The Man Who Viewed Too Much
28 April 1997

Irma Vep

Written and directed by Olivier Assayas
Rating: ****

Hollow Reed

Directed by Angela Pope
Written by Paula Milne
Rating: ***

Romy and Michele's High School Reunion

Directed by David Mirkin
Written by Robin Schiff
Rating: **

Ratings are on a four-star scale

With but a third of calendar year 1997 behind us to date -- and the least interesting third, so far as new film releases are concerned, at that -- it's perhaps a bit premature for speculation about my 1997 top ten list. In fact, I do my damndest to avoid even thinking about The List until mid- to late January, after I've seen all of the contenders -- fearing, for no logical reason that I can discern, that I will somehow "taint" the process by disproportionate or inequitable contemplation of individual titles. (Not to mention that when my right hemisphere announces early returns, my disillusioned left hemisphere doesn't even bother to go to the polls.) Even as I'm assigning star ratings left and right, I delude myself into believing that I've given the matter no thought whatsoever, and that it's anybody's race until the buzzer sounds on 31 December.

Not only is this hooey, it's futile; despite my good intentions, one film invariably establishes an early lead, becoming the film to beat for the top spot. Sometimes that picture is supplanted (my favorite of '94, Kieslowski's Red, was a December release); sometimes, as in '95 (Exotica, seen on 3 March) and '96 (Paradise Lost, released commercially last fall but seen by me on 28 March), the lead proves insurmountable. Whether Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas' dizzying, masterful essay on the dismal state of contemporary French cinema and the uncanny grace of Maggie Cheung, will retain the pole position nine months hence remains to be seen, but let me note now, just in case Zeitgeist Films needs another blurb, that it's "far and away the best film of the year to date!!" (Note to Zeitgeist: I've even supplied my own exclamation points!! You're welcome!!) I saw it over seven months ago, at last year's New York Film Festival, and I don't think as many as four days have passed since in which I haven't thought about it, and wished for May to hurry up and arrive so that I can see it again.

Fortunately for my peace of mind, I can see it again. Whether or not Irma Vep will be coming to a theater near you, on the other hand, is a fair question. Assayas has made at least half a dozen features to date -- including at least one minor masterpiece, 1994's heartbreaking Cold Water -- and is widely regarded internationally as one of France's best young directors, yet Irma Vep is the first of his films to receive any kind of commercial release in the U.S., probably because it stars a well-known Hong Kong actress with a strong cult following. Even so, it's barely being released at all; in New York, it's getting a limited two-week engagement at Film Forum (though I won't be a bit surprised if the run is extended, especially since Secrets & Lies, which is already out on video fer chrissakes, is currently playing in one of their three houses), and I've heard that it may screen only six or seven times during its brief Chicago run in June. I'm tempted to launch into an extended rant at this point about the dismaying number of terrific foreign-language films that are seen by virtually nobody in America, and the sad cowardice of independent distributors, and the pathetic provinciality of the American filmgoing public, but I've got two more films to get to this week, and I'm already three days behind schedule with this column, so I'll give it a miss. (Please, don't weep.)

Some of you may have noticed, with a growing feeling of consternation, that I'm talking about virtually everything except for the film itself. This is by design. For one thing, Irma Vep is the sort of freewheeling, spontaneous, disorganized picture that defies casual summary; instead of a straightforward "they're on a bus, and if it goes slower than 50 mph it'll explode" or "she's white and finds out the daughter she gave up for adoption twenty-odd years ago is black," you wind up with something like "well, Maggie Cheung plays herself, and she's starring in a remake of the old French silent serial Les vampires, being directed by this aging Nouvelle Vaguer played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, and, um, well, the female costume designer has a huge crush on her, and so that's one thing, and, okay, uh, of course there are problems during the shoot, the dailies look ridiculous, and, uh, there's this amazing sequence where Maggie gets into character or something by creeping around the hotel she's staying in, um, and there's a lot of talk about French movies vs. Hollywood movies or Hong Kong action flicks, but not didactic or anything, or anyway didactic in a really funny way, and there's also a lot of, it's really, and the ending is should just see it, okay?" No matter how elegant the prose, every description of Irma Vep that I've seen to date is about that coherent, and so I cheerfully concede defeat from the get-go.

Another reason that I'm being evasive is more heartfelt: I want you to see Irma Vep, if you can, and to get as much of a kick out of it as I did, and I suspect that the less you know about it going in, the more you'll likely enjoy it. That's true of every film, of course, to a certain extent -- I can't think of many that are improved by advance knowledge of specific details -- but it's especially true in this case, because of Assayas' helter-skelter, flotsam/jetsam, hell-why-not-the-kitchen-sink-as-well? approach. Though there's little plot to speak of -- the shooting of the Les vampires remake provides a skeletal framework for Assayas' scattershot riffing , but that's about it -- a surprise awaits you around every corner; one of the film's many pleasures is that it's virtually impossible to guess what might happen next. (The conclusion, in particular, is a stunner, virtually guaranteed to knock you out of your seat...though it probably won't be as powerful in the tiny theaters at which the film is destined to play in this country as it was when I saw it on one of the biggest screens in New York, with the sound cranked to an almost deafening level.) Were I to relate the stroke of inspiration that led to the casting of "Cheung" in a quintessentially French production; or what becomes of the increasingly high-strung director played by Léaud, and the tepid footage that he shot; or the bizarre role that Atom Egoyan regular/spouse Arsinée Khanjian plays in the narrative, I would be doing you a disservice...and so, in the immortal words of a thug in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, I'm going to "shut up shuttin' up" now.

Still, I suppose I ought to make some kind of token attempt to explain why Irma Vep merits all four stars, for the benefit of newcomers to the site and/or skeptics. (Quick aside: some readers may recall that I gave the film three-and-a-half stars last September, immediately after seeing it. My justification for the upgrade is this: I changed my mind.) The acting, certainly, is a major asset. Cheung, in the difficult role of "herself" (and I don't intend that adjective facetiously), is superb, the eye of the frenetic hurricane of activity and anxiety that characterizes the fictional project, both on the set and off. As an amalgam of every auteur he worked with in the '60s and '70s, Léaud, likewise, is tormented perfection, obliterating memories of Antoine Doinel. Both are upstaged, incredibly, by relative newcomer Nathalie Richard (who also wowed me in Rivette's Haut bas fragile), as the lovelorn costume designer; her giddy, uncertain, and somewhat involuntary seduction of Cheung at a party is the picture's comic highlight. And all three are beautifully served by Assayas' remarkably expressive, alarmingly mobile camerawork; shot in Super-16 (I think -- if anybody knows otherwise, please inform me post haste), Irma Vep looks as good, and is as visually distinctive, as films with budgets ten times as sizable.

For all its technical accomplishment, however, what's stuck with me more than anything else over the past months is the film's unique tone, which is one of unabashed playfulness. With some movies, you get the vague impression that the people behind the camera were having a fine old time, but the result is nonetheless stale and lifeless; for whatever reason, their enthusiasm and high spirits weren't captured on celluloid. (Speaking of high spirits, Neil Jordan's film of that title is a perfect example of this phenomenon, as is his remake of We're No Angels.) Irma Vep's energy, conversely, is contagious; every frame feels like a hallucinatory celebration of what movies can do, and the overall sensation is that of attending a really great party (and I say that as someone who generally hates parties, and the manufactured "fun" that most of them involve). That's not to imply that the film is slight (though some critics have made that accusation, apparently so dazzled by its kinetic surface that it never occurred to them to look deeper); Assayas is clearly as serious as an aneurysm about its various subjects, especially that of the future of French cinema. His gravity, however, is apparent only in the film's subtext. The text itself is a blast.

Sorry, make that "a blast!!" "I can't remember the last time I had so much fun in a movie theater!!" "You owe it to yourself to see Irma Vep!!" "Calamity will befall you if you miss this film -- for example, pestilence, or the unfortunate death of your eldest male child!!" "The best movie with an anagrammed title since Reality Bites ('easily bitter'; 'sybarite lite'; 're: bestiality')!!" Take what you can use, Zeitgeist. I'm doing what I can.

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If there's one thing that Irma Vep does not remotely resemble, it's television. Hollow Reed, Angela Pope's film (from a script by Paula Milne) about a dad who suspects his son is being physically abused by his ex-wife's lover, on the other hand, is basically a TV-movie disguised as a theatrical film. It's an uncommonly subtle and intelligent TV-movie, though, and scores bonus points for confronting twice the usual number of topical issues (which is to say, two).

Child abuse, of course, isn't exactly controversial or misunderstood -- I think we all agree that it's a Bad Thing, occasional wishes of retroactive misery for Macauley Culkin notwithstanding. And while it's virtually impossible not to immediately sympathize with the plight of a kid who's being manhandled into the local emergency room on a regular basis, it's also difficult to imagine what other emotions such a tale could possibly evoke; sympathy for a victim, per se, doesn't make for compelling drama, as Welcome to the Dollhouse recently demonstrated. What makes Hollow Reed more than just another maudlin cautionary tale is the inclusion of issue the second: the child's father, Martyn Wyatt, is gay. This seems incidental at first -- in fact, it's quite a while before his sexual preference is explicitly revealed, though there are plenty of clues for those who are paying attention -- but by the time custody hearings are underway, it's anything but, as both the defendant's attorney and the judge seem more concerned about young Oliver Wyatt's potential exposure to his father's "lifestyle" than to the possibility that his mother's boyfriend is treating him the way underpaid airline employees treat luggage.

Movies like this one, which don't lend themselves to wild flights of cinematic fancy (Pope's few excursions into visual poetry are merely distracting), generally succeed or fail on the strength of their performances. On television, Hollow Reed might have starred, say, Ted Danson, and wouldn't have been worth mentioning, much less watching. Instead, Hal Hartley regular Martin Donovan, in his first leading role, plays Martyn-avec-un-'y', with Land and Freedom's Ian Hart as Tom, his domestic partner (not a phrase I often use, but the fact that the two men are living together in a monogamous relationship is crucial to the story). Both, typically, are excellent (though the scenes between their two characters are among the weakest in the film -- the relationship is painfully underdeveloped), as are Joely Richardson (Drowning by Numbers, I'll Do Anything -- [your punch line here]) as mum Hannah and newcomer Sam Bould as Oliver. Even when the script feels as though it had been generated by one of those moronic screenwriting applications -- and there are several scenes during which you can almost see the words MOTIVATION and BACKSTORY and FORESHADOWING at the periphery of the frame, underlined in ballpoint and highlighted in yellow -- the actors' conviction and skill conveys such a sense of verisimilitude that what might ordinarily have struck you as clichés somehow seem like simple truths.

There is one bum performance, unfortunately: as Frank, the film's bogeyman, Jason Flemyng works overtime to appear scary and threatening, scowling up a storm, when a faintly jovial approach would have been far more chilling (think Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter). However, he redeems himself in what is easily Hollow Reed's most remarkable scene, in which Frank pleads for Hannah to give him another chance after she discovers, to her passionate horror, what he's been doing to her son. The scene begins, as it must, with Hannah in tears, demanding angrily that Frank leave and never return; it ends, as one felt it could not, with the couple making love on the living room carpet. Incredibly, every moment in-between feels completely truthful. This is no small accomplishment. To wit: though I always enjoy watching or reading Richard III I.ii, in which Richard seduces Anne just days after he's murdered both her husband and her father, I never truly believe in Anne's acquiescence; for all of Shakespeare's skill with the English language and understanding of human nature, the scene feels contrived, no matter how brilliant the actors playing it. Granted, the situation in Hollow Reed is considerably less dramatic -- contusions vs. corpses -- but the dynamic is similar, and Milne, Pope, Flemyng and Richardson somehow collectively make it work: though Frank has been painted as a fiend virtually from frame one, his confession is so convincing, and so moving, that you may find yourself involuntarily wondering whether you'd misjudged him. No other moment in Hollow Reed is half so charged or memorable...but to one-up The Bard, even momentarily? Heck, I'd settle for that.

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Occasionally, I make the mistake of reading other reviews of a film before I've written my own. It's hard to resist this temptation, since I'm insatiably curious about other people's opinions...but resist it I should, because now and again I find myself battling a severe case of writer's block after perusing somebody else's words. Scott Renshaw's work, for some reason, is especially problematic; he and I often disagree -- I can't imagine, for example, how he could possibly prefer Welcome to the Dollhouse to Land and Freedom, and I'm sure he's equally baffled that I'd rather see The Frighteners another ten times than sit through even ten minutes of Dead Man -- but when we're in sync, our aesthetic viewpoints are startlingly similar, and every other month or so I find that he's already written my review of a particular movie, and has even had the gall to include it on his own page under his own byline! The nerve of some people, ya know?

As you may have guessed, the key word in the phrase "now and again" above is "now." I've been trying to write my review of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, on and off, for the past four days, and have made frustratingly little headway, largely because Scott's review, which I stupidly read a couple of days after seeing the movie, made just about every point I'd planned to make myself -- often using the same analogies I'd intended to use, or dishearteningly similar ones. Consequently, every sentence I attempted to formulate seemed hopelessly derivative, as if I'd been asked to rewrite something that required no revision. Worse, I felt like a ruthless and unprincipled Hollywood screenwriter; it's common practice in the industry for writers to make pointless, arbitrary changes to another writer's work, simply because they don't receive screen credit, according to the rules of the Writer's Guild, unless they substantially alter the material (I believe at least 51% of the rewrite has to be original). And if I must behave like a hack, I'd at least like to be paid like a hack.

For a while, I made a halfhearted attempt to do what I usually do in this situation, which is to disguise the essentially redundant nature of my thinking in a torrent of smartass remarks -- reasoning that, however much my own ideas might mirror Scott's (and vice versa -- I should stress that I'd formulated most of them well before I saw his review; he just beat me to the keyboard, 'cause the weasel has a press pass), nobody could mistake my hyperbolic, rambling prose style for his own clear, concise paragraphs. Maybe I'd merely be repeating what others before me had said, but by god I could repeat it in my own inimitable fashion! For example, here's a sentence I was planning to include in this review (okay, so I technically am including it):

"Just as the picture finally seems to be building up a head of steam, Mirkin and Schiff unaccountably stop it dead in its tracks for a dream sequence so extended that you could easily use the bathroom, feed the meter, buy some popcorn, stop to think about that article you read a while back about how movie theater popcorn is more fattening than 200 Big Macs and a small order of fries, attempt to return the popcorn, demand to speak to the manager, threaten a lawsuit, return the popcorn, use the bathroom again, and still make it back to your seat before Kudrow opens her eyes and groggily shakes her head."

That's a decent little riff, I think, but the thought of trying to maintain that level of invention for an entire review made my head hurt, and seemed pointless and obnoxious besides. So I'm giving up. If you want to know what I thought of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, trundle your browser over to Palo Alto, CA, and read Scott's review. Tell him I sent you. Tell him I said hello. Tell him I suggested that his criticism might be even more impressive -- might even win the Pulitzer Prize! -- if he were to ruminate just a bit longer about each picture before committing his thoughts to electronic paper...say, until about two weeks after the film opens commercially. Tell him that oughta give me enough time. No, wait, don't tell him that last part.

Next week (in all likelihood): The Bloody Child, Breakdown, Chasing Amy, The Designated Mourner, Diary of a Seducer, Nowhere