Beyond the Multiplex

Freak show! A delightful mockumentary about Siamese-twin rock stars. Plus: A sweaty, macho critical hit; and the story of a plucky geriatric dance troupe.


Andrew O'Hehir
July 20, 2006 4:30PM (UTC)

All that stuff I wrote last week about how stupid it was to release three films by big-name French directors on the same day, just because it happened to be Bastille Day? Well, let's just say I haven't proven my mettle as an MBA-level marketing consultant, at least not yet. (I revert to William Goldman's timeless maxim on the film business: Nobody knows anything.)

In this case, I'm delighted to be wrong. André Téchiné's "Changing Times," the charming reunion vehicle for Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve that I damned with faint praise last week, packed the house all weekend at Manhattan's Paris Theatre, grossing more than $31,000 (a very big number for a single-screen theater). Patrice Chéreau's experimental period piece "Gabrielle," starring Isabelle Huppert, got strong reviews and also did startlingly well at two New York theaters. François Ozon's bittersweet miniature "Time to Leave" also opened respectably, although below the level of the splashier competition.

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But the real buzz in the biz at the moment is over yet another French picture, Laurent Cantet's "Heading South," with Charlotte Rampling as the queen bee of a Haitian resort that offers teenage boys as playmates for mature single women. The big fish in the indie-distribution pond all passed on this film, despite its director and star, presumably because they thought the subject matter (i.e., female sex tourism, plus a troubling subtext of racism and imperialism) was too outré. Shadow Distribution, a tiny company in Waterville, Maine, that mostly releases documentaries, picked it up at what must have been a bargain-basement price (such things are closely guarded secrets).

Lo and behold: After attracting surprisingly large crowds for two weeks at a couple of Manhattan theaters and earning a celebratory feature story in the New York Times' style section, the film will open this week on 16 more screens in the New York metropolitan area and five more in and around Los Angeles. The word-of-mouth ripple effect among female moviegoers of a certain age (as they say in la belle France) is almost tangible; we're talking "Thelma & Louise" for the over-40, upscale, white Burgundy demographic.

A couple of people have told me off the record that other distributors were worried that men would be scared off by the idea of watching older women (Rampling, e.g., is 60) frolic on the beach with lithe black teenagers. Well, maybe they were. But so what? Despite my spotty recent track record, here's another nugget of blindingly obvious marketing wisdom: Quit chasing the dudes, geniuses.

When it comes to indie films (and literary fiction, and a lot of other leisure-time culture commodities), it's generally the ladies who are slinging the magic MasterCard. Looking over IndieWire's box-office report, I only see two bona fide guy flicks among the year's indie hits ("A Scanner Darkly" and "Army of Shadows," and I'm not saying plenty of women don't dig those too). If we could run some kind of gender-audit trail on most of the others -- from "An Inconvenient Truth" and "A Prairie Home Companion" to "Strangers With Candy" and "Friends With Money" -- I'm guessing it's mostly women who either bought the tickets or made the choices.

OK, but where does this reductive logic leave us, partway through a long, blastingly hot summer? Well, you're going to see four pretty good French movies somewhere near your hometown at some point this year -- that's the good news. My personal good news is that I'm taking off for a family vacation next week, so I'll see you back here on Aug. 3. In the meantime, we've got at least one full-on guy movie eager to defy my latest thesis. Gela Babluani's "13 Tzameti" is a sweaty, stylized thriller that's half machismo and half arty posturing. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's rock 'n' roll fantasy "Brothers of the Head," on the other hand, is an unexpected delight, a fable about '70s rock that avoids the customary clichés and makes its freak-show characters seem real.

Heather Lyn MacDonald's documentary "Been Rich All My Life" captures the irresistible saga of the Silver Belles, a troupe of former Harlem chorus girls, now in their 80s and 90s. Inevitably this film will be called the "Ballets Russes" of the African-American tap-dance tradition, so let me be the first (or perhaps the second or third). Finally, we have the long-awaited rerelease of the 1952 French swashbuckler "Fanfan la Tulipe," an overcaffeinated classic belonging to a school of cinema that is, perhaps mercifully, gone forever.

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"Brothers of the Head": Siamese-twin rock stars! The music, the manager, the girl, the mystery! Not as trashy as it sounds! At all!
It's one thing to proclaim that you don't judge films by their premises. But hell, we all do it. So I am here to tell you that, yes, "Brothers of the Head" is a movie about a pair of conjoined twins (aka Siamese twins) from the southeast coast of England who are sold by their father to a sleazeball music promoter and become a proto-punk novelty act, circa 1975. It's also a mockumentary, with some feints at "This Is Spinal Tap" and a few efforts to nudge the audience toward believing there's some real-life rock history behind the saga of twins Tom and Barry Howe and their band, the Bang Bang. (There isn't.) So did I overcome my core beliefs that 1) rock movies are generally tedious and 2) the mockumentary is totally played out, and go check it out for myself?

Yeah, I finally did, but only after skipping Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's narrative-feature debut (they also made "Lost in La Mancha," the fascinating documentary about Terry Gilliam) at two film festivals. You've figured out what I'm going to say next: It's terrific! Shot by the brilliant cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle ("Dogville," "28 Days Later," etc.) and anchored by amazing performances from identical (but not conjoined) twins Harry and Luke Treadaway, "Brothers of the Head" is not a freak show, or a knockoff "Rocky Horror" camp celebration. It's a work of powerful atmosphere and significant mystery. Plus, it rocks.

Working from a screenplay by Tony Grisoni (who adapted the cult novel by sci-fi legend Brian Aldiss), Fulton and Pepe depict the cultural ferment of mid-'70s England without resorting to canned reference points. You could say that David Bowie and Bryan Ferry and Marc Bolan, not to mention Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, are hovering off-screen somewhere, but we never see or hear them. (Charmingly, Tom and Barry and their coterie do watch the Bay City Rollers on TV, with evident admiration.)

Instead, the filmmakers focus on establishing the introspective, sincere Tom (Luke Treadaway) and wisecracking bad boy Barry (Harry Treadaway) as believable kids caught in an incredible situation. As in the Aldiss novel, the grotesque and outrageous character of the story begins to fade into the background. While it's not true that conjoined twins briefly became stars of the North London pub-rock scene just before the outbreak of punk, "Brothers of the Head" makes you feel that something that weird really could have happened, and this is what it would have been like.

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For one thing, the Treadaway brothers really do sing and play guitar in the film, and we basically watch them learn to do so on-screen. The songs are by Clive Langer, a longtime producer and punk-era musician (from the band Deaf School), and they have exactly the right rawness, aggression and solipsism. While the Howe brothers' self-aggrandizing hit is "Two-Way Romeo" (and, yes, it does get awkward when one of them scores with a girl and the other is, as it were, along for the ride), my favorite Bang Bang song, both as to content and title, is "I'm a Sock."

There are moments of intentional comedy in "Brothers of the Head" -- as in the supposed snippets of an unfinished Ken Russell feature about the brothers -- but Fulton and Pepe's mockumentary structure mostly isn't played for laughs. Several of the characters, like Nick the slimeball Cockney manager (Sean Harris) or Laura the femme fatale rock journalist (Tania Emery), are played by different actors when we see them "today," as they reflect ruefully on the past in documentary-style interviews. It's an oddly effective strategy; don't we all feel like we were different people back when we used to do all that crazy stuff?

Furthermore, "Brothers of the Head" is true to its '70s roots in never unveiling its main characters' spookiest, deepest mysteries. Who is the "third twin" who whispers to Tom and Barry late at night? What do the film's murky, lovely dream sequences tell us? What exactly happens at the big London showcase where one twin suffers a devastating injury and the Bang Bang's career ends with a crash? If the Howe brothers had actually existed, their fans would still be ferociously debating these questions 30 years later. Why should the movies be easier to understand than real life?

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"Brothers of the Head" opens July 28 in New York, with a national rollout to follow.

"13 Tzameti": If "The Deer Hunter" took a long, dark train journey into noir
Arriving wreathed with laurels from various film festivals (Sundance this year and Venice last year), the claustrophobic, violent neo-noir odyssey "13 Tzameti" is already an international critics' darling. It's a stylized and striking work, shot in black-and-white and wide-screen CinemaScope, that tries to create its own closed and essentially cinematic world. Events occur -- people are killed, money changes hands, a cop investigates a crime -- but they all come from the realm of the classic French crime films of the '50s (and, for that matter, American crime films of the '40s), not from the one you and I inhabit.

Does that matter? Well, inevitably that's a matter of taste. I had an interesting conversation with a film-buff friend (who hasn't seen this) in which we arrived at a conundrum. We don't care whether films refer to the real world, we decided, as long as the world they create is fully convincing. But when cinematic worlds are convincing, it's usually because they bear some recognizable relationship to the real world. Where that leaves you, in the case of "13 Tzameti," is debatable. Does Georgian-born director Gela Babluani's dark, paranoid vision of hyper-masculine ritual violence reflect something essential about human nature? Or is it just a skillfully executed juvenile fantasy?

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The director's brother, Georges Babluani, plays the main character, a sweet-faced young man named Sebastien (although I'm not sure we ever learn his name in the film). He's apparently a Georgian immigrant in France, where he's working as a roofer (again, this background is only supposition). He's putting a new roof on a crumbling house owned by an aging degenerate named Jean-François (Philippe Passon), who is desperately ill, though it's not clear why. Sebastien overhears things: Jean-François is waiting for a letter. It will include a train ticket to Paris and a hotel reservation. A lot of money can be made in one day, but the job is difficult and dangerous.

Jean-François dies, and in the confusion his wife and deadbeat friend Pierre (Jo Prestia) can't find the letter, which has been blown out the window in a random gust of wind. Sebastien finds it, takes it, gets his hair cut and gets on the train, without the slightest idea of what he's getting into. What that is has been widely discussed in almost every review of the film (as well as the scream-inducing trailer), but I'm going to respect the spoiler cops, at least this time. If you don't want to know, skip ahead or go read something else. Right now.

After a little intervening intrigue, Sebastien ends up at a chateau deep in the forest, where he is told he can't leave. He is now number 13 ("tzameti" in Georgian) and must "play the game." The game is to stand in a circle with a bunch of other guys and shoot each other in the head. It's basically a line-dance version of Russian roulette: The players start with one bullet each, then two, then three, by which time the number of players has been significantly reduced.

"13 Tzameti" isn't especially graphic or bloody; what it captures instead is the anguish, rage and pants-pissing terror the players feel, as they stand waiting to kill and die, surrounded by other men howling bets at each other. The game has rules, enforced with theatrical intensity by a master of ceremonies (Pascal Bongard): You raise your gun when he tells you, spin the cylinder several times, and fire at the man in front of you when the striped overhead light bulb switches on. Babluani certainly never winks at the audience from inside his world, and Sebastien is trapped in it, with no way out except luck and murder.

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Tariel Meliava's cinematography is impressive, if pretty much all borrowed from the hard-boiled black-and-white classics of the early French New Wave (especially the gangster films of Jean-Pierre Melville), with their subtly disorienting downward and upward angles. Clearly some viewers will find this riveting cinema; many already have. For me, the meticulous style, the fascination with ritualized (and ludicrous) violence and the film-geek self-referentiality all seem like markers of a film made by a young man, for other young men. If I were 23, and full to the brim with dark-hearted existentialism, I might love it too.

"13 Tzameti" opens July 28 at Film Forum in New York, Aug. 11 in Los Angeles, Aug. 25 in Boston and Washington, Sept. 8 in Chicago and St. Louis, Sept. 15 in Atlanta, Sept. 22 in Tucson, Ariz., and Sept. 29 in Seattle, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: Harlem chorines keep hoofing in "Been Rich All My Life"; "Fanfan la Tulipe" will win your heart and wear you out
It takes a while to get into the spirit of Heather Lyn MacDonald's "Been Rich All My Life," an easygoing portrait of five one-time Harlem showgirls who have reassembled, in their 80s and 90s, as a geriatric dance troupe called the Silver Belles. MacDonald films the gals rehearsing, goofballing around, cussing and calling each other names -- and I didn't grasp at first that this is the heart of the picture.

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Sure, we learn some of the women's amazing history, and get to see a fair bit of their contemporary hoofing, which is loose and relaxed, if nowhere near as athletic as it used to be. The eldest, Bertye Lou Wood, was dance captain at the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street in the '30s, danced on film with the legendary Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and led the first-ever strike by African-American performing artists, in 1940. When the film begins, she has finally quit dancing at 96; her declining health lends the Belles' story a distinctive urgency.

The others are hardly less remarkable. Cleo Hayes danced for Earl "Fatha" Hines, was an Apollo Rockette and a Cotton Club dancer, and danced in the first all-black USO unit during World War II. Marion Coles (widow of the great Honi Coles) is a legendary dance instructor, who helped make the Lindy Hop a national craze in the '40s. Fay Ray has been a shipbuilder, a New York cab driver and an Alaska pipeline worker, as well as a chorus girl. Elaine Ellis has survived two bouts of cancer and several strokes, and is still dancing at 86.

I said earlier that "Been Rich All My Life" is something like the "Ballets Russes" of tap dancing. I'm delighted to report that the similarities include the fact that the Belles are transmitting their improvisatory "rhythm tap" style to generations of younger dancers. Critic Nelson George has written that African-Americans never experienced nostalgia before the 1980s (because they literally couldn't afford to), but if that was ever true it has changed. The Silver Belles perform to enthusiastic, largely black audiences, and teach their techniques to mostly black students. As in "Ballets Russes," time takes its inevitable toll in this film. But the Belles' accomplishments will live on long after they're gone. (Opens July 21 at the Quad Cinema in New York, Aug. 4 in Boston and Sept. 14 in Minneapolis, with other engagements and DVD release to follow.)

I hate to be a grouch about the semi-delightful swashbuckler classic "Fanfan la Tulipe," barely seen in the United States since the '50s, but at least I'm not alone. I'll steal a line from my colleague Stephanie Zacharek, who told me after a recent screening that people should see this to understand why the French New Wave had to happen. Don't get me wrong: This 18th century romp from director Christian-Jaque, a major high-end filmmaker of the '40s and '50s in France, has two great stars (and I'm not just talking about Gina Lollobrigida's breasts), a lot of lovingly choreographed swordplay and considerable good humor.

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The title character, a legendary French Everyman of song and story, is played by Gérard Philipe, an almost forgotten actor who was one of the biggest screen idols of his generation. (He died of cancer in 1959, at just 37.) He's a classically charismatic rogue, loyal to friends but never to women, who vaguely anticipates something of the feckless charm of "Six Feet Under" star Peter Krause. Lollobrigida balances him nicely as the "gypsy" girl who tells his fortune and spends the rest of the film darting dark-eyed glances his way, while impressively strapped into a peasant bodice. (Her dialogue is dubbed into French.)

Many of the French comic actors packaged in supporting roles here are fun, but there sure are a lot of them, and the hectic, sprawling "Fanfan la Tulipe" eventually feels like too much -- too many goofy asides, too much Comédie Française hambone acting, too much gallantry and villainy, too much forced good cheer. Still, screenwriters René Wheeler and René Pallet offer a good-natured, cynical view of all things military and political (especially the regime of Louis XV, presented here as a pompous lech), Philipe is undeniably dashing and Lollobrigida is, er, a formidable screen presence. If you've already drunk at least half a bottle of medium-good wine, you'll have a splendid time. (Opens July 21 at Film Forum in New York, Aug. 18 in Boston, Aug. 25 in Los Angeles, Oct. 13 in Washington and Nov. 3 in San Francisco, with more bookings to be announced.)


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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