Sunday, December 20, 2015

Spousal care

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2002)

The protagonist in the new film My Wife is an Actress is a sports journalist who has the good luck to be married to a beautiful and famous actress, and the bad luck to be driven half-crazy by it. They can’t walk a block without being interrupted by autograph hunters, and he’s increasingly bothered that she kisses other men and appears in the nude. All of which seems like a plausible set of concerns, no doubt one of the many reasons for the famously high mortality of celebrity marriages. But there’s a twist to My Wife is an Actress – the couple (called Yvan and Charlotte) are played by Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who are married in real life, and Attal also wrote and directed this film. Which seems to mean there must be some autobiographical background to this. And yet when Gainsbourg is naked in this film, it’s at Attal’s own behest.

My Wife is an Actress
I could fill an article just listing filmmakers who trained the camera on their wives or lovers. Some of them, like John Derek parading his wife Bo in Bolero and Tarzan the Ape Man, seemed at least in part to be massaging their own egos. But there are many examples where the director’s love of cinema intertwines with his (I can’t think at present of any instances involving a female director) love for a woman, creating something distinctly personal: Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. I remember a critic who wrote how Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry was filmed with a special glow that only occurs when a director is falling in love with an actress, as Richard Brooks was at the time. I could never figure out what that actually meant – how there was that direct a relationship between Brooks’ state of mind and the technicalities of lighting, focus, etc., but it’s a beguiling concept.

Unfortunately, My Wife is an Actress has little to add to this history. Attal plays the film for easy, soft-centered comedy. A weird subplot, in which is Jewish sister argues with her goy husband about whether to circumcise their unborn son, suggests distinctly that he views himself as a sort of French Woody Allen. Also Allen-style, he casts a celebrity in his movie: Terence Stamp, who plays the star of Gainsbourg’s latest movie. Stamp is very good, but the film holds him at arm’s length, as though the real Attal were as leery of him as his character is. The film opens with a series of photos of famous screen sirens, as though intending to place itself in the tradition I mentioned, but exhibits little substantive interest in cinema, except for a rather incongruous scene where the crew strips naked, to help Gainsbourg over her misgivings. Actually, the only character in that scene that isn’t nude is Attal himself, revealing as little of himself physically as he does emotionally.

Swept Away
Someone else whose wife is an actress, British director Guy Ritchie, also directs her in a new film. She is Madonna, who in her latest incarnation lives in London, reportedly speaks in a faux British accent, and likes to be called Mrs. Ritchie. The new film is Swept Away, a remake of Lina Wertmuller’s 1974 Italian film about a rich bitch cast away on an island with a rough-edged sailor. On board the ship she abused and belittled him, but now he has the upper hand: he slaps her around, generally treats her like a dog. She rapidly falls in love with him.

I can no longer remember anything about the Wertmuller film, but I’m certain it was a little more assured than the Ritchie version. The opening scenes of the new film are particularly bad, with Madonna very ill at ease in her brittleness. Later on, it becomes mainly bland. Still, I have some sympathy with Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe, who called it “a curiously affecting document of a director trying to show the world why he loves his wife – not the changeling pop star, but the actress.” Despite the layers of misogyny and brutality (which are somewhat soft-pedaled here), the film is basically about a lost woman who finds fulfilment where she least expects it, and Ritchie seems in tune with Madonna’s softer side (it would be rather surprising, of course, if he wasn’t).

I certainly didn’t find Swept Away as laughable as many critics did. I think it misses most of its opportunities though. Given the inherent eroticism of the premise, the film is definitely too decorous – presumably a downside in this case of a director watching over his wife. And you wonder what drew Madonna to this material in the first place. Such a tale of role-reversals and recast lives should have struck a chord with a performer who’s made herself over so many times, and the film should surely have been able to find a way to draw more effectively on that history. As it is, Madonna seems “herself” only in a misplaced fantasy sequence where she performs “Come on-a my house” in front of a big band.

Punch-Drunk Love
The current movie that best delivers what you’d expect from having an astute spouse behind the camera is Punch-Drunk Love, which doesn’t actually fall into that category of movies. It’s just that director Paul Thomas Anderson executes a weirdly narrow ambition, one that only a lover would normally concoct – to reveal the subtleties and complexities that underlie Adam Sandler’s screen persona. He does it brilliantly, but I do wonder how highly one can really value such an esoteric exercise.

The film takes Sandler’s familiar nasally goofiness, and its short-fused underbelly, and as if by applying some chemical agent disentangles and clarifies them. Sandler has never seemed so intelligent, so sweet, or so dangerous. The film shows how great love dwells disturbingly close to great anger; how non-conformity from another angle resembles madness. Anderson has come up with a deliberately slight story that perfectly facilitates his central project, with Emily Watson nicely playing his new love. The film assiduously avoids the familiar – perhaps too assiduously. At various times I tired of the music score, the locations, the widescreen framing, and in general of the whimsy. Still, it’s hard not to admire a movie that at various times reminds you of Robert Altman, Jerry Lewis, Jacques Tati, Blake Edwards, Quentin Tarantino and others, while always seeming distinctly itself.

It’s unclear whether this is a new start for the much-derided Sandler, or whether the film will stand as an aberration. His performance in the film doesn’t seem to me like great acting, but rather as a great piece of engineering on Anderson’s part. No future director will ever make the same effort for Sandler, unless he marries one.

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