It's Up to You, New York, New York

Even in the Giuliani era, the New York Film Festival brings the beautiful and the blasphemous to American shores

ETA: April, 2000, at U Film Society's Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival--or, barring that, whenever Chernobyl begins exporting bottled water

 

Pola X

Following up his recently released, eight-year-old Lovers on the Bridge with another cinematic scandal that may take just as long to reach the States, French director Leos Carax turns this adaptation of Herman Melville's Pierre or the Ambiguities into an exceedingly morbid and incest-laden variant of Vertigo--complete with a near-necrophilic sex scene. It involves a well-off writer (Guillaume Depardieu) who turns his back on his wealth when he meets a mysterious woman who may be his half sister (Katerina Golubeva), and begins to wander with her through the French countryside as if in a trance. Ultimately, Pola X charts the direct opposite trajectory of Carax's earlier film, whose homeless lovers rather implausibly turned into yuppies; here the leisure class goes slumming toward self-destruction. The movie isn't the least bit commercial (downward mobility isn't too sexy these days), but its breathtaking images are often thrillingly weird: I don't think I'll ever forget the outrageous process-shot of Catherine Deneuve, as the protagonist's strung-out mom, riding a motorcycle late at night like some makeup-smeared biker mama.

ETA: We waited eight years for Carax's last film...do we hear seven?

 

Holy Smoke

Director Jane Campion's justly awaited response to the younger-woman/older-man cycle is, alas, a major disappointment. Seeming to borrow a bit from her movie's own flaky new-age agenda, the filmmaker described it after the press screening as being "about people's journey to the heart...how vulnerable we all are, how we fall in love and out of love, those leaps of faith we take." Such transformations are made none too believable here, as Kate Winslet's young and independent Australian woman has a religious-cult rapture in India (rendered in a style akin to a psychedelic MTV clip); fights in an outback shack with an oily American "cult exiter" (Harvey Keitel) hired by her suburban Sydney parents; falls in love with this deprogramming nemesis (or so it appears); and then humiliates him en route to her next epiphany. As battles of the sexes, Campion's The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady are infinitely more complex than this up-with-girls tract, which is made much too cute by a pair of Neil Diamond songs and the tables-turned image of Keitel's macho man wearing lipstick and a tight red dress (while the heroine's forehead bears his written advice to "BE KIND"). Still, the voluptuous, sari-clad Winslet is a revelation, delivering not just a much-needed riposte to Ally McBeal-itis but an unflinching command of character despite the script's many contrivances.

ETA: January 2000 (Given the film's Miramax distribution, look for Winslet on the cover of Talkin December.)

 

Topsy-Turvy

At the press conference for this, director Mike Leigh's vibrantly colored and engrossing bio-pic of Gilbert and Sullivan, the filmmaker stated emphatically that despite his movie's lavish re-creations of Princess Ida and The Mikado, this piece is not a musical. No doubt the auteur of Bleak Moments and Naked prefers to see his heavily improvised works as documentaries of human behavior, and, true to this form, Topsy-Turvy deconstructs the legendary G&S "magic" as the product of the librettist's and the composer's two gargantuan egos, much backstage bickering, the toppling weight of the pair's past successes, the talents and frailties of their tireless acting troupe, and no small amount of visionary genius (plus some intuitive and invaluable contributions from their wives). Utterly doing away with the Epic Sweep method of film biography, Leigh encapsulates the team's work (and their unflattering personalities) by focusing on the decisive period between their calamitous creative drought and The Mikado. There are scenes here that capture the politics of artmaking more astutely than any narrative film in memory, as when the inspiration-starved Gilbert (impeccably played by Jim Broadbent) raids a Japanese exhibition for new color, imports some "real" Japanese women to London to instruct the actors during rehearsal, and is only too happy to allow his visitors' incomprehension of English to translate into more demure geisha-girl stereotypes. More amazing still is the fact that, per Leigh's usual method of working, this unqualified masterpiece was shot entirely without a script.

ETA: January 2000--at which point the tireless Leigh will have another film in the can

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