Sunday, August 2, 2015

Battle of the actresses

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2002)

This week we have films featuring three of my favourite actresses, all in good form and making up to some extent for the flaws or limitations of the films themselves.

Human Nature

Being John Malkovich was greatly admired a few years ago, and I enjoyed watching it, but I always felt I was missing something. I didn’t write a review of it – couldn’t think of anything to say. Now the film’s writer, Charlie Kaufman, has written Human Nature, which has the same apparent disregard for conventional narrative bounds. Tim Robbins plays a scientist who marries Patricia Arquette, a social outcast because of a major body hair problem. Hiking in the woods, they encounter Rhys Ifans, who was taken into the woods as a child by his deranged father and has grown up ape-like. Robbins abandons his experiments with mice (he’s trying to teach them table manners) and sets out to civilize the wild man.

Human Nature, like Malkovich, is a film of enormous invention. Truth is, it would have been more effective with less invention. To the very end, it concocts twists and reversals and crazy concepts, which means it never gets close to dullness, but it’s like a girl who teases you to the point where you decide to transfer your affections to someone else. The film usually seems to be about the malevolent effects of civilization – how it quashes our better natures – but it also hints cynically that we may not have a better nature. You wish for a more consistent perspective, even if a more limited one.

The film’s funniest moments come from an inspired silliness. Robbins’ notion of civilization is about a hundred years out of date – he trains Ifans how to behave at the opera, how to sit by the fire like a country gentleman, and so forth (making for visual tableaux reminiscent of the best moments in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums). But this just illustrates the film’s broader incoherence, since Robbins doesn’t generally behave in a way consistent with these anachronistic notions, and the vague depiction of “the real world” dulls our sense of the (presumed) injustice that’s being done to Ifans. There’s a certain flabbiness to the concept too – the Arquette and Ifans characters are both variations on the same narrow theme, and the fourth major character, a conniving woman who poses as a French seductress to win over Robbins, makes very little sense.

The movie couldn’t be as affecting as it is if not for its actors. Robbins is rather bland, but Ifans has a crazy grandeur about him. Readers may remember that I went to school with him in North Wales. I often find him a bit strained on the screen, but maybe I have too much of a sense of the man. On this occasion, his messy, abstracted persona is exactly what the character needs.

As for Patricia Arquette – she’s often very touching. She’s frequently naked in the film, and her sturdy voluptuousness has an appropriately primitive air about it. She strikes me as an actress who needs strong direction – when that’s lacking, she seems to drift and recede (see for example her work in Matthew Broderick’s Infinity). That almost happens here too from time to time, but in a film that’s purportedly about the quashing of instinct, it’s not such a bad thing.

Murder by Numbers

Murder by Numbers has a much more concentrated and in part familiar view of human nature. It’s the Leopold-Loeb story all over again – two smart-ass teenagers team up to commit the perfect murder, complete with a trail of clues that will lead the police to the wrong suspect. Except, of course, that the detective is smarter than they had any reason to expect.

She’s played by Sandra Bullock, which seems like proof of a soft centre. Surprisingly, Bullock is the primary savior of this largely conventional film. Her character is hard-edged, stubborn, cynical – none of that is new, but the movie takes her into territory that’s unusually raw and fragile and sexually explicit. At such times, it’s pleasingly reminiscent of Clint Eastwood vehicles like The Gauntlet or Tightrope, cranking the genre wheels while exploring the edges of its star image. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t take this half as far as it might have done, but it’s intriguing while it lasts.

The film’s director Barbet Schroeder last directed the low budget Our Lady of the Assassins, about a middle-aged writer observing a child assassin on the streets of Medellin, Colombia. That was an extremely bleak, nihilistic work, consisting for long stretches of little but desolate wandering punctuated by random killing. It sometimes seemed contrived, but you couldn’t easily shake it off. It’s a rather ridiculous distance from that chilling depiction of murderous youth to the teenage melodrama of Murder by Numbers. They say history occurs first as tragedy and then repeats itself as farce – maybe movie careers sometimes take the same form. But at least Schroeder is too much of a pro not to make a smooth film, although even that much seems in doubt during the rickety, cliff-hanging climax.

Triumph of Love

I suppose Triumph of Love, Claire Peploe’s adaptation of a 17th century play by Marivaux, is the most commercially marginal of these three projects. The film doesn’t really try to have it any other way. Set on a sumptuous country estate, it involves a princess who dresses as a male to win the heart of the man she loves – a man who views the princess as a mortal enemy. She also wins the heart of her beloved’s guardian, a famous philosopher who immediately sees through her disguise, and the guardian’s sister, who doesn’t.

The movie isn’t really ingratiating enough to be a popular success – it’s fairly repetitive and narrow, and Peploe follows her own idiosyncratic instincts, sometimes emphasizing the theatrical aspects, sometimes over-emphasizing the cinematic. But it’s an entertaining romp, and the final scenes are particularly sweet. In a cast that includes British heavyweights Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw, it’s especially commendable that Mira Sorvino as the princess is the film’s single greatest charm. Sorvino was hot for a couple of years after she won her slightly generous Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite, but a series of bad pictures put paid to that. She’s not the most technically compelling actress, but when she’s cast properly she has a combination of intelligence and winsomeness that I find very appealing (Lulu on the Bridge is probably my favourite of her performances).

This week’s winner – Mira Sorvino! Next time – battle of the movie caterers.


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