Beyond the Multiplex

The most amazing film I've seen in a while -- you must immediately try to find it. Plus: A true tale of bad Hollywood parenting, and an up-close look at kick-ass stuntwomen.

Published May 12, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

Nobody makes big, sprawling movie melodramas like Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen" anymore, but that's because nobody ever did. It's been a good season for foreign films already, and a busy few weeks for earnest and sometimes adventurous documentaries. But this film blows everything else I've seen lately out of the water. Everything else for weeks, months, maybe years. This is an explosive, funny, tragic, challenging and constantly surprising movie that seems to encompass all genres -- it's got gunfire and lost love and French hip-hop and Anton Webern chamber music and devastating messages from dead people and the most beautiful femme fatale you've ever seen.

European film doesn't have much traction with American viewers right now, and we could bore ourselves stupid trying to figure out the reasons why. But for God's sake, see this one. When I tell you that it's a French movie that's 150 minutes long -- well, let's face it, your heart sinks. But I was so wrapped up in its world of love and betrayal and madness, its story of a pampered belle and a man crumbling into insanity in a trashed apartment and the skein of invisible threads connecting them, that when it ended I didn't want to leave. If I could have convinced the projectionist at the press screening to load up the first reel and start over, I'd have sat through it again.

I've arrived late to the international party of critics and film buffs celebrating Desplechin, but like anybody getting turned on to a new drug by the cooler kids, I want more and more and more. Desplechin is an admirer of both Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock, and that's a good starting point, as well as a delicious one. A lot of filmmakers talk about bridging the gap between high-gloss pop spectacle and independent auteur cinema, but "Kings and Queen" is one of the best, and most alive, attempts to do that in at least a generation. This is a movie you'll carry with you the rest of your life, maybe the way you carry "Fanny and Alexander" or "Vertigo" or "Berlin Alexanderplatz" or "Wings of Desire" or "Chungking Express" or, you know, fill in the blank yourself. It's really that good.

It wouldn't be fair to stack another dramatic film against "Kings and Queen," so Christophe Honoré's erotic excursion "Ma Mère" (starring Isabelle Huppert as the eponymous hot mama), which is well worth considering on its own terms, will have to wait for next time. Documentary fans, however, have several intriguing offerings on the horizon, including two that go behind the scenes in Hollywood (in quite different directions) and one that unravels a long-standing (and pretty darn kinky) literary mystery.

Four kings, one queen and the passions that link two former lovers
From the very beginning, Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), the protagonist of Kings and Queen" -- or one of its two protagonists, anyway -- makes you uncomfortable. That is, OK, she made me uncomfortable, and profoundly so. She's basically just too damn beautiful, and the effect is both distracting and disorienting. It took me a while to figure out that this was deliberate. As I'd later figure out, Devos has starred in most of Desplechin's six movies and serves as something like his muse (they're not lovers or anything, but to French filmgoers they're strongly identified with each other), so whatever strange and almost indescribable quality she's got, he's pretty familiar with it.

Nora tells us about her life in voice-over in the movie's first scene, while an elegant lounge-jazz version of "Moon River" plays on the soundtrack -- and these are the first clues that there are elements of eccentric movieland artifice competing with Desplechin's naturalistic storytelling mode. There she is, drifting through well-lit Parisian rooms in her immaculate skirts and little periwinkle sweaters and self-absorbed Mona Lisa smile, with her impossibly sculpted alabaster face and her cascade of auburn-goes-to-chestnut hair.

She's been married twice, she tells us; one husband died young and she left the second. She has a 10-year-old son, Elias, whom she rarely sees (and who will play an important role later in the film). She has come to think of love as a question of never having to ask for anything, of having one's needs catered to at all times, and now she's marrying Jean-Jacques, a rich businessman whose cascade of trinkets signify a great love. This is maddening (and, as we later figure out, a lot of it isn't quite true). Then you look at her, a Botticelli goddess let loose in the Dior boutique with a platinum card, and wonder whether she might be the most beautiful woman on the face of the planet.

Unlike most of the beautiful women in French movies, Nora/Devos is withheld from us more than she's given to us. (In this sense, she is very much like one of Hitchcock's ice-queen heroines.) We never see her naked, in either a sexual or a casual context; we don't see her even in her underwear or a bathing suit. We do see her, over the course of the film, after childbirth, after the death of her lover (these are flashbacks) and prostrate with tears after learning that someone she loves -- possibly the only person she loves -- is dying rapidly and painfully. She always looks nearly perfect, as if Raphaël were standing outside the frame, brush before canvas, ready to paint her.

So Nora is a difficult person to like, or to forgive. Of course Devos is an attractive woman, and anyone could be excused for viewing Nora lustfully, but it's not so easy to manage. I think Desplechin pushes his audience, male and female, toward a more complicated response, something closer to classical female jealousy. We admire Nora, we may fear and envy her. We bow to her superiority, yearn for her destruction and marvel at her resiliency. Much later in the film, when someone she loves -- again, it's probably the only person -- says monstrous, unforgivable things to her and wounds her deeply, we feel both gratified and implicated. We would be too polite to say those things to her, but we've been thinking them all along.

Let's back up a little. "Kings and Queen" begins as two different stories -- almost two different movies -- told in different styles. At first they seem unrelated, but we presume correctly that they will eventually collide, and more or less merge. Nora's saga is ripe melodrama, verging on tragedy; this rich, beautiful, contented and emotionally cloistered bourgeoise is subjected to grotesque emotional torment, visited by two ghosts (one forgiving, one much less so), forced to confront or at least consider her own superficiality and egotism. It's hard to say that she doesn't deserve every minute of it.

Meanwhile, the story of Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), a disheveled classical violist whose life has come spectacularly unglued, unfolds in a mode closer to slapstick or farce. In fairness, Ismaël is every bit as impossible and self-absorbed as Nora (and it isn't giving away anything important to reveal that they used to be lovers). But in the Kafka-meets-Chaplin world where he finds himself -- he owes hundreds of thousands in back taxes, has his apartment seized (thanks in part to his drug-crazed attorney) and is forcibly committed to a mental institution -- you can't help feeling sympathy for him, a sympathy that Ismaël, little by little, begins to earn. During our time with him, he will forge a reconciliation with his parents, endure a violent shootout, give away part of his inheritance, fall in love again and decide whether or not to adopt a child, to mention just a few things.

It's hard to describe what makes this interlocking, almost biblical narrative, in which the high will be brought down and the low elevated, so compelling. Desplechin's filmmaking can swing from artfulness to transparency and then back again within moments. His subtly disturbing editing tends to jitter people around the room as if we're simply skipping certain moments within scenes, and the soundtrack music will swell to an intrusive, almost campy level before retreating again.

At the same time, Desplechin never undermines the emotional reality of his characters or situations (the screenplay is co-written with Roger Bohbot); with all their wounds and flaws, Nora and Ismaël and the large cast of characters around them are recognizably human, close cousins to ourselves. In the end, forgiveness, or at least acceptance (which is right next door), is our only option, and his too. If Nora's preening shallowness and Ismaël's self-absorption bother us, it's because they are all too familiar.

Before we move on, one illustration of the film's peculiar density and internal allusiveness: About halfway through, when Ismaël is in especially bad shape, he pays his weekly visit to his psychiatrist. She asks him an important question, given his reputation as an irresponsible skirt-chaser: She wonders if he'd be more likely to forgive the sins of a beautiful woman than an ugly one. This is a question we in the audience have likely been pondering, but Ismaël denies it with great sincerity.

Anyway, so much is going on in this scene (and every other) that the question kind of looms up before you for a moment and then fades. Ismaël has come to the shrink's office accompanied by a couple of muscular male nurses (whom he calls Prospero and Caliban), because he's recently been locked up as a potentially violent nutjob. Then there's Dr. Devereux (Elsa Wolliaston), who discusses Yeats' poetry with him, along with his erotic dreams about the queen of England. Despite her classically French name, Devereux seems from her accent and speech patterns to be American, or possibly British. This eminent shrink whose name strikes fear into the hospital staff is also an imposing black woman, with a gnomic manner more than a little suggestive of the Oracle from the "Matrix" movies.

You can't call this exactly implausible or surreal -- of course there could be an eminent African-American woman doctor working in France -- and Dr. Devereux's color and gender really don't pertain to Ismaël's story in any direct way. But this may convey some idea of how much is going on in every scene of "Kings and Queen," how loaded with eccentric detail it is, and how finely its mode of wrenching emotional realism is balanced on the edge of absurdity and chaos. With all his artifice, his prodigious narrative risks and seemingly undisciplined mélange of styles and tones, Desplechin has made a film that feels more like real life than anything I've seen in years, from any source. It's a masterpiece.

"Kings and Queen" opens May 13 in New York, May 20 in Boston and Los Angeles, May 27 in Chicago and June 3 in San Francisco, with other cities to follow.

"Tell Them Who You Are": In shocking news, Hollywood radical wasn't great dad!
Mark Wexler's cinematic close encounter with his father, the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, sometimes feels like such an intimate and painful matter that you shouldn't be watching it. This is sometimes an inelegant film, and you have to admire the junior Wexler for his honesty: It seems that the price of making his famous father look bad is making himself look like a petulant dweeb at certain moments along the way. But documentary mavens and aficionados of classic Hollywood should stick with "Tell Them Who You Are." At exactly the point where I was trying to decide which of these guys was more irritating, the film finds an entirely new gear, and coasts toward an emotional, and surprisingly redemptive, finish.

Twice an Oscar winner (for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1966 and "Bound for Glory" in 1976) and possessor of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Haskell Wexler is one of the most respected cameramen in American film history. He's also a famously irascible and difficult character, who longed to become a famous director in his own right and never quite got the opportunities. (His feature "Medium Cool," shot against the chaotic backdrop of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, is something of an underground classic.) He tells his son at one point in "Tell Them Who You Are" that he never worked on a film he couldn't have directed better than the actual director did.

Wexler senior is also one of Hollywood's most unrepentant radicals, which is likely to engage the sympathies of this movie's art-house audience. Mark Wexler, who is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker by trade, is far more conservative -- at one point he presents his dad a picture of himself with George H.W. Bush, which seems like gratuitous salt-rubbing. Then again, having Haskell for a dad might turn anybody into a right-winger; for most of the film, he berates his son for his poor camera technique, slipshod methodology and general stupidity. Concerned that the light is hitting the back of his head, he proclaims, "I am the star of your fucking movie!"

Haskell not only drove his wife and son nuts with his egotism and endless lefty monologues, as it turns out, he also cheated on Mark's mom and eventually dumped her. For most of "Tell Them Who You Are" (you have to see the movie to get the title), it isn't clear whether Mark wants to bury the hatchet or humiliate his dad toward the end of his life, when Haskell can no longer find work in Hollywood and is forced to sell off his collection of camera equipment. Such luminaries as George Lucas, Michael Douglas and Paul Newman parade through the picture to pay tribute to Haskell, but their tone is often mixed, at best. (Douglas, for one, fired Haskell from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.")

But the collision of these two pig-headed guys is eventually interrupted, as is customary in families, by the intervention of women. First they visit Mark's mother, ill with Alzheimer's disease, a wrenching scene that alters the entire tone of the movie. Next they visit Jane Fonda, with whom Wexler traveled to Hanoi in 1974 to make the infamous documentary "Introduction to the Enemy." Jane is certainly my go-to gal for emotional succor, and she looks the part here, sitting on her suburban couch in a sweater set and swapping tales about their activist work with Cesar Chavez and the making of "Coming Home." She provides an unlikely coda to a strange, strident and finally fulfilling father-son saga.

"Tell Them Who You Are" opens May 13 in Los Angeles, May 20 in New York, Chicago and Palm Springs, Calif., May 27 in San Francisco, June 3 in Philadelphia and June 10 in Boston, with more cities to follow in July.

"Writer of O": Yes, Virginia, women can be perverts too
Pola Rapaport's "Writer of O" is an elegant but muddled affair, worth seeing despite (and maybe because of) its own split personality. It begins as if it's going to be a personal film; Rapaport evidently grew up in a New York family so sophisticated that her dad bought her older sister, who was 16 at the time, a copy of the S/M porn masterpiece "Story of O," which would become one of the 20th century's most celebrated literary mysteries.

Then Rapaport detours into a sort-of adaptation of the novel itself, in the restrained mode of "tasteful" European porn. This doesn't last long, thankfully. (In fact, a cheesy, arty film adaptation of "Story of O" already exists, made in 1975 with Corinne Clery in the title role and Udo Kier as her demanding lover, René.) Then "Writer of O" settles into a more comfortable mode, that of explaining how it was that Dominique Aury, a respectable, 40-something literary lady of mid-1950s Paris, became "Pauline Réage," author of one of the most notorious pornographic works in history.

As Rapaport's interviews reveal, even those close to the secret at Gallimard, the prestigious publisher where Aury worked, never guessed the secret. Albert Camus, who worked one floor below Aury, opined that no woman could have written such sadomasochistic filth; the fairer sex simply did not contemplate such things. "So much for Mediterranean psychology," one observer wryly notes. In fact, Aury's fable about a woman who willingly subjects herself to every cruelty her lover can devise was itself a love letter to a man she felt was slipping away, composed in bed at night -- with a pencil, so she wouldn't stain her linens with ink.

Rapaport interviews many survivors of that long-gone postwar Paris, and even manages a brief meeting with Aury herself, before the latter's death in the late '90s. Women harbor just as many forbidden sexual fantasies as men do, Aury suggests, and perhaps more. While it might be a stretch to call "Story of O" a feminist work, there can be no question that it set the female erotic imagination free as never before. On the other hand, nothing demonstrates the repression of women more clearly than the fact that Aury was never able to claim full ownership of one of the most challenging and influential novels -- not to mention one of the most avidly devoured -- of the last 100 years.

"Writer of O" is now playing at Film Forum in New York. It opens May 27 in Chicago, June 16 in Los Angeles, June 23 in San Francisco and June 30 in Boston.

"Double Dare": Stuntwomen, from "Wonder Woman" to "Xena" to "Kill Bill"
Something of a sleeper hit already, Amanda Micheli's "Double Dare" explores another dimension of feminism -- women who can kick your ass and whoever else's you want to bring along. Mind you, Jeannie Epper and Zoë Bell, the subjects of Micheli's documentary, are not really the belligerent type, although they're truly impressive physical specimens. Instead, they're two of the more prominent figures in the tiny alternate universe of Hollywood stuntwomen.

Epper is a grandma pushing 60, who refuses to give up her career. (Indeed, while Micheli is following her, she gets an eight-week gig on the set of "The Fast and the Furious 2.") Her big break came as Lynda Carter's stunt double on the '70s series "Wonder Woman," and since then she's been among the handful of women qualified to crash cars, jump off buildings and be thrown through windows while the cameras roll. Bell, a strapping Amazon from New Zealand, was a teenage athlete who just sort of fell into a job doubling Lucy Lawless, star of "Xena: Warrior Princess of the Universe."

There's not a lot more to "Double Dare" than that. After "Xena" folds up shop in Kiwiland, Bell comes to Hollywood and is halfway adopted by Epper (perhaps at Micheli's instigation). Although her first attempt at an American career washes out, Bell bounces back and Epper wangles her a big chance, an audition to be Uma Thurman's double in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill." It wouldn't be fair to tell you more, but Micheli's film is an agreeable ride with these two salt-of-the-earth gals from opposite corners of the globe as they perform outrageous stunts and battle Hollywood sexism. It's a classic gal-pal movie, perfect for daughters, sisters, moms and the guys whose asses they kick.

"Double Dare" is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Bellingham, Wash., and Portland, Ore. It opens May 13 in Boston and Hartford, Conn., and May 20 in Minneapolis, Provincetown, Mass., and Salt Lake City.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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