"I could look at that view forever," says a character in Clare Peploe's
"High Season" as he stares out at the blue Mediterranean. Lulled into a
state of perfect contentment by the gorgeous surroundings, you may feel
that nothing could be more worth your time than that same luxurious
indolence. Summer is the perfect season to discover the movies of Clare
Peploe. "High Season" (1988) and "Rough Magic" (1997) are like perfect
vacations, yummy getaways filled with stunning views and interesting
people. They're blessedly relaxing and fizzy at the same time, with just
enough going on in them to prevent you from totally blissing out. Peploe
knows that putting her audience at their ease is the best way to heighten
their appreciation of sensuous pleasures, and the smallest details in these
movies seem sinfully delightful: ripe cherries served in the blazing midday
sun; a cold, refreshing beer; comfortable wrinkled linen worn next to the
skin; a lazily smoked cigarette; the sight of a woman's bounteous curls
hanging down her back.
Peploe makes comedies that are damnably hard to classify. She's drawn to
exotic settings -- the Greek isle of Rhodes in "High Season," rural Mexico
in "Rough Magic" -- and plots that start out as seemingly random bits and
pieces. The pleasure lies in watching how those disparate parts come
together. It's a bit like sitting out a get-acquainted dance at some
tropical resort for the kick of seeing who'll pair off with whom.
Best known for the work she and her brother Mark have done on screenplays
for Antonioni and for her husband, Bernardo Bertolucci, Peploe is
singularly talented and deserves to be known as a director in her own
right. Her pictures appear loose-limbed and casual (that's part of their
appeal), but they're really trickily structured affairs. "High Season" is amazingly accomplished for a
first film; it seems so effortless. The characters are either likable
phonies or ordinary people who give in to silly enchantment under the
Grecian sun (and especially the moonlight). As shot by Chris Menges, "High
Season" is beautiful beyond belief. The vistas of sea and sky are so
crystalline that the horizon is as sharp as a tailor's crease in a new pair
Jacqueline Bisset plays Katherine Shaw, an English photographer who may be
forced, in financial straits, to sell her hilltop Rhodes home. The place is
her refuge, and she hopes to salvage it by selling a Grecian pot given to
her by her dear friend, an elderly art historian named Basil Sharp (the
matchless Sebastian Shaw). Sharpie, as he's affectionately called, insists
the pot is a fake, but a Greek art dealer named Konstantinis (Robert
Stephens) is prepared to pay as if it's the real thing. The other revelers
at this midsummer ball include a British civil servant, Rick Lamb (Kenneth
Branagh), who's brought his wife Carol (Lesley Manville) to Rhodes on a
working holiday. Carol falls for Yanni (Paris Tselios), an ambitious young
merchant who wants to bring Rhodes into the modern age, much to the
consternation of his mother, Penelope (Irene Papas, in a comic version of
the Greek earth goddess roles that have defined her), who claims Yanni's
efforts are a slander to the memory of his dead father, a hero of the Greek
resistance. Yanni hears Carol's name and -- at once -- sees her as
Caroline Lamb, the reincarnation of Lord Byron's great love (Byron
died at Missolonghi, fighting beside Greek insurgents). Rick, meanwhile,
takes one open-mouthed gander at Katherine and is immediately smitten.
Who could blame him? In "High Season," Bisset's acting finally lives up to
her famous beauty. All flowing clothes and lush brown curls, Bisset is more
at ease -- both as an actress and with her own gorgeousness -- than ever.
She's an English rose become a tranquil Mediterranean blossom. When she and
Rick take a moonlit skinny dip, you understand why she's his dream woman,
and the I-can't-believe-my-luck expression on Branagh's gob makes Katherine
seem even more of a dream creature. Mocking bumbling English masculine
pride, Branagh does well what Hugh Grant tends to overdo. There's also
Katherine's ex-husband Patrick (James Fox, a superb farceur), a
sculptor who allows himself to be fruit for the picking of any young female
tourist, and their daughter Chloe (Ruby Baker), a disarmingly inquisitive
and levelheaded little sun sprite.
The jokes have to do with the characters' transformations and their
secrets, which creep out into the open one by one. Nobody has more to hide
than Sharpie. If "High Season" is anyone's movie, it's Sebastian Shaw's. He
delivers his lines with a tart crispness, as if encouraging others to guess
what he teasingly intimates.
"High Season" plays like a debate about tradition vs. progress conducted
at a masquerade ball. Sharpie argues with Konstantinis, Yanni with
Penelope, Katherine with Patrick. Peploe knows that the arguments between
them are unresolvable, and even, on some level, supremely enjoyable. (One
look at Katherine and Patrick squabbling tells you they're meant for each
other.) Disagreements are spice in "High Season," the pleasant irritant of
life in a sun-drenched paradise.
"Rough Magic" is an even more exotic creation, a hard-boiled melodrama
reimagined as a magical realist fable. The movie's source is "Miss Shumway
Waves a Wand," a novel by the British pulp writer James Hadley Chase. The
execution is like some pop-noir daydream of a García Márquez story.
Set in the 1950s, "Rough Magic" stars the radiant Bridget Fonda as Myra
Shumway, a magician's assistant who's breaking up the act to marry a rich,
arrogant dullard (D.W. Moffett) who's been handpicked for a Senate seat.
Myra's boss (Kenneth Mars) insists she's throwing away her true magical
powers, but his scheme to thwart the marriage results in a terrible
accident that sends Myra fleeing to Mexico with incriminating evidence on
her fiancé. He arranges for Alex Ross (Russell Crowe), a newspaper
stringer stationed south of the border, to keep tabs on Myra. They wind up
traveling together, and soon the two of them hook up with Doc Ansell (Jim
Broadbent, who has the distinctive, endearing eccentricity of '30s
character actors like Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton). Doc -- whose
traveling companion is his adorable little Jack Russell terrier, a born
scene stealer -- is a genial con man who nonetheless knows the real thing
when he sees it. Getting a gander at Myra's shaman's belt (a gift from her
boss), he figures she's the gal to discover the ingredients of an ancient
Mexican miracle potion he's been hoping to get his hands on.
This road trip is like a honeymoon that gets under way before the courtship
has barely begun. What happens could be read as a fable about a woman who
comes to learn her own inner strength -- except that the movie isn't sappy
or wide-eyed or preachy. The hocus-pocus of the story is grounded in the
wised-up attitude of noir. When Alex jumps into Myra's convertible, he
gives her a long once-over and announces, "If I couldn't smell tamales
cookin', I'd swear I'd died and gone to heaven." And she replies, "Lie
under the back wheels and I'll do what I can to get you there." Dozens of
movies in the last few years have self-consciously tried to revive noir by
focusing on elaborate period production design or exaggerated brutality.
Peploe's laid-back approach -- epitomized by that exchange between Fonda
and Crowe -- comes closer to the no-big-deal spirit of noir than any of
Russell Crowe gets to be sexy and breezy here in a way that the reductive
machismo of his star-making role in the self-serious "L.A. Confidential"
didn't allow for. (It takes a certain type of movie-star glamour to still
look good with three days' worth of whiskers.) Fonda, with her
shoulder-length pageboy and cinched-to-the-waist dresses (designed by
Richard Hornung), has her best chance ever to parlay her talent for
smoldering insinuation. Visually, she calls up the 19-year-old Lauren
Bacall of "To Have and Have Not," but she's a better actress, and if such a
thing is possible, swings her hips even more enticingly. (Her gait suggests
a naturalistic version of what Fred Astaire meant in "The Bandwagon" when,
seeing Cyd Charisse saunter toward him, he says, "She came at me in
sections.") The burden of the movie's most outlandish plot twists are
square on her shoulders, and she pulls each one off with an assured,
stylish bravado that's flabbergasting.
Peploe is squarely behind Doc Ansell's thesis that real magic isn't the
stuff of tricks but a genuine potent force. "Rough Magic" and "High Season"
suggest she's earned the right to that belief. It's not sleight of hand
that can make lightning strike twice like this. It's the real McCoy.