Malkovich in the title role; Mark and Michael Polish’s wildly eccentric Northfork (with Nick Nolte, James Woods and Darryl Hannah in key roles); Gus van Sant’s controversial and controversially understated Elephant; and, last but far from least, Lars von Trier’s Dogville, a bizarre, stylized tale of Depression-era America, with Nicole Kidman heading a large and impressive cast.
The foreign-language gems include films from Iran and Afghanistan (Crimson Gold and Osama, respectively), another standout piece from the Belgian team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Son) and the perennial small host of French films, including especially La Captive, Chantal Akerman’s offbeat adaptation of Marcel Proust, and Safe Conduct, Bertrand Tavernier’s masterly period piece about French filmmakers during World War II and the German Occupation of France.
The latter two may be the best of the bunch, but there’s much to be said for each of these standouts from the latest crop of video “premieres.”
Northfork—Somewhere in Montana, 1955. Evacuators in black suits (with James Woods as their leader) come to remove the few remaining inhabitants of a prairie town that is about to be submerged under the waters from a new dam. And the gruff local priest (Nick Nolte) ministers to little Irwin, an unclaimed orphan who receives visits from a zany group of angels (Darryl Hannah, Anthony Edwards, etc.). Like some strange, inspired hybrid of Wild River, Wings of Desire and Twin Peaks, this oddball historical fantasy steers clear of conventional drama and narrative and instead generates spectacular imagery that is variously stark, hilarious, bizarre and haunting. There are hints of American allegory (the town’s declared lifespan is “1776-1955"), but the latest quirky effort from the Polish twins impresses most as a richly endowed movie-poem dredged up from something like the collective national unconscious.
Dogville—Von Trier, the Danish iconoclast, conjures up a vitriolic vision of small-town pathology from a bare soundstage, with buildings existing only as chalk outlines on the floor. Kidman plays a mysterious fugitive who is taken in by the townspeople (played by Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Patricia Clarkson, Stellan Skarsgaard, Philip Baker Hall, Paul Bettany, etc.) who first protect, then exploit and finally betray her—on the way to an explosive, and somewhat astonishing, final reckoning. The result plays out as a sort of dark-hearted inversion of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and seems to have irritated and amazed audiences and reviewers in wildly varying amounts. Like von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, this is at once an impressive act of imagination and invention and an anguishing narrative ordeal.
Elephant—Gus Van Sant’s minimalist rendition of events leading to a Columbine-like massacre at a suburban high school is built around documentary-style long takes and a deadpan disdain for motivational exposition and chronological order. That method takes the film inside a mentality that is both disturbed and mundane and therefore provides an oblique kind of fascination. The attractive young cast and spiffy Portland, Ore., settings serve not only as obvious ironies but also as cagey deflections of simplistic explanations. This steadily unsensational approach to a patently sensational subject seems to evoke a fatalism so deeply imbedded in contemporary culture that no one—within the film, at least—really notices it.
Ripley’s Game—Liliana Cavana’s film is one of the sharpest crime movies of the year and markedly superior to the previous Highsmith adaptation, the inordinately successful The Talented Mr. Ripley. This film might have gotten better distribution if it had had the likes of Jude Law and Matt Damon in its cast, but the existing cast—John Malkovich and Ray Winstone in particular—is outstanding. And Malkovich provides a particularly astute variation on a Highsmith archetype played to memorable effect by Robert Walker (for Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train), Alain Delon (for Rene Clement’s Purple Noon) and Dennis Hopper (for Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, an earlier, brilliant, looser version of Ripley’s Game).
Safe Conduct—During the German Occupation of France in World War II, the French film industry was permitted to continue commercial production. Bertrand Tavernier’s most recent film is a complex and richly entertaining account of the struggles of real-life figures from the period. There is particular focus on screenwriter Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydes), a bon vivant who skitters from job to job and woman to woman while steering clear of the secret police and formalized contracts, and Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin), a fledgling director racing almost non-stop through cycles of studio work, visits to his wife and child and risky clandestine activities with the French Resistance. As a spritely combination of period piece, thriller and romantic comedy, Safe Conduct feels both contemporary and old-fashioned in ways that seem appropriate to its subject and entirely to its credit.
La Captive—Chantal Akerman’s reworking of a portion of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past comes across as a darkly dreamlike story of obsessive passion. The film’s young lovers, Simon and Ariane, come strangely and hauntingly to life through the quasi-somnambulistic stylization in Akerman’s brooding mise en scène and the weirdly beguiling performances of Stanislas Merhar and Sylvie Testud. He seems dreamy and laid-back, and she seems both intense and oblivious, but Simon’s perplexing obsessions undercut all appearances. La Captive has relatively little in common with the previous Proust adaptations by Schlondorf (Swann’s Way) and Ruiz (Time Regained). Instead, her Proust film is much closer to the tragic surrealism of Bunuel’s last great films.
The Son—The Belgian brother team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have produced yet another starkly moving character study in an achingly contemporary social setting. This one is built around the estimable Olivier Gourmet, a Dardenne regular who also makes a fine supporting-player contribution to Safe Conduct. Here the befuddled-looking Gourmet plays a sorrowful carpentry instructor whose scrambled life is oddly and further disrupted by the arrival of a new student, a troubled teenager visibly weighted with unspoken burdens of his own. The little drama of damaged lives that emerges between the two of them proves harsh, honest, surprising, ambiguous and strangely heartening.
Flower of Evil—Veteran auteur Claude Chabrol, sometimes known as “the French Hitchcock,” is still producing ironically suave accounts of murder amid the elegance and pretense of European wealth. Here a half-obscured murder mystery keeps deceptively polite company with a semi-incestuous love affair, provincial political squabbles, marital infidelity and the ghosts and guilts from four generations of tangled family history. Another veteran of French cinema, Suzanne Flon, is excellent as the elderly character who becomes the story’s heart of darkness. Ironic couples played by Nathalie Baye and Bernard le Coq, and Benoit Magimel and Melanie Doutey, help flesh out this Chabrolian take on the poisonously discreet charm of the bourgeoisie
Osama—Afghanistan’s first film of the post-Taliban era uses the story of a young woman (Marina Golbahari) who must disguise herself as a boy in order to support her widowed mother and family. Director Siddiq Barmak mixes understated realism and bursts of bluntly ironic spectacle. What results is both a moving social document and a miniature historical drama that occasionally yields to the temptations of romantic kitsch.