Ah, the signs of summer in North America. Wild strawberries appear along the roadsides, snakes bake dreamily on exposed shelves of rock, biting insects of all sorts are born and pursue picnicking humans with Mitt Romney-like efficiency. Fluffy "prestige" pictures crowded with respectable adult actors and lovely scenery fill the theaters, children dream of ice cream sodas and fireworks, and ... hey, hang on a second! That's not right.
No indeed -- Oscar-hungry confabulations like "Evening," an upper-middlebrow weeper that packs Claire Danes, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenn Close, Hugh Dancy, Patrick Wilson and Meryl Streep into the world of 1950s blue-blood privilege that the L.L. Bean catalog labors to evoke, don't belong in summer, at least not according to the venerable conventions of film distribution. But as a recent article by New York Times reporter David Halbfinger made clear, summer is the new beachhead for serious flicks aimed at grown-up audiences.
This used to be known as "counterprogramming," as in giving the parents something to watch while the kids suck down frozen artificial flavoring in front of the latest $800 million repackaging of some '60s comic-book franchise. (When will Swamp Thing and Doctor Strange make it back to the big screen? I've been waiting.) But the cardinal rule of classic summer counterprogramming, according to Halbfinger's thesis, was simple: Sex. Mom and Dad are feeling randy, too, come beachy weather (or so goes the thinking), and are eager for a little upscale skin. He reaches far and wide for examples: François Ozon's "Swimming Pool," Wong Kar-wai's "2046," Eric Rohmer's "Pauline at the Beach" (which was a hit 24 summers ago).
Like most trend stories about the movie business (or about anything else), Halbfinger's article assembles miscellaneous evidence to support a conclusion already arrived at. But he's clearly right that things have changed. This summer is being flooded with the kinds of serious-minded pictures that used to appear almost exclusively between Labor Day and Thanksgiving: "Evening" is joining Michael Moore's "Sicko," Michael Winterbottom's "A Mighty Heart," Olivier Dahan's "La Vie en Rose," Pascale Ferran's "Lady Chatterley" and numerous others yet to come. Of all those, only the last delivers any significant nudity, and that comes in the service of a poetic, earnest, almost puritanical film.
Let me save you the trouble of complaining, gentle readers, by doing it myself: Why do I spend so much time talking about the marketplace? You don't care about the business, you care about the movies. One answer is that, for better or worse, we live in a culture of ubiquitous insiderism, where box-office grosses and production deals are news stories all on their own. A better answer, I think, is that some movies cannot be isolated from their marketplace function, and for all its pictorial elegance and literary pedigree, "Evening" is one of them. It helps me to approach "Evening" with a minimum of eye rolling and exasperation if I remember that it's clearly filling a need (which doesn't happen to be mine).
Beyond the grand edifice of "Evening," we've got some counter-counterprogramming, headlined by a devastating and already controversial documentary about gangsters in the most lawless districts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which is to say the most lawless places in the world. For fans of classic hard-boiled crime cinema, nothing all summer will compete with the crystalline new black-and-white print of "Le Doulos," the great Jean-Pierre Melville's most influential film. If a bunch of French guys in supersharp threads smoking and shooting each other won't cheer you up, I can't help you.
"Evening": Love, death and afternoon tea at the yacht club
In the very first shot of "Evening," which is directed by Hungarian cinematographer-turned-filmmaker Lajos Koltai, we see an old woman in a robe standing on the rocky shore of what looks like a rural New England harbor. The water is preternaturally still, so she's able to call out to a much younger woman who lies on the deck of a small sailboat, perhaps asleep. A man whose face we can't see is at the tiller. This looks like, and is, a dream sequence, with an aura of pale golden sunrise. It also looks as if, at any moment, the human figures will swim out of focus and other things will appear, magically suspended in the middle distance. A line of feminine hygiene products, perhaps. Or a tub of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.
Not all viewers will receive the scene that way, I am sure. But in its pursuit of superior craftsmanship and high-minded lyricism, "Evening" constantly risks sliding down the slippery slope into inept sentimentality and self-caricature. With a high-wattage female ensemble cast, dreamboat Rhode Island locations and a respected European director, "Evening" feels like one of those devil's-candy productions that aim to bring artistry to a large audience, specifically a large audience of adult women who don't often go to the movies. Even considering it in that light, I found it miscalculated and overcooked, although Claire Danes' glowing, gawky, oddly appealing performance (she's the one on the sailboat) should announce her arrival as a major star.
"Evening" was adapted from Susan Minot's novel by Minot herself and Michael Cunningham (author of "The Hours"), and I don't quite know what to make of the fact that two distinguished novelists produced this blend of sub-Tennessee Williams period potboiler and quasi-spiritual fairy dust. Maybe if Joyce and Nabokov had written a screenplay together, it would have been "Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."
I haven't read Minot's book (which has apparently been much simplified for the screen), but it's clearly a tangled weave of memory and mortality, the two enduring themes of modern literature. It's entirely possible that her story, and even this screenplay, could have yielded a better film if it had been less terminally picturesque. I don't know how good Koltai's English is, but he's spent almost his whole career in Europe. The 1950s ruling-class New England setting of "Evening" can mean nothing more to him than houses and landscapes, or perhaps images from other films. I felt like he was desperately reaching for references in almost every shot: Here's a moment from "The French Lieutenant's Woman"; there's one from "Wild Strawberries." (The whole damn thing is overlaid with references to Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Suddenly, Last Summer," but without much of the trashy allure.)
Actually, the blue-blood Newport, R.I., household where coltish Ann Grant (Danes) alights for the wedding of her friend Lila Wittenborn (Mamie Gummer) is seen only in flashback, although it's a flashback that dominates the picture. In the present tense, Ann is played by Vanessa Redgrave (the old woman on the shore in the margarine commercial), who lies dying in bed, doling out crusty bons mots and visited by visions, which include little twinkling firefly lights and a full-size death fairy with a know-it-all manner, a white gauzy dress and an Irish accent. You think I'm kidding! Seriously, I have no problem with movies that venture into spiritual speculation of whatever variety, but anybody who's actually sat by a dying parent's bedside may find this movie's depiction of death insulting on many levels.
Partway through her ever-so-lovely death, Ann is also visited by her daughters, one of them a goody-two-shoes type named Constance, played by Natasha Richardson (yes, that's Redgrave's real-life daughter), and the other a black sheep named Nina, played by Toni Collette, whose boho-rebel status is indicated by her discreetly two-tone hair. Nina guesses correctly that Mom's mumblings about people named Harris and Buddy, whom they've never heard of, are genuine memories and not just ravings. But only we in the audience can travel back in time with Ann, to that Newport wedding weekend five decades earlier.
Once there, at least we've got Danes, all jaunty angles, bright eyes, horsey teeth and perfect skin, to look at. Ann is meant to be that appealing outsider who strips the veneer off the life of privilege simply by seeing it with fresh eyes, and if that weren't such a profoundly uninteresting concept at this point, Danes' performance might make it work. Ann seems vulnerable and alive in a world of bloodless Ralph Lauren models; she's left-footed and uncertain and you want her to get the hell out of this place. Part of the problem is basic storytelling ineptitude (and you wouldn't describe either Cunningham or Minot as masters of plot): None of the so-called mystery in this memory is remotely mysterious.
Lila's brother Buddy, played by Hugh Dancy as a drawling, swooning upper-class androgyne -- unfortunately for him, 20 years too early for glam rock -- professes to be in love with Ann. But as soon as we see Harris (Patrick Wilson), the caretaker's son turned idealistic young doctor, we know where Buddy's heart really inclines, and where Ann's is headed. As in "Little Children," Wilson seems to believe that furrowing his brow and not smiling will convey his character's seriousness of purpose, when in fact his impressive physique and good posture are doing all his acting for him. (He's the one person in this film who actually resembles a 1950s actor.)
That's all there is, really. An awful lot of pretty clothes, exquisite locations and perfect lighting go into telling the story of a woman who had an ill-advised and not terribly steamy liaison when she was much younger, and learned something (albeit not that much) about the varieties of human sexuality. Hello? For doing that and then kicking the bucket, you get a movie made about you? Those who enjoy "Evening" will be moved by the elegiac mood, the lovely shots one after another, the pileup of actorly details, and the tinkly, moony piano score that always seems about to resolve itself into "My Heart Must Go On." Everything but the story.
There certainly are things to remember about this film: Danes atop the cliffs, head cocked jauntily into the summer wind; Glenn Close, eating the tasteful furniture entire as the etiquette-obsessed Wittenborn matriarch; Meryl Streep, appearing late in the film as the older Lila (played earlier by Gummer, who is Streep's real-life daughter). What I carried away from it, unfortunately for me, was the crunchy, bittersweet flavor of the death fairy's twinkle dust, something like SweeTarts left under the bed for a week.
"Evening" opens June 29 in most major cities, with wider release to follow.
"Ghosts of Cité Soleil": Brothers at war, over politics and a woman
"Power in Haiti is a gun," muses the Port-au-Prince gang leader known as 2Pac in Danish filmmaker Asger Leth's wrenching, relentless documentary "Ghosts of Cité Soleil." I don't know whether he's paraphrasing Mao Zedong on purpose, but you can't totally rule that out. 2Pac is being doleful and reflective, since he's just agreed to a disarmament deal after the 2004 ouster of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, one that he realizes may make him irrelevant.
Leth's film takes no overt position on the contentious question of Aristide and his unfinished Haitian revolution, nor on the coup -- perhaps supported by the United States -- that forced him from office. It's a shocking, fatalistic, street-Shakespearean drama that happens to be true, about two brothers on opposite sides of Haiti's civil war, with a woman between them. 2Pac and his brother Bily, who lead rival gangs of "chimères," or ghosts, in the Western Hemisphere's most dangerous place, emerge as complicated, believable guys. Both could fairly be called murderers, gangsters and thugs, but given another context they'd be something else -- entrepreneurs or musicians or politicians.
2Pac, a lean, charismatic character who laughs easily, already is all those things. Like his African-American namesake, he's a talented rapper (although well short of Tupac Shakur's ever-growing body of work), and he's long served as a de facto city councilman for the 19th district of Port-au-Prince's vast Cité Soleil slum. Originally a pro-Aristide fighter, 2Pac has switched allegiances by the time Leth finds him in 2004 and become an opposition activist. Bily, a moodier, more violence-prone figure, has stayed loyal to the leftist president, and the brothers are on a collision course. In neither case does ideology play much of a role; 2Pac is responding to a perceived personal betrayal, while Bily is remaining true to a tribal allegiance.
Into this political-fraternal drama comes a white French woman called Lele, who's supposed to be in Haiti helping poor children get health care, but gets increasingly drawn into 2Pac and Bily's bewildering mixture of dire poverty, outrageous bling, powerful weed (smoked at all hours) and imminent danger. She flirts with Bily but ends up in 2Pac's bed, and, as sexist as this may sound, I just wanted to slap her. Whether she realizes it or not, Lele is essentially a sex tourist. She can hop on an Air France jet anytime she wants, but 2Pac and Bily are stuck in Cité Soleil, and the consequences of a worsening feud between them are likely to be permanent.
Even without the white-chick problem, "Ghosts of Cité Soleil" is a moving and profoundly upsetting portrait of life near the bottom of the global power pyramid. These guys seem to have inherited the worst consequences of capitalism and the worst aspects of hip-hop culture, all at once. (Not that the two are unrelated.) In one of the film's weirdest little ironies, 2Pac and Lele mostly speak to each other in English -- the international language of crime, sex and business -- even though his Krio dialect and her Parisian French have the same linguistic roots.
It's probably disingenuous to claim, as I did earlier, that Leth's movie has no politics. It has already been attacked (mostly from the left) for its nihilism, with one Haitian-exile site describing it as "a stylized, decontextualized, postmodern, sexy/violent piece of propaganda." (I can't parse the details of intra-Haitian politics, but I gather that Haitian-American rapper Wyclef Jean, who helped produce the film, is anathema to pro-Aristide leftists.) One might quibble over the word "propaganda," always a subjective term, but in other ways that description doesn't go far enough.
What some leftists may have a tough time absorbing is that "Ghosts of Cité Soleil" casts all of Haiti's grim situation in the same stark, amoral light. Leth never apologizes for the coup or idealizes its leaders, some of whom were ex-Aristide supporters and some of whom emanated from the despised old Duvalier regime. Instead, he suggests that Haitian politics -- perhaps all politics, period -- always boils down to brutal, territorial gangsterism, and that in this respect Aristide was no better or worse than his enemies. It's not an uplifting vision of human progress, and what becomes of 2Pac and Bily won't leave you feeling hopeful. If political power is a gun, better not put down your gun.
"Ghosts of Cité Soleil" is now playing in New York and opens July 13 in Los Angeles. Other cities will follow.
"Le Doulos": Birth of the cool, Parisian style
There certainly were French crime films before Jean-Pierre Melville's 1962 "Le Doulos," and plenty more got made later, but you can make a pretty good argument that the genre never got any better. From the opening sequence -- a long tracking shot in which we watch Maurice (Serge Reggiani), the archetypal noir hero in trench coat and hat, rap-rap-rapping down a side street of Montmartre as an intertitle demands, "One must choose: To lie ... or to die?" -- it's a masterful blend of black-and-white economy and style.
This isn't a rediscovered film, at least not in the sense of last year's release of Melville's "Army of Shadows," which had hardly been seen in the United States. By contrast, "Le Doulos" -- the title refers to period Parisian slang for a police informant -- is pretty well known. Its combination of the hard-boiled aesthetic of 1930s American film with postwar French existentialism -- and a frankly fetishistic attitude towards men's fashion -- remains immensely influential. Without "Le Doulos" and Melville's 1967 "Le Samouraï," you don't quite get "Reservoir Dogs" or "Oldboy" or John Woo's classic Hong Kong films.
This release of "Le Doulos" (from Rialto Pictures) comes in a marvelous new print with new English subtitles, and it deserves a wider viewership than it's likely to get. On the surface this film is the story of Maurice, an embittered, emotionally crippled ex-con, and his ambiguous relationship with a pal named Silien (the great Jean-Paul Belmondo, lizard-slick here), who may or may not be the "doulos" of the title. But the more you see this film, the more you realize that it's no clearer than Howard Hawks' infamous screen version of "The Big Sleep." Maurice is a scumbag who kills and robs his closest friend, and the debonair Silien may be double-crossing Maurice, double-crossing the cops or simply lying to himself. (Don't miss the dazzling 360-degree panning shot, nearly nine minutes long, during Silien's police interrogation.)
For some years there was a critical consensus that Melville's films were misogynistic, but you might call that a false epistemology. He's depicting a profoundly misogynistic world in which women are ordered around, casually beaten, and tortured or raped when it's useful to do so. That doesn't mean he's endorsing those values, and as Melville made clear in interviews, it doesn't follow that Thérèse, the femme fatale played by Monique Hennessy, is necessarily guilty of the treachery of which Silien accuses her. It might be accurate to say that Melville's world is homosocial or borderline homoerotic, and that women just aren't important figures in it. He gets that, of course, from the American movies that obsessed him.
Melville once joked, "I take care never to be realistic," and it's true that "Le Doulos" makes no effort to portray the authentic criminal underworld of 1960s Paris. Its characters are suspended somewhere between American tough guy and French romantic hero, the bars look more like Manhattan dives than Parisian bistros, and Melville even insisted that his sets have sash windows with Venetian blinds (rare in Europe but common in American film). This film is as much a commentary on the moral and spiritual Americanization of Europe as anything Jean-Luc Godard ever made. Since it's also a slippery, gripping cops-and-robbers thriller, full of twists and turns and ending with a tragicomic shootout you'll never forget, it's about 20 times more enjoyable.
"Le Doulos" opens June 29 at Film Forum in New York. Other cities will follow.