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The talk of this year's Cannes Film Festival was the equally maligned and celebrated musical Dancer in the Dark, by dogmatic Dane Lars von Trier. Though the film picked up the Palme d'Or, as well as a Best Actress award for elfin pop star Björk, it was also greeted with a volley of verbal rotten tomatoes by an audience at its premiere. All this over a musical? We're talking about a genre that seemed hopelessly dated 30 years ago, and hasn't been common cinematic currency in twice that. Nevertheless, between Dancer in the Dark and Baz Luhrmann's forthcoming Moulin Rouge, we seem to have stumbled into a mini-renaissance of the celluloid musical. As the French are wont to say, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
According to Kenneth Branagh, who was in town two weeks ago to sing the praises of his own entry, a musical version of Love's Labour's Lost, the old song and dance might be the perfect fizzy bromide for a dyspeptic age. "When I was doing this," he recalled, "I kept asking myself, 'Am I just indulging some kind of nostalgia? Is this just the rekindling of something old-fashioned? Or are we reinventing it?' For me, it's in some ways a reaction to what I feel to be an immensely cynical age--one that I'm fully a part of. The escapism, the fantastical nature of the film musical when it's about romantic love, was clearly something that, toward the end of the Sixties, we'd had enough of. We thought they were either too superficial or the world was way too serious. But then, you know, the golden age of these musicals was in the Depression, when there was a terrific surge in problems. There was an appetite for that escapism."
The charmingly tousled director had himself just escaped from Cannes, and though he didn't catch Dancer in the Dark, he was taken aback by the buzz it generated. "It was hugely controversial," he said. "I didn't meet anybody who didn't feel passionately about it one way or the other. I guess it's still in the Dogme mode--natural light and all that kind of thing. Which seems the antithesis of the musical."
Love's Labour's Lost might, then, be the antithesis of Dogme 95. Dicing Shakespeare's comedy to within an inch of incomprehensibility, and transporting the action to a richly stylized version of Europe in the 1930s, Branagh manages a film that is artificial from first frame to last. "I wanted to make a film that was just very silly," he explained. "I wanted to do something that delighted in its own nonsensical nature and its foolishness, given that the play is partly about the foolishness of people in love."
The result is nothing if not giddy. The situation is introduced in a cheeky newsreel (voiced by Branagh, who also co-produced and stars in the film). The clouds of war are gathering over the Continent, we're told. In Navarre, however, the intrigues are of a more innocent stripe: The King (Alessandro Nivola) has entreated his chums (Adrian Lester and Matthew Lillard, who dance like Fred Astaire and a drunk circus bear, respectively) to give up women for three years in order to concentrate on their studies. This comes to the chagrin of Berowne (Branagh), who would just as soon give up his studies for three years to concentrate on women. And indeed, no sooner has Berowne voiced his objection than the whole gang is dancing around Navarre's library to the tune of Gershwin's "I'd Rather Charleston."
Such iconoclasm will probably come as a surprise to admirers of Branagh's previous Shakespearean adaptations. From Much Ado About Nothing to 1996's marathon-length Hamlet, Branagh has gotten a reputation as a staunch traditionalist, a director of plays on film. Though he professes admiration for recent updates of the Bard, including Baz Luhrmann's MTV-inflected Romeo & Juliet, Branagh explains that he has heretofore been wary about following suit. "I've been much more cautious about moving forward period-wise, just because words are my gig and I do love them. I get nervous about anachronisms. You just have to have some marvelous idea that can be consistent and that doesn't ultimately confuse the play."
Marvelous though it may be, the idea of setting Shakespeare to music is not entirely novel. Verdi did quite a nice job of it, for instance. What differentiates Branagh's adaptation from previous efforts is the seamless transposition of the play into the generic conventions of the golden age Hollywood musical. The dance numbers, including a swimming-pool scene that affectionately parodies Busby Berkeley, and a moonlit masque that could have been choreographed by Jerome Robbins, evolve organically from Shakespeare's baroque verse (interestingly, the Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom called Love's Labour's Lost a libretto without an opera). The film's visual style, too, shows a tender regard for the glamourous kitsch of old Hollywood. Shooting his stars in widescreen format, Branagh achieves a saturation of color--a pastel luminosity that dims the sedate shades of the earlier scenes. His style is campy and old-fashioned, a pastiche of technique, but also true to the playful vitality of his material. This is Shakespeare's most elaborately artificial comedy--a blend of shtick and flowery wit--and only a consummately artificial cinematic language could communicate it.
Which is not to say that Love's Labour's Lost represents a triumph of sweetness and light. After an hour of flirting and jitterbugging, word arrives in Navarre that the King of France has died. In the play, the news casts a melancholic question mark over the budding affairs between the guys and dolls--a jarring tonal volte-face that might account for the fact that Love's Labour's Lost is the least-performed of the high comedies. Branagh, carried by the simple narrative mores of the musical into a misstep, tacks on a rather cloying coda that supplies a happy ending for all involved.
"I suppose I rationalize it by saying that there was this lost play called Love's Labour's Won," he explained. "In my pathetically romantic view, that was Shakespeare's response to the bad previews of Love's Labour's Lost."
Perhaps. As Shakespeare might have said, all's well that sells well.
Love's Labour's Lost is playing at the Uptown Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday and starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.
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