by Roderick Conway Morris

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Shocking and Tasteful: The Bare Facts

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 8 September 1999


Nobody could accuse this year's Venice Film Festival of not delivering all the nudes fit to print, and quite a number of others that audiences could have done without.

Ironically, the film with the most explicit, come-on title, Frederic Fonteyne's 'Une Liaison Pornographique,' turned out to deserve a prize for tasteful sex on screen.

It is the story of a woman, played by Nathalie Baye, who wants to act out a particular sexual fantasy and places an ad in a contact magazine. She and her prospective sexual partner, Sergi Lopez, arrange to meet in a café, and quickly repair to a nearby hotel room -- the door of which is promptly closed in the spectator's face, although we are admitted to the room on a few subsequent occasions.

The trysts become regular, but they never learn each other's names (neither do we), who they are or what they do when they are not together, this being an implicit understanding in the relationship. Despite these restrictions -- and that intriguing closed door -- we witness the unfolding of an emotionally engaging and touching rapport, that both during and after the film opens the viewer's mind to multiple interpretations and possibilities.

Baye and Lopez are superb in this intelligent and sophisticated drama, which emerged as a clear front-runner for the Golden Lion in the first days of the festival.

Other productions with artistic pretensions relied heavily on trying to be more shocking, and were the poorer for it. The generous exposure of the diverse physiques of Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut' and Kate Winslet in Jane Campion's in-competition 'Holy Smoke' left little to the imagination, as did the films they starred in.

The former is an unfocused, rambling Freudian scenario that takes a gratuitous and contrived excursion into the realms of 'The Story of O,' and in the final analysis amounts to a prodigious waste of money, time and effort.

Kate Winslet gives a bravura performance in 'Holy Smoke' as Ruth, an Australian girl who is enticed home from India after falling under the influence of a guru. She is to be deprogrammed by an American 'exit counselor' named P.J. Waters, Harvey Keitel, a supposed expert on the subject. It does not take long before P.J. is under the spell of Ruth's charms and reduced to the role of besotted supplicant.

The problem is that Ruth is the only fully realized character in the movie. The rest of the cast -- from the macho P.J. to the girl's vulgar suburban family and in-laws -- are mere caricatures. What is billed as an examination of 'spiritual struggle, sexual politics, unconventional intimacies' is a rather sorry, one-dimensional tale that is deeply patronizing to almost every character in it.

The nadir of sexual exploitation came with the South Korean Jang Sun Woo's in-competition 'Lies,' the story of a bizarre relationship between an older man and a young girl. At first the girl submits to increasingly savage beatings as a prelude to sex, but in time tires of this and the sadomasochistic roles are reversed. The chances that this film, which consists substantially of numbingly repetitious and unattractive scenes of beatings and copulation, will go into general release anywhere are remote, but this will be no loss to the world at large.

Two films contained extended sequences of musical performance: Woody Allen's 'Sweet and Lowdown' and Mike Leigh's in-competition 'Topsy-Turvy.' Allen returns to the era of 'Bullets Over Broadway,' this time following the career of the delinquent kleptomaniac jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, played with panache by Sean Penn. The epoch is lovingly re-created, the script funny and the music artfully woven into the fabric of the film. Samantha Morton deserves a special commendation for her wordless performance as Ray's mute sweetheart, Hattie.

Mike Leigh's 'Topsy-Turvy,' which tells the story of the staging of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'The Mikado,' is a rather rum affair. As one would expect, the casting and acting are first-rate, and the period detail splendid. But the passages from the operetta are overlong and we are left wondering what the point of the whole exercise is, although Gilbert and Sullivan fans will love it.

Some of the more commercial, out-of-competition Hollywood titles have been interesting. Joe Johnston's 'October Sky,' based on the autobiography of the NASA scientist Homer H. Hickman, amusingly relates how a group of boys in a run-down, no-place mining town in West Virginia in the late 1950s are inspired by the launch of the Russian Sputnik to start trying to build their own rockets.

Stephan Elliott, maker of 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert,' is back with 'Eye of the Beholder,' an exciting and imaginative thriller with an ever-adaptable Ewan McGregor as a British intelligence agent who sets out on the trail of a beautiful and deadly suspect (played by an icily sexy Ashley Judd) and becomes hopelessly obsessed with his quarry.

In Spike Jonze's 'Being John Malkovich,' a nerdy street puppeteer, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), finds an Alice-in-Wonderland-like little door behind a cabinet in the eccentric office where he takes a job as a filing clerk that gives access to the famous actor's mind. Craig's flaky wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), soon gets in on the act, and the upshot is a wacky, often hilarious, story with some well-aimed satirical barbs at celebrity and stardom, in which Malkovich plays himself, revealing a hitherto largely untapped talent for comedy.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023