Archive for October 8, 1999

Random Hearts

October 8, 1999

Slow-moving targets (and I do mean slow-moving) like Random Hearts are almost too easy. C’mon, give it a break: It’s about pain and loss, it tries to be a movie for grown-ups, it … it … No, I can’t do it. It’s a big unnecessary rectangle in the dark, that’s what it is, and it takes up entirely too much of our time. God help anyone who wanders into Random Hearts expecting a few laughs and a few tears: It’s stubbornly unmoving (in all respects), and if it isn’t art or entertainment, what is it?

What it’s not is plausible drama. The premise is that the wife of our hero, Internal Affairs cop Dutch Van Den Broeck (Harrison Ford), and the husband of our heroine, politician Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas), were carrying on an affair. The cheating spouses were seated together on a plane that went down en route to Miami. So Dutch and Kay are drawn together by their mutual loss and feelings of betrayal; she wants to put the whole sad thing behind her and focus on her congressional race, while he wants to dig around and figure out why his wife was so inconsiderate as to cheat on him and then die before he could bust her for it. At least I think that’s what his crusade is about.

At some point during the crucifyingly dull proceedings — I guess it was during the extremely odd and passionless sex scene between Dutch and Kay in a parked car — I began to amuse myself by thinking of Random Hearts as a somber mainstream version of David Cronenberg’s Crash. Some of the themes are similar: Dutch and Kay share grief and sadness that nobody else understands, like the car-crash cultists in the Cronenberg film. Problem is, Crash was intentionally cold and unromantic, whereas this movie is supposed to be about how these two broken people warm to one another and put each other back together. And it doesn’t work.

Who ever told Harrison Ford he was a romantic leading man? Women may find him sexy in a retro, manly, cowboy-carpenter kind of way, but he lacks the mischievous spark of a Mel Gibson or the self-deprecating boyishness Kevin Costner used to allow himself to show. Kay seems to fall for him because he’s as glum and colorless as she is, and poor Kristin Scott Thomas, after this movie and The Horse Whisperer, is well on her way to becoming Hollywood’s resident cold fish who needs a real man to loosen her up. Put this woman in a comedy again before it’s too late.

The movie, directed at a crawl by Sydney Pollack (as if trying to duplicate the deadly pacing of his climactic scene with Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut), throws in a half dozen needless complications, not the least of which is a corrupt-cop subplot — what is this, The Devil’s Own 2? — that could’ve shortened the film by a good half hour if taken out. Kay worries about the impact the affair — both her husband’s and the one she’s having with Dutch — might have on her campaign, while Dutch can’t let go of the idea that his wife lied to him. Every so often they sit around together and occasionally manifest strange little things on their faces — could those actually be smiles? In a movie as morose as this? Or maybe it’s just gas. (Ford’s performance here makes his burned-out cop in Blade Runner look like Ed Grimley.)

One neat way to do Random Hearts might have been as a dark comedy. Why not have Kay’s husband be a worthless wimp dragging her campaign down, or why not make Dutch’s wife a sharp-tongued bitch? Then they could actually be relieved that their cheating spouses went down in flames, so that they could get together and have some fun. But fun is alien to this movie, and we don’t even notice much affection between the respective couples when the cheating spouses are still alive. So we don’t feel anything has been lost, except maybe 133 minutes of our lives.


October 8, 1999

431-romance-enOne wants to give the benefit of the doubt to an ambitious film like Catherine Breillat’s Romance, particularly if one wants to seem hip and liberated; but what is one to make of the film as a film? It cries out for interpretation, but then it doesn’t trust us to do it — the movie helpfully interprets itself at every turn. The miserable protagonist Marie (Caroline Ducey), stuck in a sexless relationship with a dull male model (Sagamore Stévenin), mopes about numbly, delivering many Deep Thoughts (either aloud or in her head) about the metaphysics of sex, the allure of domination or anonymous fornication, and so on. How nice of Breillat to include the Cliff’s Notes for the movie within the movie itself.

Romance is bound to be praised for its bravery, its insistence on being a philosophical porn art-house film (though it’s not really pornographic — more on that later), but it’s little more than a glacially paced term paper on female sexuality, with none of the wit or perversity that directors like Stanley Kubrick or David Cronenberg (or, not to sound sexist, Mary Harron or Lynne Stopkewich) would have brought to it. At times, the movie plays like what might happen if Cronenberg decided to make a porn film (I mean a real porno, not Crash). The elegant photography by Yorgos Arvanitis, the cold-as-ice score by Raphaël Tidas and DJ Valentin — the style is definitely austere, distanced, clinical. Yet what feels rigorous and probing in Cronenberg comes across, in Breillat’s hands, as methodical and lumbering. The movie seems to have no curiosity about its characters, who exist only to represent one thing or another, or to prove one point or another. Breillat, we may feel, had this film in her head too long; by the time it got out, it had hardened into dogma.

Disgusted with her immovable boyfriend and with herself for being powerless to move him, Marie throws herself into a variety of joyless affairs. She declares her desire to become a mere “hole,” a receptacle for male lust. She meets a virile guy named Paolo (Rocco Siffredi, an Italian porn star) and takes him to bed, but her existential angst seems to rub off on him; at the first sign of his neediness, she’s quick to dump him. She moves on to her boss (François Berléand), a school principal (did I mention she’s a grammar-school teacher? shades of Looking for Mr. Goodbar), and the respectable-looking, gray-haired principal turns out to be a philosophical horndog who claims to have slept with 10,000 women. He also has quite the collection of bondage paraphernalia, only some of which he actually knows how to operate. They seem to make the perfect couple — they can have anguished BDSM sex and then dispassionately deconstruct it afterward. Ah, the French and their pillow talk. Somewhere in there, Marie also falls into an anonymous clinch with a man off the street (literally), who pleasures her orally and then flips her over for some rough rear entry. Her response to this, as he climaxes and scurries off like a bug, is “I’m not embarrassed, asshole!” Which, I suppose, can mean a woman has the real sexual power over a man even when she is being raped. I can’t imagine this film’s being a favorite of Andrea Dworkin.

Nor will it be a favorite of prurient guys (or women). Romance, like Crash, is too cold to generate much heat. But Crash was positing a sort of alternate universe in which the collision of metal was sexier than the merging of flesh, and probing the sexual imaginations of those who lived there. Romance locks us inside one unhappy, frustrated woman’s mind — could it be a high-toned version of Diary of a Mad Housewife? — and from the flat, declamatory tone of Marie’s pronouncements, we’re clearly meant to feel that her truths are universal truths. To her credit, Breillat does debunk a good deal of male bulling about female eroticism — the title is obviously ironic — and many women may connect with the spirit of some of Marie’s musings, if not their specifics.

But when it comes time to illustrate Marie’s loss of inhibitions, Breillat drops the ball. Romance is probably not half as explicit as you’ve been led to believe. Yes, at two points we do see the mouth of established actress Caroline Ducey make (brief) contact with a (limp) penis; we get a couple of vagina shots, which feel suspiciously like inserts, and a “money shot” during Marie’s fever-dream fantasy of a brothel in which only female crotches and legs are available to men. (As if that were all men wanted, when you strip away all the bullshit. It’s the old tired argument again.) We see why Rocco Siffredi is a successful porn star, too. But a lot of the sex here, while a good deal lengthier than you’d find in an R-rated film, is really no more revealing than anything you’d catch on late-night Cinemax. Much of it appears to be very skillfully simulated, not real. I mention all this only to caution those who’ve been waiting for a serious drama with hardcore sex. Keep waiting, or haul out your old copy of In the Realm of the Senses again.

One critic went so far as to compare Romance with Luis Buñuel’s erotic farce/masterpiece Belle de Jour, which is a little like comparing a dull Protestant minister’s sermon with a Lenny Bruce routine. Both films do show the character arc of a woman caught up in her own purple fantasies, except Breillat leaves out the purple. Her people are bleached robots in lockstep, and in case you didn’t get her point, she comes up with an ending that redefines “contrived,” involving a gas oven left on and a nick-of-time trip to the delivery room. Yep, once again Marie spreads her legs, becoming the “hole” she said she wanted to be, only this time the hole produces life instead of swallowing male insecurity. (The life it produces is male, too. Another man for Marie to coddle.) You can’t argue with a movie like Romance; it has its mind made up before it sits down to the table. Unless you’re French, or would like to seem French, there’s not much point to arguing about the movie, either. It is what it is, and it says what it says. It’s more tell than show.