Beyond the Multiplex

Kinky sex galore! And much of it French! Plus: A hot British film about two nubile young women, and a Woody Allen-esque comedy of manners starring Glenn Close.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 9, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

Pawel Pawlikowski is on the phone, complaining in his Warsaw-by-way-of-London accent about something that has a lot of filmmakers quietly grumbling -- or at least the ones trying to make unconventional dramas for what sometimes seems, at least in this country, like a vanishing audience. He's complaining about documentary films.

"I love documentaries," he says, "but nowadays what counts as documentary is some guy with a wide-lens camera following people around. There's absolutely no creative or cinematic spirit at all. The ones that are getting all the attention are basically just infotainment with a political edge. You can agree with what they're saying, but cinematically they're zero."

Indeed, Pawlikowski used to make documentaries, before turning to drama with "Last Resort" in 2000, a grim, arresting tale of mother-and-son Russian refugees trapped in a downscale English seaside resort. His hypnotic new chronicle of teenage obsession, "My Summer of Love" (discussed below), is even better, and feels like a sudden eruption of life from the becalmed waters of British cinema. But at the risk of asking the question I ask in this space every couple of weeks, will anybody in reality-obsessed America notice?

Yes, Virginia, people are still making arty, independent, small-scale dramas, despite the way it sometimes seems. In fact, there's a massive wave of them this spring, more of them than I can possibly cover with justice. In honor of Pawlikowski's gripe, then, a special all-drama (and almost all-French) edition of Beyond the Multiplex, loaded with kinky sex. We've got a transsexual involved in a melancholy ménage à trois, some highly inappropriate maternal affection, a hunky fiancé with a secret (or two), possibly the first horror movie in history with a lesbian protagonist, and a rape scene that's no less upsetting because the two people are married (or were until a few minutes earlier).

Most moviegoers, most of the time, are in search of familiarity, not originality, and the two movies I saw last week that feel like potential indie hits are variations on highly familiar themes. Pierre Salvadori's "Après Vous" is a Parisian romantic comedy with enjoyable acting and just enough Gallic acidity not to seem cloying, while Chris Terrio's "Heights" is a talky Manhattan comedy of manners of a certain old-fashioned sort (spelled W-O-O-D-Y).

Neither one of those is likely to make my 10-best list for the year; they're breezy entertainments that come and go pleasantly enough, without rattling your cage or insulting your intelligence. Hey, that's no crime. Not even the most adventurous cinéaste wants to sit through Tarkovsky's "Stalker" while snuggled under a blanket with that special someone on a February night. (Unless the two of you desperately need some shut-eye.)

More challenging films, like "My Summer of Love" or François Ozon's "5x2" or Sébastien Lifshitz's "Wild Side," are destined to find their audiences in this country little by little, trickling from the big cities and college towns down (or rather up) to Netflix and Amazon. As someone in the business patiently explained to me this week, the market for art films is mainly on DVD these days. Many foreign films are released in U.S. theaters almost as a loss leader: Critics review them, they get advertised in the New York Times, a few urban culture-vulture types (ahem) go see them, and you've created, as they say, market awareness.

Is the audience for so-called difficult movies like these just smaller than it used to be, in our God-haunted nation? It sure feels like it, but one should be careful with Cassandra-like pronouncements. Sooner or later the current craze for reality cinema will burn itself out, and sometime later this decade, or in the next, you'll be reading about yet another indie-film renaissance. In the meantime, Pawlikowski and directors like him all over the world need your support. You can watch a real damn movie, or you can turn the page.

"My Summer of Love": Two girls, a born-again brother, a broken moped and a waterfall

I've had a hard time explaining to people what makes "My Summer of Love" so compelling. OK, on one level, what's to explain? It's a movie about an intense, overheated friendship between two beautiful young women, set in an oddly beautiful corner of rural England. And if you're wondering whether I mean what you think I mean by "intense" and "overheated," the answer is yes. Its stars, Emily Blunt and Natalie Press, are film newcomers who give startling performances. The photography is often breathtakingly original and the countryside of west Yorkshire looks lush, almost exotic.

Still, until I had writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski on the phone, I hadn't pinned down how intensely and meticulously crafted this movie is. He talked to me about the kinds of films that shaped his sensibility -- "Taxi Driver" and the early films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Wim Wenders and the Polish films he watched as a kid (like Andrzej Wajda's great "Ashes and Diamonds") -- films that create a world entire unto themselves, and make you feel like a different person when you leave the theater.

"My Summer of Love" has more than a little of that feeling. In many ways, it's a familiar tale, one about opposites attracting. Tamsin (Blunt) is a sleek, spoiled, horse-riding rich girl who lives with her parents -- whom we hardly ever see -- in a big ivy-covered house. Out on a ride one day, she comes upon Mona (Press), a redheaded, working-class tomboy who lives above a pub, lying in the grass next to her moped (which has no engine). What follows is on one hand a story of deepening erotic fascination, and on the other just an ordinary tale of two bored girls from dramatically different backgrounds killing time one summer.

That's about it, really. Tamsin tells Mona about Nietzsche; Mona tells Tamsin that she, Mona, will likely wind up working in an abattoir, pumping out kids with "a real bastard" of a boyfriend, and "waiting for menopause -- or cancer." They go swimming, they dance to Edith Piaf, they wander the woods, they try to raise the spirit of Tamsin's dead sister, they go to bed together, they betray each other. They torment the only other real character, Mona's older brother, a born-again ex-con (Paddy Considine) who has turned the pub into a spiritual center to bring Jesus back to their forsaken Yorkshire valley.

Pawlikowski's method, as he explains it, is to focus almost exclusively on characters and landscape, and strip the film's "information" down to essentials. There are no news events, no posters on the walls, no pop songs on the radio. From the cars and clothes, you'd be hard-pressed to say whether this movie was set in 1985 or 2005. It's contemporary in style and setting, but more archetypal than realistic. It's also a seductive moviegoing experience that embraces you in its sensuous cocoon, and it's not to be missed.

British critics still refer to Pawlikowski as a Polish filmmaker, even though he came to England as a teenager in the 1970s and has lived there ever since. If that tells you something about abiding British xenophobia, it also tells you something about Pawlikowski. "I have no excuse for my accent," he told me. Maybe not, but it befits his adopted role as British cinema's permanent outsider.

You've talked a lot about wanting to avoid making a stereotypically British film. What do you mean by that?

In this case, I meant not wanting to make a film that was obviously sociological, that shows a well-defined social life on the estates [housing projects] or wherever. You know, one of these social-realist films that they make here. Very often, it's middle-class directors making films about working-class people. It's like a theme park. The camera is hand-held and everyone's very angry and swears a lot.

Yeah. Basically, you're talking about Ken Loach.

Well, yeah. But he has made wonderful films. He's not the problem. It's the easiest way of inventing a story without a lot of money. There's a lot of people churning it out, and you don't quite know who it's for. Visually those films are kind of dead as well. It's always the same vocabulary, sort of pseudo-documentary.

In some sense, though, isn't "My Summer of Love" partly about class? These two girls come from completely different worlds, and that's the source of a lot of the drama between them.

Definitely it's about class. Class is so embedded you don't even have to draw attention to it. It's embedded in the psychology of the characters, therefore it's not obtrusive. It's another dramatic layer, one of the layers of the relationship.

And class is one element of the power play between the girls. When Tamsin asks Mona whether she's read Nietzsche, you don't know whether it's a serious question or a way to gain power over her.

Absolutely. It's a way of gaining power, of seducing Mona into a world of all sorts of unfamiliar things. Also it's a way of filling up silence. They don't quite know what to talk about, so we get these monologues. Basically they are not ready to communicate, so they are filling every moment with bullshit. I wanted Tamsin to know a bit more about Nietzsche, but I couldn't make my actress read him. Emily tried. She could have been slightly more demonic and Nietzsche-like in that moment, I think, but it wouldn't have rang true with Emily.

This movie involves a sexual relationship between two teenage girls, and that's probably going to push some people's buttons. Were you at all worried that critics or audiences would think you were a dirty old man getting his rocks off?

Not really. Maybe it fleetingly passed my mind that there's an awkwardness in doing this. When you build everything on the character, on authentic relationships, then you're on pretty safe ground. There's only one erotic scene where the girls are in bed, and we shot that at the very end. I prefer to proceed by understatement, but when we looked at what we had assembled, it seemed very coy and stupid that we didn't have this. Were we saying, "There is this thing between them, but we're not showing it"?

I had other problems, you know? The problem of how I'd be perceived was overshadowed by the much bigger problems of how to make it all work psychologically, how to get the actresses onboard so they knew what they were doing, how to make the story come together.

Unless I'm misreading your intentions totally, it's not a film about sexual identity. That idea doesn't seem to occur to either of them.

No, not at all. What happens between them mainly happens in the imagination, in psychology. Each of them lacks something, and sees it in the other. It's not about sexuality, or even about sex. It's much more play-acting. Tamsin is actually sexually inexperienced, and is just enacting all sorts of fantasies. I don't think they're aware of what they're doing.

How important is your Polish upbringing in terms of what you bring to making films in Britain?

It's easy to say that I have a different take on England because I'm foreign. I just decided to have a different take on England. I just like cinema or art that is not on the nose. I try to build things, make films, that are kind of slippery and ambiguous, that avoid the obvious. The problem with British cinema is that it's all about the obvious.

You've talked about the filmmakers you admire -- Scorsese, Tarkovsky, Wim Wenders, Andrzej Wajda. What ties them together? What kinds of films attract you as a moviegoer?

I like films with some complicated characters, which are well cast, with good actors who inhabit the characters without trickery or fake technique. Films where the director manages to create a whole world, a photographic and cinematographic world. You know, like "Taxi Driver," where New York becomes a kind of mystic space. These are the films where you see the movie and you are kind of changed, where you don't want to leave the cinema. That's what moviemaking is about -- creating space, images, absorbing characters who you love or hate but who are mysterious, ambiguous. Characters who leave things unsaid, who are not completely obvious.

Mona and Tamsin are certainly not obvious. How did you approach their story? What was the mood or tone you had in mind?

There isn't one mood, but I do like to create a world where the landscape is an extension or a projection of the characters, a world stripped of irrelevant noise and information, so you can concentrate on a few elements that have significance. Where you have a balance between information and experience; you're not overburdened. Where a few objects can go a long way, a kind of distilled world where the simpler it gets, the more meaning resonates. I try to focus on the right images, the right objects, and distill themes that are simple but that resonate.

I've heard that you looked at hundreds of girls before finding Emily and Natalie.

Well, we didn't have much money, so it was a long process. It wasn't like there was an army of people looking. It was me and my casting director. We looked at a lot of Monas and quite a few Tamsins. But the same process was involved in looking for the landscape. We spent a lot of time driving around, hiking around with a camera, finding the elements of our world. Because the whole idea of a film like this is that it's handmade. You are building it from the bottom up, making all the choices -- that's it. You control every part of what you do.

"My Summer of Love" opens June 17 in New York, Los Angeles and other major markets, with more cities to follow.

"5x2": A marriage in pieces, "Memento" style

French director François Ozon has described his new film "5x2" ("Cinq Fois Deux," if you need to impress dinner guests) as beginning like Ingmar Bergman and ending like Claude Lelouch, the lightweight farceur of the '60s. It's a failed marriage told backward, showing us five scenes between its two principals (get it?) as they move from divorce to dinner-party disagreement to childbirth to their first tentative flirtation on adjoining Sardinian beach towels. It's probably meant to evoke both Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" and Harold Pinter's "Betrayal," but it's a quirkier, shiftier work than either of those.

Sure, the backward narrative seems a little gimmicky these days, but "5x2" is an admirably economical production without a second wasted. And while the mercurial Ozon -- whose films include the quasi-musical "8 Women," the erotic thriller "Swimming Pool" and the existential mystery "Under the Sand" -- has never struck me as being able to manage strong emotion, this peculiar picture carries its very own atmosphere of wistful doom.

Ozon begins almost with a sucker punch: Having just gotten divorced in a polite ceremony, a handsome 40ish couple named Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss) engage in rough hotel-room sex that's awfully close to rape, if it isn't the real thing. They may not be husband and wife anymore, but whatever pathology was sticking them together hasn't let go.

The rest of "5x2" (scripted by Ozon and Emmanuèle Bernheim) doesn't exactly answer the question of what went wrong between Gilles and Marion; instead it offers shards of a shattered mirror, as if to say, yeah, this happened to these people, but their marriage might not be so different from yours or mine. We meet Gilles' feckless gay brother, Marion's quarrelsome parents and the visiting American actor she sleeps with (on her wedding night!). We don't get any long arguments or monologues in the Albee-Bergman mode. Ozon is more interested, you might say, in people's expressions than in their words.

Given the brief, spare scenes and the wry Italian love songs on the soundtrack between them, Ozon's actors carry almost the entire weight of lending this film emotional resonance. Bruni-Tedeschi is the sort of slightly gawky woman who becomes beautiful as middle age approaches. For much of her career in French movies she's been playing comic moms or sidekicks; here she lets herself be sexy and wounded and furious by turns, and it's a revelation. Freiss is a well-built, handsome guy with something almost unfocused about him; when he sits outside in the car chain-smoking while Marion is giving birth, you can almost feel his fatal uncertainty.

In the end I respected "5x2" more than I loved it. As we move backward in time, the distance between audience and characters inevitably widens -- we know what's going to happen and they don't -- and I found the effect a little astringent. Your results may vary; Ozon's construction is ingenious, and he manages the film's warring tones -- tongue-in-cheek comedy on one hand, raw pathos on the other -- with elegance. Maybe you've seen other movies where the handsome guy and the beautiful woman literally go off into the sunset together. But you've never seen it and felt so wistful.

"5x2" opens June 10 in New York and June 17 in Los Angeles, with other cities to follow.

"Wild Side": Sexual revolution in slow motion

If Andrei Tarkovsky had shared Pedro Almodóvar's interest in alt-sexuality subcultures, he might have made something like "Wild Side." That's not an unqualified endorsement. Sébastien Lifshitz's meditative, non-linear, nearly experimental film about the life of a Parisian transsexual prostitute is the sort of thing that goes over big at high-end festivals (the Berlin audience loved this one) but isn't likely to get any traction among the general public.

Shot in spectacular wide-screen by the great French cinematographer Agnès Godard, "Wild Side" is the kind of movie you either surrender to or walk out on. There is a story of sorts; the startlingly beautiful Stéphanie (played by real-life transsexual Stéphanie Michelini) lives in one of those depressing towers in suburban Paris with her two lovers, a French Arab named Jamel (Yasmine Belmadi), also a hustler, and a Russian boxer named Mikhail (Edouard Nikitine), who speaks absolutely no French. Stéphanie's mother, somewhere in the desolate north of France, is dying, and she has to go home and care for her, which brings up memories of Pierre, the little boy Stéphanie used to be.

But you've got to travel more than halfway to "Wild Side" even to gather that much. Lifshitz never gives us any help with geography or chronology; his visual sequences are disconnected and information is kept to a bare minimum. Are Stéphanie, Jamel and Mikhail happy in their cozy ménage à trois, or desperate and lost? We don't know; maybe they don't either. Mostly we watch things happen: Jamel turns tricks in the train station; Stéphanie turns tricks in cars, discos, old men's apartments. Mikhail and Jamel try to converse, in fragmentary English. Stéphanie watches the birds fly in circles on her parents' farm, and summons a deep-focus childhood memory.

Still, in its elliptical way, "Wild Side" is a precisely structured film that very gradually weaves its spell. If you're willing to let it unfold without any particular expectations, it might surprise you. There's a lot of explicit sex in the film, most of it totally unerotic. But when a john pays Mikhail and Stéphanie to get it on in front of him, and you realize you're actually watching two people who love each other express it physically, no matter the tawdry circumstances, it packs a totally unexpected emotional wallop. Lifshitz wants us neither to judge nor to love Stéphanie, but simply to see her. "Wild Side" is sometimes maddening to watch, but will haunt you for days afterward.

"Wild Side" opens June 10 in New York, with other cities to follow.

Fast Forward: Mother knows best; "Cyrano" in a Paris bistro; dazzling Manhattan repartee; at long last, a French homage to "Jeepers Creepers"

Remember when we used to sit through long-winded European existential dramas for the hot sex? Well, Christophe Honoré's "Ma Mère," starring Isabelle Huppert as a floozy mom a bit too interested in her teenage son's love life, will carry you back to those golden days. Adapted from Georges Bataille's semi-legendary erotic novel, "Ma Mère" transports its cast of depraved French people to the permanent party zone of the Canary Islands. It's pretentious highbrow trash, but as far as that goes it works pretty well.

Hey, if Huppert was my mom I might have Oedipal issues too; you may want to tell pious, earnest young Pierre (Louis Garrel) to bonk her and get on with life. Instead, dangerous Hélène (Huppert) entrusts him to her slutty friends, one of whom performs an act on him in public I really can't describe, even in Salon, while the other turns out to be an almost-nice girl he might fall for. (OK, she has a slave boy, but whatever.) Mom boozes heavily, turns tricks and flashes strangers to stay clear of Pierre, but ultimately she can't keep her mitts off the lad, and we head for a nasty climax. (Now playing in New York and Los Angeles; opens June 10 in Dallas, Houston and Philadelphia, June 17 in Minneapolis and July 8 in Boston and Washington, with other cities to follow.)

When somebody in Hollywood remakes Pierre Salvadori's romantic comedy "Après Vous," as they certainly will, it might not be much more lightweight than it is already. But they'll have to strip out the nastier moments, like the 90-ish grandma who gets vicious epithets written on her in lipstick, or the appealing girlfriend who gets unceremoniously ditched by both the main character and the movie. They also won't have Daniel Auteuil, the appealing Chaplinesque Everyguy of French cinema, as the harried maître d' at a Parisian bistro who saves a guy from killing himself, and is then stuck with him.

The would-be suicide is Spanish-born comedian José Garcia, and the girl he's killing himself over is Sandrine Kiberlain, a gamine blonde who looks like she got stretched on the rack, to the extra-thin and extra-tall setting. Somebody order that girl some steak et pommes frites! Auteuil's character devotes himself to extracting Kiberlain from her sideburn-wearing current beau and getting her back with Garcia, but in the process -- well, you know where this is going, right? Besides the great Auteuil, some modestly amusing restaurant high jinks and the knockoff "Cyrano de Bergerac" plot, "Après Vous" offers nice sound design and an unfussy presentation of middle-class Paris. It comes and goes with no unpleasant aftertaste. (Now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider release to follow.)

Not French, but the kind of American movie that wishes it were: "Heights," an ensemble drama about an interlocking group of Manhattanites facing a day of crisis, has a great cast, a lot of lively talk and an approach to sexual morality that might have seemed daringly adult in 1965. All that reflects its origins as a stage play (by Amy Fox), and while director Chris Terrio (a former assistant to James Ivory) does a nice job of taking the production outdoors, there's something essentially boxy and static about it.

Glenn Close is the real reason to see this one. La Glenn gets all four canines into a juicy role as Diana Lee, a theatrical grande dame who's playing Lady Macbeth on Broadway and preying upon New York's hunky young waiter-actor population. A lot of that population, unhappily for her, doesn't like girls, and Close's photojournalist daughter (Elizabeth Banks) is planning to marry a bemuscled attorney (James Marsden), whose nude portrait has just turned up in the portfolio of an infamous and lecherous gay photographer. And what's the connection between all these people and Alec (Jesse Bradford), a young waiter-actor who's curiously indifferent to Diana's interest in him?

We see Isabella Rossellini and George Segal, among others, in small roles, all pretty much conveying the sense that we're watching a new-generation Woody Allen movie in which the characters have appropriate-size apartments. As enjoyable as Close is, "Heights" as a whole is a mannered simulation that only occasionally and accidentally feels like real New York life. "We don't know how to be people of passion!" Close tells her Juilliard acting students early in the film. "We're not even people of ice. We're tepid as dishwater." Um, yeah. That's it exactly. (Opens June 17 in New York and Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.)

Finally, since American filmmakers have been ripping off French classics for years, perhaps the world is ready for a French horror flick, in homage to "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," "Last House on the Left" and "Jeepers Creepers," among others. Alexandre Aja's "High Tension" is a dark little girl-vs.-slasher opus, complete with a personable star (the androgynous Cécile de France), atrocious English dubbing and a narrative twist I've never seen before.

Aja builds the pressure simply and effectively and keeps the kitsch to a minimum, even if the movie does feature a vintage Dodge Charger with Confederate-flag plates. A couple of hip urban chicks (de France and Maïwenn) are heading out to the distant countryside to visit the latter's parents. They get there and hit the sack, a razor-wielding creep in a filthy jumpsuit with a blood-spattered van rings the doorbell, and that's all she wrote for everybody in the house except, of course, the two girls who must battle the madman.

You can't talk intelligently about "High Tension" without giving away its secrets, but let's just say that while it's always the specter of sex that unleashes the devils in horror movies, this might be the first one where implied lesbian fantasy sex (the girls get nowhere near the real thing) triggers the onslaught. If you think the shadowy killer (Philippe Nahon) isn't all he seems to be, you're on the right track. Horror fans should see this, at least in geeky admiration for what it pulls off, but in the long run it's no more than a crisp footnote to genre history. (Opens June 10 nationwide.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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