by Roderick Conway Morris

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Virtual Sex, Confessions of a Killer, Hamlet and the Goddess of Love

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 6 September 1995


According to the scenario of Kathryn Bigelow's 'Strange Days,' by the year 2000 a goodly number of us (if we live in Los Angeles, at least) will be wearingwhat look like little nests of Walkman headphones on our craniums and plugging into black-market 'virtual reality' CD-diskette playbacks of other people's intimate experiences -- recorded directly from the cerebral cortex -- from staging stick-ups to frolicking in the Jacuzzi with a friend.

If virtual reality has an upside, the downside is that it includes virtual sex -- which, oddly enough, is just about the only kind of sexual or emotional fulfillment that a large proportion of a wide variety of protagonists in films from all over the globe seem to be getting in the productions screened during the first week of the Venice Film Festival.

Of the American films screened so far at the festival, which ends on Saturday, 'Strange Days' is certainly a big hit. Ralph Fiennes as ex-cop Lenny Nero, pusher of sleazy virtual-reality fixes, finds himself embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game with a killer-rapist who dispatches recorded updates on his murderous progress to draw Lenny into a lethal trap.The cast is filled out by a seedy rabble of low-lifers, rogue cops, paranoid music producers and hangers-on (with Juliette Lewis, who was in Oliver Stone's 'Natural Born Killers,' in severe danger of becoming typecast as a psycho's moll).

Fiennes is convincing, but the real star is Angela Bassett (who played Tina Turner in 'What's Love Got to Do With It') as Lenny's exasperated and resourceful chum Mace. Clearly influenced by Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner,' the story has enough menace and suspense to have dispensed with some gratuitous violence that does nothing to enhance its final impact.

Virtual sex is also the fate of many of the characters of 'Beyond the Clouds,' directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and Wim Wenders -- even if John Malkovich does get briefly to roll around naked with Sophie Marceau. The directors also recruited Fanny Ardant, Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni and the captivatingly beautiful Ines Sastre, but then seem not to have known quite what to do with them.

The film, which like 'Strange Days' was shown outside of the festival competition, consists of vignettes of unhappy and unconsummated love, strung together around the meanderings of the badly miscast Malkovich as a film director in search of new ideas for his next production. The pace is painfully slow, the acting stiff and the dialogue preposterously pretentious.

In the competition, the German director Romuald Karmakar's 'Der Totmacher' (The Deathmaker) is based on transcripts of psychiatric examinations of the serial killer Fritz Haarman in the 1920s. Haarman used sex to entice his young male prey, but got his real kicks by killing them (the case inspired Fritz Lang's classic film 'M'). Götz George is brilliant as the alternately pathetic, wheedling, self-pitying, insinuating and hectoring Haarman, but viewers may feel they could live without the blow-by-blow descriptions of the dismemberment of his victims.

THE Mexican Carlos Carrera's 'Sin Rimitente' (No Return Address) is the sorry tale of a lonely old man who is maliciously tricked into an entanglement with a grasping, unscrupulous prostitute, while the Hispano-Cuban production 'Guantana-mera,' directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan-Carlos Tabio Rey, is an inventive and amusing road movie that pokes cautious fun at Cuba's socialist system (but not its Supreme Leader). In this tale, Gina, a former university lecturer, is the attractive but neglected wife of a pompous, bullying minor bureaucrat who accompanies her on an eventful journey to convey her mother's coffin almost the entire length of Cuba, from Guantanamera to Havana. During the trip, she repeatedly encounters a former student admirer (now a truck driver), who offers her the tantalizing opportunity of breaking free to start a new life.

It is normally foolhardy to nominate prize-winners prematurely, but the crashingly boring Portuguese film 'A Comedia de Deus' -- about an ice-cream parlor manager with a curious fetishistic collection -- has already emerged as a clear front-runner for a Golden Turkey.

By the end of the first week, by far the toughest and most powerful production viewed was 'Nothing Personal' directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan.

Set in Belfast in 1975, at the height of the Troubles, it follows the revengeful and ultimately self-destructive course of a group of Loyalist paramilitaries after the bombing by the Irish Republican Army of a crowded Protestant pub.

By chance, it is the Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh who has written and directed the most entertaining in-competition comedy shown so far, 'In the Bleak Midwinter.' Shot in black and white on a low budget,it is the storyof a depressed, slightly manic, out-of-work actor, Joe Harper (played by Michael Maloney), who decides to put together a production of 'Hamlet' in a disused church near Londonfor Christmas.

Consistently funny and life-enhancing, too, is Woody Allen's latest, 'Mighty Aphrodite,' in which he plays a New York sportswriter, Lenny Weinrib, whose wife (Helena Bonham Carter) insists on adopting a child. Eaten up with curiosity, Allen secretly goes in search of the child's mother, despite the dire warnings of an ancient Greek chorus that appears at critical moments to spout on about the gods, hubris, nemesis and so on -- and also does some terrific song-and-dance routines.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024