by Roderick Conway Morris

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Heaven, near and far

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 7 September 2002


The primary variation in protocol of this year's Venice Film Festival is that, instead of walking the hundred yards or so from the Excelsior Hotel to the Palazzo del Cinema, where the gala inaugural screenings take place, the stars and their entourages are now conveyed in a fleet of motor cars and decanted in front of the steps. This reduces the contact of the celebs with the public and the generally informal feel of the Venice event -- always one of its more attractive features -- while suggesting that, rather unfashionably, lowering toxic emissions has not been high on the organizers' agenda.

The in-competition 'Far From Heaven' may prove a landmark in that its American writer-director, Todd Haynes, has made what looks like the first full-blown costume drama set in the 1950s, which at once distances the period and highlights what it might still have to tell us today.

Inspired by the domestic melodramas of the era, Haynes has reconstructed that cinematic world down to the last detail, re-created the effects of the lurid Technicolor characteristic of those productions and brought in Elmer Bernstein, who wrote his first film scores half a century ago, to provide an authentically lush and thunderous period orchestral accompaniment.

The heroine is Cathy Whitaker, brilliantly played by Julianne Moore, beautiful, faultless young wife and mother, according to the mores of the times, in a small town in Connecticut, who discovers that her husband is homosexual. As her perfectly ordered world begins to disintegrate, she forms a shy, tentative friendship with her black gardener, Raymond Deagon, portrayed with immense presence and dignity by Dennis Haysbent, a thoughtful and educated man whose color bars him from realizing his potential both in human and professional terms.

Both the town's dominant white population and its black underclass -- who ubiquitously tend gardens, clean homes, serve drinks and wash cars, but otherwise might as well be as invisible as ghosts -- are scandalized when Cathy and Raymond are seen together.

This is a gripping, salutary and painful tale. The disjunction caused by adopting the style of a 1950s movie, scrupulously respecting the prevailing conventions and idioms of the day while telling a story dealing with sex and race in a manner that would have been unthinkable at the time, makes 'Far From Heaven' a disconcerting and thought-provoking experience.

And this study of the intolerance and prejudice festering beneath the brittle, bright, cheerful and prosperous surface of a society that is both smug and paranoid is not lacking in relevance for a contemporary America where almost everything foreign is in danger of being considered not only alien but hostile.

Small-town France is the setting of Patrice Leconte's 'L'homme du train' (The Man on the Train), also in competition. For this production the director of 'The Hairdresser's Husband' has got together again with the screenwriter Claude Klotz, and its star, Jean Rochefort, who here plays an eccentric and reclusive retired schoolmaster, Manesquier, while Johnny Hallyday is cast as the cadaverous, majestically ravaged-looking Milan, a farouche stranger who arrives in the town by train one evening.

Manesquier meets Milan by chance in a pharmacy and this marks the beginning of an unexpected rapport between characters who have nothing in common, except wishing -- as they, and we, come to realize -- they could have lived the life of the other. This is a captivating piece of cinema, with an intelligent, amusing and memorable script, dazzling performances and a gentle and sympathetic vision of old age and its regrets.

Also nurturing unfulfilled dreams is Fanette, the principal character in Tonie Marshall's in-competition 'Au Plus Pres du Paradis' (Nearest to Heaven) played by Catherine Deneuve, who has come to see her last chance of happiness in the hope of refinding a lost love of her student days, Philippe. Putatively writing a book about an abstract artist, Fanette is apparently much more interested in endlessly viewing the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr romantic comedy 'An Affair to Remember,' although her primary occupation in life is smoking. In fact, Fanette lights up so often, that one can hardly doubt that the manufacturers of the brand in question would, given the chance, gratefully foot the entire bill for production.

Smoking inevitably becomes more problematic for Fanette when she goes to America to supervise the taking of photographs for her book, but she does, on the other hand, encounter a rather dishy photographer, Matt (William Hurt). Although himself a nonsmoker, Matt fancies the pants off Fanette -- but will the specter of Philippe come between them, nipping romance in the bud? Hurt is quite entertaining as Matt, but scriptwise does not have very much to work with. Neither, in this part, is his seduction technique always sophisticated.

And, so venerable a figure has Deneuve now become, that when, as they are sitting beside each other, Matt rather peremptorily shoves his hand up Fanette's skirt, one feels a sense of shock as though witnessing an act of lese-majeste, akin to coming upon President Bush fondling the knee of Queen Elizabeth at an official function.

Aside from their titles, Doris Doerrie's in-competition 'Nackt' (Naked) and Steven Soderbergh's 'Full Frontal,' which appeared in the Controcorrente (Upstream) category, had more in common than immediately met the eye, so to speak. Both the German and American productions examine modern love relationships between men and women and the difficulties in maintaining them.

The scenario of 'Nackt' -- in which we see three couples, old friends, but with their relationships in various states of viability, collapse and repair -- started life as a stage play and still has very much that feel; whereas Soderbergh's style is relentlessly cinematic and, oddly in its own way, as artificial and contrived in its presentation.

But the weakness of both is that, though the dialogue is often racy and keeps one's attention, the subject seems to be 'the problem of relationships,' with the various couples representing rather formulaic facets of this topic -- in contrast to the kind of relationships delved into in 'Far From Heaven' and 'L'homme du train,' which, being more specific, paradoxically have more universal application. (The screening of 'Full Frontal' did, however, provide one priceless moment, when 'O.K' was translated in the Italian subtitle as 'Oh, Cake!')

Takeshi Kitano's in-competition 'Dolls' revolves around three interwoven stories of romantic love ending in spectacular failure. Kitano drew much of the inspiration for the film from traditional bunraku (puppet theater) and specifically from the playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu, and his 'The Love Suicides of Sonezaki' of 1703, which was based on actual events.

The first of Kitano's tales is of a girl who attempts suicide when her fiancé's parents persuade their son to marry a richer girl and who is left permanently brain damaged. Overcome with the remorse, the boy throws up everything and the couple end up wandering the land, a pair of down-and-outs attached to each other by a length of red rope, which earns them the nickname, 'the bound beggars.' The second story is of a woman who waits every Saturday on a park bench for a lover who has deserted her more than 30 years before, and the third, of a fan who falls hopelessly in love with a pop singer (played by the real-life heartthrob Kyoko Fukada).

After the burlesque violence of his gangster movie 'Brother,' 'Dolls' has more in common with 'Hana-Bi' (Fireworks), which won Kitano the Golden Lion in 1997, but takes more risks in its attempt to blend the conventions of traditional Japanese theater and modern drama. And, as Yohji Yamamoto was entrusted with the costume design, it features the two best-dressed beggars in cinema history.

Leisurely, sometimes ravishingly beautiful, and like bunraku a combination of realism and extreme artifice, 'Dolls' will please Kitano admirers, but newcomers to Kitano's work may find it puzzling.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024