The Man Who Viewed Too Much
26 May 1997

La Promesse

Written and directed by Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Rating: *** ½

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by David Koepp
Adapted from the novel The Lost World by Michael Crichton
Rating: ***

The Van

Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Roddy Doyle
Adapted from the novel The Van by Roddy Doyle
Rating: **

Night Falls on Manhattan

Written and directed by Sidney Lumet
Adapted from the novel Tainted Evidence by Robert Daley
Rating: **


Written and directed by Jacques Doillon
Rating: ***

Ratings are on a four-star scale

Pop quiz: You're a teenager in a Belgian suburb whose father runs an illegal immigrant labor network, smuggling in the desperate and downtrodden from Africa and Eastern Europe and paying them slave wages for manual labor, while simultaneously charging them an arm and a leg to live in the cramped, squalid rooms of the apartment building where the two of you also reside. Naturally, your pop's sketchy sense of ethics has rubbed off on you, and at fifteen you're already an accomplished liar and thief. Nevertheless, when one of the immigrant workers falls from a scaffold on a construction site and is badly injured, you rush to his aid...until your father, fearing an investigation, intervenes, opting instead to deliberately let the man die. Before he breathes his last, however, the victim manages to extract from you a promise: to take care of his wife and infant child, who will be left without any means of support in an unfamiliar country. For reasons that you don't fully understand, you feel an overpowering sense of obligation to this family -- and yet to help them is to destroy your dad, whom you love dearly. What do you do? What do you do?

Genuine moral dilemmas are uncommon in American movies; despite my parody of the original's running "pop quiz" shtick, nobody would ever mistake the paragraph above as a plot summary of Speed 2. Even in serious studio dramas about children divided between loyalty to a parent and the desire to do what's right -- Music Box, say, or the current Night Falls on Manhattan (see below) -- there's usually no real crisis of conscience, and no repercussions. In both of the movies named above, the burning question is: "Did my dad, who seems like such a swell guy, really do these awful things of which he's accused?" Once that question is answered, the movie is over...even though there's never any doubt in the audience's mind about whether the answer will be Yes or No (hint: if it's No, the conclusion is gonna be a tad anticlimactic), and similarly no doubt about how the protagonist will react when (s)he learns the truth (since nothing is more important to a studio executive than ensuring that the main character is always sympathetic). Lone Star, an independent American film, portrays a much more complex and contradictory parent-child relationship...but one in which the parent is long since dead, and the conflict rooted deeply in the past.

In short, I can't think of a recent English-language film as immediately and powerfully concerned with filial confusion and anguish as is La Promesse, by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. There's no mystery in their heartbreaking tale, no "did he or didn't he?" -- young Igor (Jérémie Renier) watches, dumbfounded, from inches away, as his father (Olivier Gourmet) removes the impromptu tourniquet that Igor had fashioned from his belt. Later that night, at dad's insistence, he helps to bury the poor fellow. Has it ever before occurred to him to question his father's decisions, behavior, or authority? The film's early scenes, which deftly and succinctly establish the pair's ruthless, amoral trade, suggest that it hasn't; but judging by the expression on his towheaded face as he watches pop shovel cement upon the corpse of the man he'd hoped to save, those aren't exactly visions of sugar plums dancing in his head. What prevents him from acting immediately is not uncertainty or self-delusion, but love and inertia. (Irrelevant aside: if I ever form a speed-metal band, which is about as likely as Thomas Pynchon writing CD liner notes [what's that you say?], it will be called Inertia.)

But act he does. Like last year's otherwise utterly dissimilar Jerry Maguire, La Promesse depicts the aftermath of a noble, selfless gesture made by someone unaccustomed to bestowing such largesse; in this case, however, the stakes are a great deal higher, and there's nothing remotely funny or charming or romantic about the subsequent ordeal. In a development so downbeat and feel-bad that the mere suggestion of it would have development flacks cowering in abject terror beneath their mahogany desks, the beneficiary of Igor's compassion, Burkina Faso expat Assita (Assita Ouédraogo), is so bewildered and terrified by her circumstances that she turns on her protector, accusing him of trying to kill her baby. The stark narrative culminates in one of the most harrowing familial confrontations imaginable -- all the more remarkable because for once there isn't a handgun in sight. The Dardennes create tension the old-fashioned way: not with rote equations like train + helicopter + plastic explosives = BOOM!, but with volatile human emotions and contrary wills.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first film made by the brothers Dardenne to be shown in the U.S. -- not just commercially, but on the festival circuit as well. (I saw it at last year's New York Film Festival, where it outshone new work by such eminent auteurs as Chen Kaige, Hou Hsiao-hsien, André Téchiné, and Mike Leigh.) I'd assumed that it was, in fact, their debut feature, but I could hardly have been more mistaken: before they turned to narrative fiction films (La Promesse is their third), they spent almost 20 years making documentaries, mostly for television. Or so the critics who received press kits inform me, anyway, and I have no reason whatsoever to doubt them...not because press kits are invariably accurate (ha!), but because La Promesse seems so effortlessly, unselfconsciously natural that it's difficult to believe -- and easy to forget, while it's unspooling in front of you -- that it was deliberately crafted. Every scene, every performance, every emotion feels spontaneous and true, and the film as a whole is so vividly imagined that I think I'd be momentarily nonplussed if I came across any on-set photos or video footage. Of course, I'd probably fall over dead if I ran across a story about the film in the national news media, but that's a different matter entirely.

Since I began writing this review, I've seen La Promesse a second time. As a general rule, I try to see my favorite movies at least twice, but I usually wait until they hit the bargain houses (or until I can sidle in from an adjacent auditorium) before returning. In this case, however, I shelled out the full $8 -- in part because I was eager to relive the experience, but also because it had been more than seven months since I'd seen it the first time, and I thought that I might well have forgotten significant details that I could incorporate into, say, this very paragraph. (My memory for plot minutiae is notoriously bad, and I've even been known to blank on entire films. For example, I had completely forgotten, until I stumbled onto the title about an hour and a half ago in my master film list, that I'd seen Nicholas Ray's Flying Leathernecks, and had to look it up in Maltin before I could even vaguely recall what the hell it was about (flying leathernecks, as it happens). Understandable, though, since I saw it a small lifetime ago: 8 August 1996. Hell, Bob Dole was still a presidential candidate back then [arguably].)

As it turned out, however, the refresher course was unnecessary: on the second go-round, I experienced La Promesse less as "that movie I saw last autumn" than as "that thing that happened to some folks I knew last year." This sensation was so disorienting, on the few occasions that I became conscious of it, that I fought against it, by attempting to envision the world beyond the frame as a set -- imagining, for instance, the boom operator standing a few feet to Igor or Roger's left, holding the microphone just above their heads, wondering how much longer it would be before somebody called lunch, trying hard not to cough. It didn't work. The illusion was too strong, the verisimilitude too great. I'm not entirely sure what that betokens, as I don't necessarily believe that filmmakers should strive for realism -- many, if not most, of my favorite films feature ostentatious artifice -- but there's no question that it grabbed me as I've seldom been grabbed by a movie this plain. If nothing else, it's the cheapest special effect I've ever encountered, and somebody ought to run and tell James Cameron, pronto.

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And now for something completely different. By now, the dual verdict on The Lost World: Jurassic Park is already in: the moviegoing public has descended upon theaters in sufficient numbers to guarantee it a place among the top ten moneymakers of all time, and virtually everybody who cares about film as an art form has proclaimed it a soulless, sadistic, braindead affront to humanity. "Where is the awe?" Roger Ebert wants to know. "Where is the sense that if dinosaurs really walked the earth, a film about them would be more than a monster movie?"

I'll tell you where, Rog: back in the original Jurassic Park, to which The Lost World is superior in every conceivable way. Spielberg's latest commercial juggernaut is no great shakes -- we ain't talkin' Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark here, by a long shot -- but it worked for me as light entertainment precisely because it's nothing more, nor less, than a monster movie, with the dinosaurs a fun variant on the atomic mutants of the '50s or the carnivorous aliens of the '80s. Correctly assuming that 99% of the people queueing for Lost World will have seen Jurassic Park, Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp have wisely dispensed with all of the tedious oohing and aahing that bogged down the original. Jeff Goldblum, returning as chaos expert Ian Malcolm (whose tendency to pontificate about quantum mechanics has also been given the heave-ho), deftly pricks the wonder balloon with the quip that appeared in the trailers and TV ads, and the running and screaming that he promises commences shortly thereafter. From that point forward, it's scaly things attacking gooshy things, with nary a pause for breath.

Regular readers of this site may find themselves a bit confused, given my previous tirades about the evils of idiotic summer blockbusters. Is it not true, for example, that the characterization in The Lost World leaves a great deal to be desired? (It is.) Would "the plot of The Lost World" not likely be the #1 answer to the hypothetical Family Feud query, "Name something extremely perfunctory?" (It would.) Did I, perchance, fail to notice that many of the events depicted in the film make little or no sense, and that some clearly defy the physical laws of the universe as we currently understand them? (I did not.) What, in short, is the difference between this dopey thrill ride and last year's dopey thrill rides (Twister, The Rock), upon which I heaped so much deserving scorn?

Just this: The Lost World has the courage of its convictions, however ridiculous and shallow those convictions might be. It is a movie about dinosaurs on the rampage, and by god, dinosaurs on the rampage are what we get. (Amazing dinosaurs they are, too, particularly in their interactions with human beings. The special effects here are much more convincing than those in Jurassic Park, and certain shots, such as the one in which two tussling raptors essentially roll over Julianne Moore, seem no less impossible a technical feat than does the cloning of the creatures themselves.) And that, thank christ, is all we get. We do not get, for example, a maudlin subplot in which our hero, who loathes children, finds himself gradually developing an affectionate bond with the two bratty tykes inadvertently entrusted to his care when a tyrannosaur mistakes their party for pâté de foie gras. (A subplot about Malcolm as an absent father is introduced, but blessedly forgotten. Nor is any comment made about the fact that his daughter is black, though Malcolm is white; this omission has led to a minor hullabaloo in rec.arts.movies.current-films, with those complaining that it's a distraction apparently genuinely unaware that they are racist fuckheads.) There are no melancholy conversations over ice cream; no long stretches of patronizing, hokey exposition about the vicious nature of an animal we're going to see in action three reels later; no laughably superficial explanations of chaos theory. Everything that didn't work in the first picture has been gutted, and what remains is skeletal but bluntly effective.

What I like about The Lost World, in short, is that it has no pretenses. Twister tried to make you care about the romantic tension between the "characters" played by Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, and failed miserably; The Lost World, by contrast, couldn't care less about any of the people who inhabit its narrative, except insofar as whether they will or will not wind up as dinosaur chow. To folks like Ebert, that's a criticism; from my point of view, it's a compliment: the filmmakers didn't waste my time with superfluous crap. Sure, I'd prefer a monster movie with memorable characters and a compelling, plausible storyline, given my druthers. Like I said, this is no Jaws...but neither is it Secrets & Lies, and ultimately those virtues are expendable in a picture of this sort, provided there's sufficient chomp-chomp action to keep one awake and on the edge of one's seat. Given a choice between lame characters and plot, or no characters and plot, I'll plump for the latter, frankly. It's less distracting, and far less irritating.

Other reasons I preferred The Lost World to Jurassic Park, in no particular order: (1) more Jeff Goldblum; (2) less Richard Attenborough; (3) better set pieces (the trailer on the cliff, the raptors in the grass, the compys that should have eaten Attenborough in the first film eating Peter Stormare in this one instead); (4) how considerate or cute you are is no longer directly proportional to how likely it is that you will die a hideous death (though how prominently the name of the actor playing you appears in the opening credits is still a factor); (5) speaking of which, Pete Postlethwaite; (6) realistically speaking, there was nowhere to go but up.

And, of course, (7) just to be a contrary bastard. (You knew it! You knew it all along!)

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IN BRIEF: Then, last month, as it must to all ongoing artistic concerns, mediocrity came to the series of films adapted from Roddy Doyle's Barrytown novels. (Name that allusion: #16 of 300.) The first two -- Alan Parker's energetic The Commitments and Stephen Frears' touching The Snapper -- each wound up on one of my year-end top ten lists, and I expected no less from The Van, especially given that both Frears and star Colm Meaney have returned from the previous installment (Meaney, in fact, has appeared in all three). Unfortunately, the well appears to have run dry, albeit for reasons that I find difficult to pinpoint. Superficially, everything seems to be in order -- the blustery, engaging performances; the pungent Irish dialogue; the lovingly detailed milieu -- and yet The Van nonetheless feels hollow, rote, dead on arrival. Some scenes almost play as a weak, unfunny parody of the previous movies, as if nobody involved could be bothered to invest them with genuine emotion. Whatever the reason, the spark is gone, and you're better off curled up at home with a paperback of Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha! Ha! Ha!. "Ha! Ha! Ha!," coincidentally, is my response to those critics (notably the ever-deluded Michael Medved) who have declared Sidney Lumet's eminently laughable Night Falls on Manhattan one of the year's finest films. True, I was leaning that way myself, during the picture's masterful initial half hour or so; Lumet is an old pro, and the setup for his umpteenth look at New York's corrupt police 'n' politicians is so skillfully, confidently presented that it feels anachronistic, as if nobody had remembered to inform him that Hollywood movies are no longer this coherent or intelligent. Evidently, however, Night Falls on Manhattan was shot in sequence, and after the first two reels had been assembled, and studio executives had recoiled in horror at the professionalism evident in every frame, some lackey was dispatched to the set to ensure that the rest of the movie would be suitably moronic. ("Dailies look great, Sid, but the pace is a bit leisurely -- how about if Andy Garcia leaps from his first successful trial appearance to district attorney of the nation's largest city in about four months by the narrative calendar and maybe thirty or forty seconds of screen time?") Those who seek unintentional hilarity should be sure to catch the least convincing, least passionate screen romance in many a moon, with Lena Olin ("gotta have a babe, Sid! Maybe someone who'll appeal to the European market, you know?") and Garcia exhibiting all the sexual and emotional rapport of two sponges (the dead kind). For what it's worth, Ian Holm and Ron Leibman are excellent, as usual. If you're in the mood for some phenomenal acting, though, I suggest that you hustle over to the nearest theater showing Ponette, which boasts the finest ensemble cast I've seen to date this year. In one sense, this is unremarkable, since French imports, whatever their other faults, almost invariably feature terrific performances; in another sense, however, it's quite extraordinary, since the average age of the film's principal cast is perhaps five. Four-year-old Victoire Thivisol, who won the Best Actress award at Venice last year for her work in this film, has received the lion's share of the attention -- and understandably so, since Ponette is about how she copes with the sudden death of her mother in an automobile accident -- but director Jacques Doillon coaxes stunningly naturalistic performances from all of the kids, and his script (reportedly fashioned largely from overheard conversations among children) depicts the agonies and ecstasies of toddlerhood -- emphasis on the former -- with a clarity and an absence of sentimentality not seen since...well, Truffaut (and before that, Clement's Forbidden Games). Essentially plotless, the film is sometimes repetitive, and it takes an unwelcome and almost literal turn into Deus Ex Machina Lane in the final reel, complete with absurd homilies that undermine the complexity of everything that came before. Still, the portrait of anguished childhood it offers is so indelible that I'm willing to forgive the hokey, misguided conclusion. My memory, like yours, is hazy, but what I dimly recall of my very formative years looks and feels not at all unlike Ponette. Only with a lot less frolicking in the countryside, and a lot more Underdog reruns.

Next time (in all likelihood): Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Chronicle of a Disappearance, The Pillow Book, Portland