by Roderick Conway Morris

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Sentimental, and not so Sentimental, Journeys

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 9 September 1998


Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan' opened the 55th Venice Film Festival, and through European eyes at least, was awesome not only for its welter of blood and gore but also for the depths of sentimentality it plumbed -- a stomach-churning combination.

Certainly the extended opening sequence of the slaughter on Omaha Beach is a brilliant piece of cinematography and perhaps comes as close to showing it the way it was as film fiction has ever done. But after this, the whole enterprise seriously loses its focus as Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) leads his patrol through the French countryside in search of Ryan, the last survivor of four brothers, whom the American top brass have ordered to be rescued and sent home.

The movie's publicity makes much of the fact that this is inspired by a true story, but the heroics Miller and his men act out owe more to the fantastic world of 'The Magnificent Seven' and Indiana Jones than to anything that took place in Normandy. The Germans are depicted in a dehumanized, one-dimensional manner like the Indians in old-fashioned Westerns, implausibilities abound and the final scene is one of such contrived and exaggerated mawkishness that it positively makes one cringe.

Also shown out of competition was James Ivory's 'A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries.' It is based on an autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones, and stars Kris Kristofferson as craggy, lovable, font of wisdom Bill Willis, a World War II veteran and successful writer, and Barbara Hershey as his wife, Marcella. The film contains no scenes of combat, but nor does it contain anything resembling a beginning, middle or end, and is suffused with the kind of huggy soppiness that families are entitled to enjoy in the privacy of their own homes, but that is best kept off the screen.

A still more problematic case is Anand Tucker's 'Hilary and Jackie,' the British in-competition contender, on the life of the cellist Jacqueline DuPre, who was struck down by multiple sclerosis at the peak of a dazzling musical career.

This project had its origins in a recent book by her sister, Hilary, and Hilary's husband, Kiffer, which broadcasts the vaguely titillating news that Jacqueline insisted on sharing Hilary's husband as though he were one of her sister's toys. Emily Watson puts in a good performance as DuPre, but it is impossible to forget in the concert scenes that here is a person merely pretending to play the cello. The morbid re-creation of DuPre's pitiful condition in the last stages of her illness is not so much unflinching as voyeuristic, and whatever her faults might have been (and, of course, she is no longer here to tell her side of the story), she does not deserve to be remembered like this.

Eric Rohmer's 'Conte d'Automne' (Autumn Tale), the last in his 'Four Seasons' series, is the story of a woman and a young girl who simultaneously set out to find a new man for their widowed friend. The film is entertaining and amusing, but moves at a sometimes excessively leisurely pace.

Other films in competition, which include John Dahl's 'Rounders,' Francesca Archibugi's 'L'Albero delle Pere' (The Pear Tree) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 'Sokout' ('Silence'), have been undistinguished, and Yves Angelo's 'Voleur de Vie' (officially translated as 'Stolen Life'), starring Emmanuelle Beart and Sandrine Bonnaire, is a work of diabolical banality and ponderousness.

The strongest contender in this category so far is the German Tom Tykwer's 'Lola Rennt' (Lola Runs). Lola's boyfriend, Manni, a courier for a crooked car dealer, manages to mislay 100,000 Deutsche marks on the subway. He's got 20 minutes to find the loot or be bumped off by the boss and his heavies, and in desperation he phones Lola. At this point a series of possible sequences and scenarios within scenarios begin to unfold at breakneck speed in a suspenseful, witty, ironic, stylish and slickly shot drama.

Absolutely outstanding, however, is the scriptwriter Don Roos's debut film as writer and director, the gloriously politically incorrect, inventively narrated 'The Opposite of Sex,' which was premiered in the International Critic's Week section.

Christina Ricci, the former 'Addams Family' monsterette, plays De-dee Truitt, the sassy, sluttish, 16-year-old peroxided trailer-trash, half-sister from hell, who runs away from home and arrives unannounced on the doorstep of her older sibling Bill (Martin Donovan), a sincere, kindly, caring small-town high school English teacher. Bill has inherited a large house and plenty of money from his gay lover, who has died of AIDS, along with the frustrated affections of his former lover's spinsterish, straitlaced and sharp-tongued school teacher sister Lucia (Lisa Kudrow). Dedee (who defines nice people as 'losers') and Lucia only have to take one quick look at each other and, to paraphrase John Osborne's Jimmy Porter, the age of chivalry is dead.

Ricci and Kudrow have a whale of a time with two of the best roles written for women in years, supported by excellent perfomances from the other members of the cast. Intelligent, snappy, hilariously funny, utterly unsentimental -- Dedee's remark, 'It's the kind of baby, you know, that if you feed it and play with it too much afterward, you throw up' is one of her least offensive observations -- 'The Opposite of Sex' is the antidote to goo and a delightfully bracing experience.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023