Beyond the Multiplex

The most original new thriller since "Memento." The year's best relationship movie. Plus: Heath Ledger's a revelation in "Candy."


Andrew O'Hehir
November 16, 2006 6:00PM (UTC)

It's cult-movie week here at Beyond the Multiplex world HQ. What do I mean by that? On some level I don't mean anything: Anybody who's lucky enough to make an independent film and actually get it released hopes it will become a cult movie, hopes it will capture an electrified germ of the Zeitgeist and spread from city to city, from one fevered dinner conversation to another, like an especially virulent strain of the flu.

Still, there are categorical differences. "Little Miss Sunshine" and "An Inconvenient Truth" are this year's big hits (by indie standards). But they're not cult movies. Nobody needed to see them twice, or is likely to keep those DVDs in a place of honor, permanently leaning against the TV, case never quite closed. A cult movie has an audience (be it large or small) that never wants to let go, that finds in that picture a wit or a soul or an existential clarity found nowhere else. A cult movie can be obscure or well known, but it cannot be totally familiar or too widely loved. "Carnival of Souls" and "Reservoir Dogs" and "Solaris" can be cult movies; "Citizen Kane" and "Vertigo" and "The Godfather" cannot.

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So this week we've got two engrossing new flicks that just might become cult movies (I have learned not to make predictions about this sort of thing), another that deserves to be but won't and a fourth that already is (at least among film critics, perhaps the tiniest and most self-absorbed cult of all). First up is "The Aura," the dark and dazzling new thriller from Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky, an absolute must for genre fans. Next comes "Candy," a familiar but lovingly constructed saga of junkiehood, built around remarkable performances by Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish. "Flannel Pajamas," directed by the New York indie-film legend Jeff Lipsky, is an acutely drawn portrait of a yuppie marriage in decay, full of startling detail. And the rerelease of Jean-Luc Godard's 1966 "Two or Three Things I Know About Her" is ... well, it is what it is, and for better or worse it isn't like anything else.

"The Aura": A missing wife, a missing husband, a dog, an epileptic and the perfect crime
Anybody who caught the Mamet-esque crime film "Nine Queens" a couple of years ago could see the tremendous potential of Fabián Bielinsky, who emerged from a long career as an assistant director, screenwriter and teacher in Argentina's film industry with that debut picture. His latest work, "The Aura," might be the most original new thriller I've seen since "Memento." Sadly, Hollywood producers won't get the chance to snatch Bielinsky from the relative obscurity of South America and ruin his impressively cold and dark aesthetic with huge piles of money. He died of a heart attack last summer, at age 47. This is a fine testament, but it's tough that we'll never see what he'd have done next.

"The Aura" isn't a puzzle film in the mode of Christopher Nolan or M. Night Shyamalan, exactly, but it holds its secrets in its own way. This is a tremendously atmospheric movie full of moody mystery, and it'll keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. Played by Ricardo Darín, who was also in "Nine Queens," its protagonist is a ferrety, almost affectless character who doesn't even have a name. In the closing credits he's identified only as "Taxidermist," which is what he is: As the film begins we see him restoring a pair of stuffed foxes, while his unseen wife rails at him through an opaque glass door.

We never meet that wife, and that's only the first in a long list of things Bielinsky withholds from us. The taxidermist comes home one day to find that the wife has cleared out her clothes and left a note. We don't know if he ever reads it, let alone what it says. Later on in the story, two significant characters will come and go -- and I mean go, in the most permanent sense -- without saying a word. And another woman, perhaps also a woman the taxidermist loves, will leave behind another note he will not read.

In addition to stuffing and mounting dead animals, the taxidermist has another talent. He prides himself on his photographic memory, his total recall of details, and he irritates his friend Sontag (Alejandro Awada), wherever they go, by planning the perfect heist, explaining how this bank or museum or accounting office could be painlessly and efficiently cleaned out. Bielinsky shows us these imaginary crimes as the taxidermist outlines them, in a series of exciting, Scorsese-like long takes.

The taxidermist is also an epileptic. As he explains in his only confessional moment in the film, the "aura" that comes just before his seizures is a terrifying but liberating sensation. He can do nothing to stop what is about to happen, but for those few seconds he is free, open to sensation and memory and emotion in a way he never is otherwise. We see several of these attacks, presented as dizzying, sinister, almost supernatural moments. On a pragmatic level, we understand that they're likely to overwhelm the taxidermist at moments of stress. On a metaphorical, symbolic level, they remain mysterious. They just happen, like love or death or an unlikely hunting accident.

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You see, after the wife leaves, the taxidermist and Sontag go on a hunting trip together, in the forests of southern Argentina. They're really just acquaintances, not close friends; Sontag had planned to go with another guy, who backed out. It doesn't go well. The hotels are all booked, because a nearby casino is closing for renovation, and they have to stay in a remote, dilapidated cabin complex owned by a local named Dietrich (Manuel Rodal) and his much younger wife, Diana (Dolores Fonzi).

I shouldn't tell you too much beyond that. The two men quarrel and separate. There is a hunting accident, and a strange discovery deep in the woods. The taxidermist forms a tenuous connection with Diana and her surly teenage brother Julio (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), and learns why they hate and fear Dietrich. A pair of menacing gangsters shows up at the cabins. A casino loan shark recognizes the taxidermist, although he's never been to that casino before. A robbery at a factory goes desperately wrong, and the taxidermist finds himself presented (or so he believes) with all the pieces of the perfect heist.

Bielinsky insisted in interviews that "The Aura" isn't really a thriller. To most viewers, me included, it seems like one, but there are certainly things in it that vibrate at a deeper, weirder level. The epileptic-seizure scenes are terrifically powerful but almost irrelevant to the plot (I said almost), and so is Dietrich's dog, a spectral, wolflike creature that seems to recognize a kindred spirit in the taxidermist. In this nihilistic tale of nameless heroes, battered women, missing wives and husbands, self-destructive thugs and pointless violence, there's something else -- maybe a Beckett play or a werewolf movie, or both -- trying to get out.

"The Aura" opens Nov. 17 at the IFC Center in New York, Nov. 30 in Detroit, Dec. 1 in Los Angeles, Dec. 8 in Boston and Dec. 15 in Chicago, with more cities to follow. It is also available pay-per-view on IFC In Theaters, via certain cable TV systems.

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"Candy": A guy, a girl, a surrogate father and heroin: A love story
I don't suppose there's a more oft-told tale in so-called serious film, after the '60s, than the Drugs Are Bad saga. (Well, maybe there is, and it's the Love Is Bad saga. We'll get to that shortly.) Sheer familiarity may dull the impact of "Candy," Australian director Neil Armfield's debut feature, for most viewers over 17. But with its intelligence, compassion, human terror and sheer loveliness, "Candy" is a winner despite the well-worn path it treads.

"Candy" was adapted by Armfield and writer Luke Davies from the latter's novel, an Aussie bestseller in the "Million Little Pieces" vein (except acknowledged as fiction). However much this story reflects personal experience, anyone who's been unfortunate enough to know junkies personally -- or, still more stupidly, to live among them -- will recognize the characters in "Candy." Dan (Heath Ledger) and Candy (the luminous Abbie Cornish) are not bedraggled, nihilistic deadbeats, or at least don't see themselves that way. They're sybarites, perennial optimists, living by the pleasure principle. They're young, sexy and in love. They don't realize they've descended to the level of pond scum until the end of their story, if even then.

Acting with his own accent for the first time since he became a movie star, Ledger is something of a revelation in this role. Of course he's a handsome devil, but Dan -- a bedraggled poseur-poet, suburban refugee type -- has a loosey-goosey charm, a sort of deranged reasonableness, I've never seen in Ledger's characters before. He plays Dan as a cute little boy, even when he's explaining to Candy that she's got to be the one who turns tricks to keep their habit going. "You're heterosexual, you're just doing what you're good at," he says, clutching a pillow. "I'd be hopeless at all that gay stuff." (Yes, I know, "Brokeback Mountain," ha ha.)

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Still, it's Cornish -- an Australian TV star who's still little-known elsewhere -- who might be the breakout star here. Candy, a wannabe painter from a stolid middle-class family, never stops being lovely as she descends through the stages of Davies' Dante-esque narrative (the film's sections are actually called "Heaven," "Earth" and "Hell"). Her decline into smack-whore depravity and madness is subtly handled, and relative rather than absolute. You may have seen this kind of drug-using couple: One can handle it, sort of, remaining marginally functional and perhaps able to pull out of the death spiral before it's too late; the other one snaps the tether before anyone realizes it.

Dan and Candy are aided and abetted by their surrogate dad, a dissolute gay chemistry professor named Casper, marvelously played by Geoffrey Rush. This is another figure from the drug world, the wannabe-Burroughs elder who has devised a survival strategy of sorts but drags others down in his charismatic wake. A couple of Australia's strongest character actors, Tony Martin and Noni Hazlehurst, do noble work as Candy's heartbroken parents.

Armfield has been a theater director in Sydney (and many other places around the world) for years, and his transition to the screen is accomplished here with cleanliness and grace. He understands that he's got a terrific cast and a powerful, even archetypal, story of love and decay, and he doesn't try to gussy "Candy" up with trippy, drug-movie clichés. If this film lacks the iconic, culty verve of a "Trainspotting" or a "Midnight Cowboy," it is nonetheless a vivid, lyrical and fully convincing fable of innocence lost, or, if you prefer, willfully thrown away.

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"Candy" opens Nov. 17 at the Angelika Film Center in New York, and Dec. 1 in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, with many more cities to follow.

"Flannel Pajamas": Anatomy of a Manhattan marriage, circa 2006 -- and through it, the whole world
I've been trying not to irritate myself by reading other people's reviews of Jeff Lipsky's film "Flannel Pajamas," mostly because I think it's a film that goes so directly to my own predilections and prejudices that I almost don't want to share it. I also think it is so truly and exceptionally fine, a spiny and dispassionate little masterpiece of a marriage movie, that I don't want to expend energy groaning over the fact that it's doomed to reach (I suspect) a very small audience.

Lipsky is a big-time macher in the New York independent-film world -- and I think this is one of those rare occasions when an Irish kid from California can use a Yiddish word correctly. Over his 30-year career, he's helped distribute such culture-shifting movies as John Cassavetes' "A Woman Under the Influence," Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise," R.W. Fassbinder's "The Marriage of Maria Braun," Mike Leigh's "Life Is Sweet" and many, many more. I'd have a hard time trashing his movie even if it sucked. But it doesn't.

Not only does "Flannel Pajamas" not suck, its story of the love and marriage of a pair of attractive, professional-grade Manhattanites, Stuart (Justin Kirk) and Nicole (Julianne Nicholson), might be the best relationship movie of the year. People are inescapably going to compare it to Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" and Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," and if those make you groan, then for Christ's sake go see something else. But "Flannel Pajamas" has wonderful acting, meticulous and even thrilling camerawork. Its dialogue is terrific, cutting close to the bone without sacrificing realism for theatricality. And the story is packed with poisonous little surprises, spring-loaded with booby traps.

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This isn't a cuddly picture, or even an especially friendly one. It isn't a romantic comedy where wedding bells are heard and the future dissolves into a gauzy haze. Stuart is a handsome, commanding guy with marvelous hair who spins a brilliant line of bullshit he mostly believes. After his first diner date with Nicole, he spreads his suit jacket over a puddle for her. A few days later, he offers to pay off her student loans, and tells her to move out of her bathroom-less apartment and into his (which actually has a toilet). Kirk was terrific as the flamboyant Prior Walter in HBO's "Angels in America," and it's a treat to see him expend the same physical energy on a seductive ladies' man.

I haven't noticed Nicholson before (she's in the cast of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent"), but she's an intriguing blend of mousiness and sex appeal, radiating a sort of aggressive need. As the viewer, you walk a delicate line all the way through "Flannel Pajamas": You root for this couple but you don't; they're vulnerable, appealing and (like the real people we know) also a little repulsive because of that; their sexual and emotional passion is real, but the writing's still on the wall the whole time.

Lipsky's whole cast is great, from Jamie Harrold as Stuart's loving but borderline-psycho brother, who sucks up the oxygen in any room he enters, to Chelsea Altman as Nicole's domineering and "evil" (Stuart's word) best friend and Rebecca Schull as Nicole's mom back home in Montana, who seems, at first, a completely inoffensive and gentle person. Each of these characters has a way of exploding out of the film at completely unexpected moments (again, like the real people we know).

There's a scene between Stuart and Nicole's mother in a hospital cafeteria, when they're waiting for good or bad news about Nicole, and the mother launches, quietly and politely, into a stream of anti-Semitic invective. (Stuart is Jewish and Nicole is Catholic.) The camera pivots slowly around them in a semicircle. It's one of the most powerful sequences I've seen in a movie all year. And the thing is, Stuart is grateful to her: At last their relationship is getting somewhere. It's one of the only moments in the film where I really liked him.

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I'll shut up about "Flannel Pajamas" now. It's your thing or it's not, and I don't have the right to harangue anybody who's not interested in sitting through an intimate, sometimes painful exploration of a relationship between two fictional strangers. Let's leave it at this: Jeff Lipsky was paying attention, all those years. I've never seen his first film, "Childhood's End," but I'm going to find it. And he'd damn well better not stop now.

"Flannel Pajamas" is now playing at the Angelika Film Center in New York, and opens Nov. 24 in Los Angeles, Dec. 1 in Chicago, Jan. 19 in Dallas and Portland, Ore., Feb. 2 in San Francisco and Syracuse, N.Y., and Feb. 16 in Denver, with more cities to follow.

"Two or Three Things I Know About Her": Two or three things I know about Godard's 1966 "masterpiece"
1. "Two or Three Things I Know About Her," now being rereleased in a new print from the reissue masters at Rialto Pictures, was a turning point in Jean-Luc Godard's career. Although it's got the barest bones of a story -- about a housewife in a Paris high-rise development (played by Marina Vlady) who has turned to prostitution -- it bears only a vestigial resemblance to ordinary narrative cinema. The guy who had made such classics of the French New Wave as "Breathless" and "Band of Outsiders" was moving on to something completely different. "Two or Three Things" is more an essay about politics or philosophy or aesthetics, a deconstruction of consumer capitalism, an interrogation of the subject-object relationship (really!) and a collection of disparate, perhaps psychologically interlinked images than it is a fiction film of any kind. People stop partway through scenes and address the camera directly. There are shots of construction scenes in Paris, beneath Godard's whispered Marxist-agitprop narration. Ambient noise is sometimes so distracting you can't hear the dialogue, such as it is. There's a semi-famous scene in a bar, dominated by someone in the background playing a pinball machine. (Actually, that happens twice.)

2. Some of the film is really cool. The atmosphere of mid-'60s mod-era kitsch is irresistible, and Raoul Coutard's shots -- there's an amazing close-up of a cup full of espresso coffee, where bubbles of foam congeal and pop like distant galaxies -- occasionally seem to justify the intellectual bombast. I can see that "Two or Three Things" made new possibilities real in cinema, and opened the door for all kinds of experimentation. Godard himself writes about the project with some humility, saying, "This is a little as if I wanted to write a sociological essay in the form of a novel, and in order to do so had only musical notes at my disposition. Is this cinema? Am I right to go on trying?"

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2 1/2. Still, I'm just not that big on this kind of thing. I admire "Two or Three Things" on a cerebral level, and it influenced an entire strain of complicated and adventurous moviemaking, some of which I like. (Abderrahmane Sissako's film "Bamako," one of my favorites at this year's New York Film Festival, bears Godard's unmistakable fingerprints.) But despite an aura of wistfulness, and a certain power that accrues from the disjunction between the story of a vulnerable, life-hardened woman, the chaotic collision of sound and image, and the ham-handed political lessons, this film never moves me or shakes me the way that, say, Bergman's "Persona" does. Mind you, I basically feel that way about all of Godard's movies, and several smart people have decreed this to be one of the greatest films ever made. Rather than claiming they're all idiots, I should just trip out on that coffee-cup shot, and what it has to tell us about subjectivity, objectivity and the impossibility of real communication in a consumer society.

"Two or Three Things I Know About Her" opens Nov. 17 at Film Forum in New York and Dec. 22 at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles. Other cities may follow.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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