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Vanity Fair, 5X2 and a few more reviews from London

Alex Deleon,
London Film Festival,
November 1, 2004

Today’s films:
(1) “Vanity Fair” with Rees Witherspoon as the social climbing “mountaineer”, Becky Sharp with seamless English accent, in Napoleonic era England, via Thackeray – A lush high budget production by Mira Nair (of “Monsoon Rain”) – fantastic costumes, makeup, sets, horses, rich colour photography, good acting all around from a full cast of English stalwarts, Bob Hoskins, Gabriel Byrne, nearly the entire British “a List”, and – a crashing bore! – Why? – Good question. For one thing the ponderous musical score which hardly ever lets up, drowns out half of the dialogue and generally drenches the film with superfluous philharmonic interpretation, for another, there are so many indistinguishable characters that it’s hard to keep track of Who’s on First – after a while I just gave up – and finally, you’re really never sure whether to sympathize with, or be disgusted with, the central character, Becky. Not a case, incidentally, of necessary subtle shading of a complex personality but, as I saw it at least, heavy-handed manipulation of the star’s natural charisma.
Ms. Witherspoon, so lovable and full of girl-next-door freshness in earlier
films such as “Pleasantville” and others, has now matured into a 29 year old
actress capable of wielding wickedness, or whatever, but there is just
something not quite right here. La Witherspoon, with her strange concave
facial structure and prominent chin, is both beautiful and creepy at the
same time, as if something akin to hardening of the faciall arteries has
suddenly set in pre-maturely. She is the absolute center of the film, and
the entire story revolves about her in every way, in a bravura role which
may well bring Oscar nominations her way come March, 2005, but there is
something basically out of sync in this characterization … possibly because
her style of rebelliousness is a little too American underneath the flawless
accent. There may also be a reverse Gunga Din effect operating here,
Director Nair’s inherently Indian sensibilities failing to jive completely with Thackeray’s essential Englishness. It may be noted in passing, that among the few scenes which actually do come to life, are one or two Bollywood type numbers in the bits of the film which are actually set in India.

(2) “5 X 2” (Cinq Fois Deux), France, directed by Francois Ozon. The director, still on the light side of forty (born 1967) has built up a considerable filmography, including such impressive films as “Under The Sand”, starring Charlotte Rampling, (2001), “8 Women” (2002), and “The Swimming Pool” (2003), but is still regarded as a kind of restless wild-child among French film-makers. That view is about to change drastically with the release of his latest piece of work, “5 X 2” starring the magnificent Italian-French actress, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, and currently popular leading man, handsome, brooding Stephane Freiss – who just happens to be the son of Catherine Deneuve.
This is an inspection of a failed marriage told backward, but not at all in
the gimmicky, confusing style of “Memento” a few seasons back. The film starts out in a courtroom where the divorce proceedings of the central couple, Gilles and Marion, are taking place. We sense that the decision to separate is basically “contre-coeur” – counter to their still strong feelings for each other -- and has been brought about by a complicated set of circumstances. Immediately following the settling of the case they retire to a hotel room and make love. Fade to back-track number one. They are still married, but the marriage is getting shaky. At a small dinner party in their fashionable apartment, the husband’s gay brother and his much younger gay lover are invited for dinner. In the amusing Eric Rohmer-like dialogue which ensues, many of the reasons for the shakiness of their marriage come to light, reflected in the open confessions of the gay pair.

The obviously unsettled husband leaves their connubial bed and ends up sleeping with their little son. She wants to make love, but he is “too tired” – (laisse-moi dormir) -- Again a back-track, a few years to her pregnancy. There are complications and the child is delivered prematurely
by Caesarean section. Marion’s parents – the brilliant older actors Michel
Lonsdale and Francoise Fabian – stage a hilarious quarrel in the hospital
room. Then follows a scene of pure magic. Late at night, still wobbly on
her feet from the operation, Marion hobbles out of her room and sneaks over to the incubator room where new-borns are kept. There is a grave question as to whether her tiny pre-mature child will survive. Bathed in blue light we see Marion gazing through the glass at the pathetic infant struggling for breath. This is a silent scene that lasts several minutes as, on her Madonna-like face, we read the expression of all the feelings and anxieties that every new mother has felt for her offspring since the beginning of time. This is a transcendental sequence of pure cinema that alone marks the film as a masterpiece.
In the final step backward in time, and in the relationship, we find
ourselves at a summer resort in Italy. Gilles is on vacation with an
attractive, but constantly complaining, nagging young woman. Marion shows
up at the same resort, and for a moment we think she’s going to catch him,
in flagrante, with the “other woman” – but no – this is not a sneaky extra-marital affair, for Marion and Gilles barely know each other. Their marriage lies in the soon-to-come future. Gilles, strongly attracted to the secretary from his office back in France, ends up “cheating on his mistress”, as he and Marion go into the water for a dip together against a slowly setting sun. As the sun blinks out behind a mountain in lingering real time the screen goes dark and the film ends – at the beginning. Bruni-Tedeschi is a remarkably beautiful woman and such a natural actress that she seems to be only herself, living the role rather than “playing” it.
Moreover, her beauty composed of large, limpid eyes, an aquiline nose, and
an angular body with unusually narrow hips, is not your Pamela Andersen type
sex-tigress or Rees Witherspoon bouncy, bubbly, blonde bombshell. It’s
another type of beauty, both internal and external – the kind that makes you
fall helplessly in love with her as you watch her. Seeing these two films,
and these two actresses, in rapid succession, was a study in contrasts
– between an overblown Prestige Production and a finely cut gem, between a
Hollywood star on a roll, and a marvellous European actress emanating waves
of unforgettability.

Oh yes, there was another film on the agenda, “Thirst” (ATASH), an Arabic
language entry from Palestine-Israel, by 28 year old Palestinian director,
Tawfik Abu Wael. This is a wide screen study of a miserable Arab family
with a toweringly morose and tyrannical father, living in abject poverty in
a bunker-like abode somewhere out in the desert. A thirty year old
unmarried daughter is regarded as a whore, the son has to quit school
because his schoolmates steal his donkey and write on its body in large
scarlet letters, the words “Brother of a Bitch”, the bulky, illiterate
mother is scruffy but kind, life is a drag from morning till night and,
somewhere lurking in the background, is the State of Israel which,
presumably, is responsible for the condition of this pitiful outback family.
Most of the film is shot in darkness with large facial close-ups of the
principals, often at opposite ends of the screen, as in the early wide
screen days when directors were still trying to figure out how to use all
that extra space. I endured the misery for over an hour, waiting for the
suicide bombing to materialize, but finally realized it was not heading
anywhere but into more and more misery, at which point I cashed in my chips
and headed for the wine counter. The director says his film is not only
about thirst for water -- ( there’s something about a broken water pipe in
there), but “thirst for food, freedom, sex, eroticism, love, desire…”
Unfortunately, all I could see was thirst for a story or, at least, a theme
or an idea.

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