Beyond the Multiplex

Forget the blockbusters: Try the sumptuous "Curse of the Golden Flower," the ambitious "Perfume" or the unflinching "The Dead Girl."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 21, 2006 1:00PM (EST)

Ho ho ho! Merry Judeo-Christian-Taoist-Wiccan solstice celebration, everybody! Now let's leave the presents and the roast Tofurkey and the crackling logs and the ginormous inflated Santa-in-a-manger on your front lawn, and go see some disturbing, ambitious movies. Yes, it's that time again, not just for the blazing neon-lit menorah and Mariah Carey's terrifying versions of Christmas songs and the passing of the Kwanzaa chalice, but also for a few dozen potentially worthwhile films to descend on us all at once.

Many things about the movie industry seem to derive from ancient ancestral wisdom rather than rational business considerations, and the onslaught of films in Christmas week is paramount among these. I realize that distributors must open movies before the New Year to make them eligible for the Oscars. But the logic of carving up the adult audience, not to mention the limited attention span of film critics, into many pieces, at exactly the moment when we're all supposed to be abandoning the cares of the workplace and embracing our neglected parents, spouses and/or offspring escapes me somehow.

Still, I have good news. If your family is the adventurous type -- or if you just need to get the hell away from them -- there's some good stuff to see this season. (Most of the week's big releases are opening first in New York and Los Angeles, and spreading out gradually. I've done my best to provide specific info below.) The list begins with a film I'm not reviewing here, the beautiful and troubling fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth." It's too dark and violent for most children (certainly those under 12 or so) but it's the one picture of 2006 that no film-lover can afford to miss.

Zhang Yimou's "Curse of the Golden Flower" might not be that director's best big-budget spectacle (fans of "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" can fight it out), but it's a sumptuous, decadent, subtly poisonous film, with some of the most amazing widescreen cinematography in recent memory. Tom Tykwer's long-awaited adaptation of Patrick Süskind's international bestseller "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" is almost as ambitious, and probably not as successful. Still, it's fascinating, a relentlessly grotesque chiaroscuro vision of 18th century Europe, a serial-killer film that simultaneously channels early David Cronenberg, "Barry Lyndon" and "Oliver!"

There might be no movie of the entire year with less feel-good holiday mojo than Karen Moncrieff's second feature, "The Dead Girl." An anthology of intimate mini-films about the characters surrounding a murdered Hollywood prostitute, it's an unflinching gaze into some of the darkest subject matter our society has to offer. Moncrieff marshals a strong and diverse cast and her technical command is impressive. But does she admit enough light to this meticulously imagined universe to make it worth visiting? Much friendlier, at least on the surface, is Roberto Benigni's "The Tiger and the Snow," which brings his "Life Is Beautiful" tragi-clowning to the Iraq war.

Now pass me that eggnog and some of that mysterious cake your aunt always makes. No, don't tell me what's in it, please. Then we're off to the movies. Have a great holiday season, everybody.

"Curse of the Golden Flower": Jade and gold outside, corruption and rot within
It may be that Zhang Yimou's newest film, a quasi-Shakespearean exploration of incest, corruption and murder behind the scenes of T'ang Dynasty imperial China (around 1000 A.D.), is so big that it becomes weighed down by its own bigness. It may also be that it's just the darkest picture in Zhang's big-budget trilogy of action-adventure films drawn from Chinese history and legend, which began with "Hero" and continued with "House of Flying Daggers."

Whatever the reason, this eye-popping spectacle, with its high-flying fight choreography, color-coordinated battle scenes, phantasmagorical interiors and rows upon rows of deliciously costumed extras, is not going to strike anybody as a rip-roaring good time. As the despotic emperor, Chow Yun-Fat presides over his bitterly divided family with an air of sardonic contempt peeking through his Mephistophelean beard. As his embattled wife, who has apparently been sleeping with her stepson the crown prince (Liu Ye), Gong Li seems to spend most of the film sweating, coughing and collapsing. The emperor is giving her "medicine" for her "anemia"; it's poison and she knows it, but she keeps on drinking it anyway.

Still and all, good Lord, is this an impressive motion picture. Filmed largely in and around Beijing's Forbidden City, with other locations, some studio work and computer effects mixed in, "Curse of the Golden Flower" is the most opulent evocation of Chinese imperial culture at its decadent height ever brought to the screen. If there's a certain static quality to all this richness, and an undeniable bleakness, those strike me as fully intentional. This film avoids easy optimism about the possibility of revolution or reform, a lesson that may be just as pertinent in today's China, and many other places as well. (Zhang of course has denied any present-tense significance.)

On the eve of the Chrysanthemum Festival, with tens of thousands of yellow flowers filling the central courtyard of the imperial palace, Gong Li's empress plots her move. She enlists her warrior son Prince Jai (Jay Chou) to help her, counting on the ineffectual crown prince, her former lover, to stay out of the way with his new girlfriend (Li Man). But the emperor is one of those deathless villains who hears and sees all, and you can count on his black-clad assassins to descend from the sky, with an array of fearsome weapons, at the most inconvenient moments.

Then there's the mysterious woman in black with the branded face (Chen Jin), not a bad martial-arts fighter in her own right, who has sworn vengeance against the emperor and bears an important secret. It's probably fair to say that none of these characters exactly leaps off the screen -- the backdrop that Zhang and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding have created is too overpowering for that. But with its grand pageantry and its sense of pervasive foreboding, "Curse of the Golden Flower" simultaneously suggests Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and Kurosawa's "Macbeth" adaptation, "Throne of Blood."

Those are inflated and dangerous comparisons, of course. Will this picture measure up to those in the long haul? I'm not saying that. I am saying that the morbid grandiosity of "Curse of the Golden Flower" is its own distinctive accomplishment, another remarkable chapter in the career of Asia's most important living filmmaker. After "Pan's Labyrinth," this is the movie to see this season.

"Curse of the Golden Flower" opens Dec. 21 in New York and Dec. 22 in Los Angeles "and select major cities," which means you'd better check local listings. A wide national release will begin Jan. 12.

"Perfume: The Story of a Murderer": A scent to die for, and the antihero who kills for it
Turning Patrick Süskind's legendary murder mystery "Perfume" into a movie, the German director Tom Tykwer faced an obvious problem: The story concerns the sense of smell, which the film medium (efforts by John Waters and Les Blank aside) cannot convey. Well, let's call that Problem No. 1. There was also the fact that the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (played in the film by English actor Ben Whishaw), is a sort of wild child from the slums of Paris, gifted with the finest nose of his time, who begins murdering beautiful young women in order to distill and bottle their essence.

Then there's Süskind's supremely literary voice, which captures both Grenouille's subjective consciousness -- his longing for love, acceptance and recognition as the greatest artist in his genre -- and enough outer, objective reality to remind us that he is committing unforgivable crimes. Given all that, I suppose it's a credit to Tykwer (best known for "Run Lola Run") that his "Perfume" works as well as it does. It's an extraordinary visual experience that captures 18th-century France as a realm of filth, blood, vomit, cruelty and all-around depravity, which even the best perfumers can only partly cover up.

"In bringing this book to the screen, I felt I had to make something where the usual rules of watching a film do not apply," Tykwer tells me in a phone interview. "It was very exciting." What he means, he continues, is that "there's a hero in the film who's probably the darkest hero ever. But there's nobody else to relate to, don't forget that! In 'Silence of the Lambs,' we see Hannibal Lecter through the Jodie Foster character; she's the hero. But we have a character who is both good and bad, who is Hannibal Lecter and Jodie Foster in one."

Many viewers, I suspect, will have trouble with this. Tykwer tries to take us inside Grenouille through voice-over narration, and by showing us key scenes from his nightmarish childhood -- his mother is executed for abandoning him, and he is nearly murdered in the cradle himself. But the operative word here is "nightmare." We can certainly be convinced to root for Grenouille as he tries to transcend his grotesque circumstances, in the manner of a Dickens hero. But as I said to Tykwer, it's as if we watched Pip of "Great Expectations" grow up into a strapping lad and start pickling hookers: Your sympathy wears thin pretty fast.

With the help of Whishaw's extraordinary performance, and a heavily allegorical climax that is so extraordinary and, if you haven't read the book, so unexpected, Tykwer nearly pulls it off. "What I hope," he says, "is that you keep rooting for Jean-Baptiste in a way that is very disturbing. It's a very strange experience, both for the audience and the filmmaker. You get involved, I think, with his vindictive and obsessive pursuit of his own happiness. This guy longs for something so basic, and his plan is so fascinating, that you can almost accept the fact that he commits these murders in order to fulfill it."

A lean, vulpine figure with something of the strangeness of David Bowie's alien in "The Man Who Fell to Earth," Whishaw makes a compelling visual focus for Frank Griebe's camera. The rest of the cast is hit-and-miss -- Alan Rickman brings tremendous dignity to his role as Grenouille's chief pursuer, but let's not talk about Dustin Hoffman trying to play a once-famous Italian perfumer. Who thought that was a good idea?

Tykwer is one of contemporary cinema's great perfectionists, and his re-creation of 18th-century Paris, along with Grasse, the famous "perfume capital" of Provence, is nothing short of amazing. (The film was mostly shot in Barcelona and nearby regions of Spain, with interiors in a Munich studio.) But if "Perfume" is a beautiful film, it has a cold heart, pumping aesthetic perversity icily through its veins.

Are audiences at any level of the film marketplace likely to embrace a film whose protagonist kills young women, one after the other? I suppose "Perfume" is really an allegory about artistic creation and its costs -- something underscored by that climax I'm not giving away, the one with 800 naked extras writhing in the town square -- but it's not like that's such a crowd-pleasing topic either. A memorable and outrageous movie, but one more likely to be remembered as a massive folly than a whopping success.

"Perfume" opens Dec. 27 in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider release beginning Jan. 5.

"The Dead Girl": Five women, five remarkable films, one voyage into darkness
I guess if you follow "Perfume" with Karen Moncrieff's bleak but impressive anthology film "The Dead Girl," you've got A) the most depressing double bill in recent movie history; B) a comparative study in two contrasting aesthetics; or C) the syllabus for a women's studies course.

Moncrieff's five mini-films, all surrounding the story of a woman found dead on a Southern California hillside, are distinct rather than interlocking. The five female protagonists never meet, at least not within the movie. There's almost nothing by way of back story or exposition: We see these women for a couple of days in their lives, as they circle around a traumatic event. We can guess a few things about their pasts, but not much. With one exception, we have no idea where they're going.

Her first section, "The Stranger," is the eeriest and strongest. Arden (Toni Collette), a stringy-haired woman of indeterminate age who wears a housedress and lives with her ailing, abusive mother (Piper Laurie), finds the decomposing corpse on a hillside. It catalyzes something in her, and she begins a fumbling relationship with a slightly ominous guy from the grocery store (Giovanni Ribisi) who keeps talking about serial killers. Despite the overall David Lynch tone and the feeling that Arden has tumbled out of the 1950s, it isn't going where you think it's going.

Grab that tiny thread of hope that Moncrieff throws to Arden, because it's almost all you're getting. The other sections are "The Sister," in which Rose Byrne plays a forensics student who hopes the dead girl will turn out to be her long-missing sister; "The Wife," a terrifying miniature with Mary Beth Hurt as a woman in a trailer park who begins to understand what her husband is doing on his long absences; "The Mother," with Marcia Gay Harden as the woman from rural Washington who has come to L.A. to identify the dead girl as her daughter; and "The Dead Girl," in which we finally meet Krista (Brittany Murphy), and follow her through the day and night that will lead her to that hillside.

Although "The Sister" verges on movie-of-the-week clichés, these stories are compactly constructed and thematically connected, with scarcely a scene or a second wasted. Harden brings what could have been a hackneyed role achingly to life, and has nice scenes with Kerry Washington as the bitter fellow hooker who was Krista's roommate and -- as we and Krista's mom finally grasp -- more than that as well. But the universe of "The Dead Girl" is an almost uniformly dreary one, whose women are all either dowdy or whorish. The film's only vivacious character is Krista herself, a drugged-out incompetent whose last of many bad decisions is to hitchhike to her daughter's birthday party, carrying a giant stuffed animal.

There's no mistaking the integrity and craft on display here, and the writing and direction are too smart to dismiss "The Dead Girl" as victimology or man-hating. (There are at least one and a half likable male characters, to go along with the pimps, johns, motorcycle thugs, abusive dads and creepazoid murderers.) Moncrieff means to tell us that the five women of "The Dead Girl" are all suffering -- they're all dead girls, in some spiritual or emotional sense, perhaps. OK, but given that rather grim narrative scheme, it's even more important for her to offer us some relief from the face-in-gravel realism, from the flat grays and blood-drained blues. Just a glimpse of sunlight, pallid as it may be.

"The Dead Girl" opens Dec. 29 in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider national opening beginning Jan. 12.

"The Tiger and the Snow": What's Arabic for "Life Is Beautiful"?
If you saw Roberto Benigni's multiple Oscar-winning "Life Is Beautiful," you probably know already whether you want to see another version of it, transposed to the Iraq war, or whether the whole idea makes you queasy. Most viewers either rapidly grow to love or hate Benigni's distinctive brand of self-aware, post-Chaplin, post-Fellini, post-Robin Williams clowning, but I find myself perennially on the fence. He's an irritating goofball at times, but there's a genuine sense of tragedy and darkness -- of the most ancient traditions of clowning, in fact -- underneath it all.

Benigni plays his usual character, in this case a ditzy Roman poetry professor named Attilio who is, for mysterious reasons, irresistible to attractive women, except for Vittoria, the one he really loves (played as usual by Benigni's wife, Nicoletta Braschi). He dreams about marrying her, or having sex with her, every single night, while Jorge Luis Borges and Marguerite Yourcenar are watching. You think I'm kidding about that, don't you?

Through a haphazard plot twist, Vittoria winds up near death in a bombed-out Baghdad hospital, and Attilio plunges after her, into one death-defying situation after another. He impersonates a Red Cross doctor. He learns to ride a camel. He single-handedly brings medical supplies into the city on an overloaded motorcycle. When confronted with trigger-happy American soldiers, his method is to careen around like an injured insect, Pee-wee Herman-style, while shrieking, "I am Italian!"

"The Tiger and the Snow" is a winsome, charming and irresistibly romantic picture, and also a profoundly self-involved one that has nothing whatever to do with Iraq or war or much of anything else besides the butterfly-like spirit of Roberto Benigni. But I guess that combination makes it a great holiday selection choice for certain disheveled, liberal family groups. Mine, for instance.

"The Tiger and the Snow" opens Dec. 29 in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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