Winona! Mongolia! Teen lesbian swimmers!

Indie roundup: All the women you'll ever boff -- revealed! Plus a creepy French tale of poolside teen lust and a great love story from Mongolia.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published April 4, 2008 10:49AM (EDT)

From left: Zeitgeist Films, Music Box Films, Anchor Bay Entertainment, Balthazar Productions.

From left: Images from "Jellyfish," "Tuya's Marriage," "Sex and Death 101" and "Water Lilies."

Yet another crazy, mixed-up, fascinating week of new releases hardly anyone will notice as they speed through theaters on their way to Netflix -- but that's what I'm here for, ladies and Internets. Once upon a time, I guess, it might have been big news that the two biggest names in Asian art film are releasing their first Western-made pictures on the same day. Then again, Wong Kar-wai's erratic American road movie "My Blueberry Nights" and Hou Hsiao-hsien's heartbreaking Parisian family tale "Flight of the Red Balloon" are so different, beyond the fact that neither is in Chinese, that it's hard to discern a trend, even for infotainment purveyors such as I. ("My Blueberry Nights" has been adequately covered in this space. I loved "Flight of the Red Balloon" more than anything else I saw Cannes last year; Stephanie Zacharek's review is here.)

Beyond that, we've got "Heathers" screenwriter Daniel Waters resurfacing as a director, alongside his old pal Winona Ryder, with a sex farce called "Sex and Death 101" that's, hmm ... what is it, exactly? Puzzling and unsatisfying, but hysterical in patches, that's what it is. Far better, if far less likely to attract an audience, is the doleful romantic comedy "Tuya's Marriage," set on the steppes of Inner Mongolia, where 21st century technology and the Chinese social-capitalist state is slowly destroying an ancient way of life. "Jellyfish," an award-winner from Cannes last year, offers a bracing, cliché-free glimpse of alienated life in contemporary Israel. Sneaky and borderline-terrifying, the French debut film "Water Lilies" goes inside the private world of three unhappy teen girls (as well as the whacked-out world of synchronized swimming).

"Sex and Death 101" You know, I want to give writer-director Daniel Waters an A for ambition with "Sex and Death 101," even if the actual movie is an awkward, uncinematic mishmash. Waters has at least tried to write a sex comedy that isn't aimed at titty-fixated 17-year-olds, and at its best "Sex and Death 101" has a fast, clever rhythm that almost sings. It's mean in a large-spirited, misanthropic manner, not in a laugh-at-the-fat-girls way, and its fatalistic, pseudo-metaphysical plot is cheerfully and purposefully idiotic. Even if it badly needs editing, runs almost a half-hour too long and chickens out totally in its final scenes, it's still miles above the Hollywood comedy median.

After writing "Heathers" in the late '80s, Waters became a sought-after screenwriter with (in his words) a "poignantly pathetic, failing-upwards" career trajectory that included "Hudson Hawk," "Batman Returns" and "Demolition Man." Much of the bile he built up during that remunerative career as a garbageman is visited here upon Roderick Blank (played by Australian actor Simon Baker), a handsome, successful, likable and soon-to-be-married fellow who finds himself the victim of a cosmic-scale practical joke. One day Roderick's assistant reads him a strange e-mail with no return address. It's a list of 101 women's names, and he definitely recognizes the first 29 of them: They're all the women he's ever slept with, ending with Fiona Wormwood (Julie Bowen), the bossy, bitchy, multitasking blonde he's planning to marry. So who are the remaining 72 chicks?

When No. 30 affixes herself to Roderick's lap at his bachelor party, he gets the message. He's just been given a list of ironclad, no-doubt Sure Things, and thereby consigned to his own distinct version of single-dude hell. There is an explanation of how and why this list has come to him, but I won't bore you with it. Waters has constructed a ludicrous fictional universe that's partly "The Matrix," partly "Bruce Almighty" and partly Stanley Donen's 1967 "Bedazzled" (a major influence here, I would say). Philosophically, Roderick wants to escape his life of endless, easy-breezy nookie with centerfold models, emergency room doctors, New Age authors and celebrity lesbian couples, fall in love, and settle down. But then, he's a guy. Very few of these conquests go exactly according to plan, and Roderick finds himself falling in love with the wrong woman (i.e., she's not on the list) and descending to the lowest forms of caddish behavior. Still, the sex keeps happening.

You may notice I have not mentioned the name of Baker's c-star, the one who made her reputation by starring in Waters' "Heathers." OK. Her name is Winona Ryder, and she plays a serial assailant named Death Nell, who is avenging historical wrongs against women (and against herself) by seducing a whole series of scumbag misogynists and sedating them into comas. We realize pretty soon that Death Nell is on Roderick's list, in the terminal position, so as his comic misadventures accelerate, we await his meeting with this alluring specter. It's not a bad setup, and it almost pays off.

But despite her star billing, Ryder appears only briefly. It gives me no pleasure to report that her performance is stilted, constricted and strangely off. Granted, Death Nell is supposed to be a wacko, but I'm not convinced that's the issue. It's less that the Baker-Ryder combo lacks erotic chemistry (although it does), than that the dark, sparkling vivacity with which Ryder would once have eaten up this ultra-bad-girl role seems virtually absent. Death Nell is No. 101 on the list, dammit, but Ryder gets upstaged by the cheerful scenery-eating of Leslie Bibb (as a veterinarian Roderick falls for), Sophie Monk (as the centerfold, No. 31), Frances Fisher (as the self-help author, No. 80) and even Nastassia Malthe and Pollyanna McIntosh (as the lesbian performance artists, Nos. 63 and 64).

I suspect Waters has been failing upward in Hollywood a little too long, and while "Sex and Death 101" has the teeth and some of the black humor of a genuine indie, in the end it works too hard to gratify a mainstream audience that will not even conceivably be interested. Still, if your tastes run in the right evil and sophomoric directions, ignore what will undoubtedly be a pile of bad reviews and check this one out. (Opens April 4 in major cities.)

"Tuya's Marriage" From the barren yet beautiful landscape of the Inner Mongolian steppes comes this unlikely, passionate love story, and it's the best movie out this week, no matter how few of you are likely to heed my advice and check it out. Chinese director Wang Quanan's third feature (winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin last year) is a compact near-masterpiece that combines a slow-motion romantic comedy with a docudrama-style portrait of a remote, nomadic culture as it is gradually eroded by the tides of the 21st century.

At first you may fear one of those ethnography-as-fiction Asian films that are long on edifying detail but short on storytelling. Instead, Wang crafts a precise tragicomic circle that begins and ends with the same wedding scene, one whose bride, the lovely but tough-as-nails Mongolian herdswoman Tuya (Yu Nan), has fled in tears. In between those bookended scenes, we learn the complicated back story of Tuya's tears: She has divorced her disabled husband Batoer -- like most of the cast beyond Yu Nan, Batoer is a Mongolian non-actor performing under his own name -- although she still loves him, and has promised to marry the first man who will help her support him.

There's a dry, laconic vein of humor running beneath "Tuya's Marriage," alongside a current of mourning and regret. Shot by German cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier, it offers a series of haunting images that capture without commentary the slow decay of the nomadic lifestyle and the fragile quality of the Chinese state at its outermost edges. It won't precisely leave you rolling on the floor, but I found it a rich and rewarding tale on many levels. Tuya is courted by a number of unlikely suitors, arriving by camel or by tractor or by Mercedes-Benz, most of them understandably reluctant to lose face by keeping their new wife's ex around the house. This genuinely is a romantic comedy, to the extent that Tuya barely seems to notice the plucky, luckless Shenge, a dashing fellow whose own wife has run off with his new truck and a local official. Shenge is smitten with her and eager to please -- and he likes Batoer too (at least at first).

Although totally unknown in the West, Quan is one of the "Sixth Generation" Chinese filmmakers, occupying a slot on the wry-realism scale somewhere between his friend Jia Zhangke (another festival favorite with little Western audiences) and the far better-known Zhang Yimou. "Tuya's Marriage" has been criticized in some quarters because Quan shot the film in Mandarin rather than Mongolian (which the characters would more plausibly speak), but needless to say that detail didn't matter to me. Worth seeing in a theater if you get the chance, and a must for your Netflix list down the line. (Opens April 4 in New York and April 25 in Chicago, with other cities and DVD release to follow.)

"Jellyfish" Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen's debut, winner of the Caméra d'Or (for best first film) at Cannes last year, offers a subtle and refreshing look at Israeli society that avoids all the customary points of reference. The Arab-Israeli conflict is never mentioned directly, and neither is Judaism or any other religion. While the Holocaust comes up once, it's only as the reason a daughter cannot talk to her parents. You might say that the Israel of "Jellyfish" is a place whose distinctive history is giving way to the anomie of postmodern existence; the Tel Aviv we see here is a modern, anonymous city, its residents struggling fruitlessly for genuine communication. Change the language, and this story could be happening in Athens or Marseille, Miami or Los Angeles.

Keret and Geffen employ a familiar art-film trope, following three unconnected female characters as their lives intersect against an urban landscape. (Keret is a well-known Israeli fiction writer, but Geffen, his professional and personal partner, wrote this script.) Batya (Sarah Adler) is conspicuously falling apart: Her boyfriend has moved out, her apartment is slowly filling with water, her socialite mom ignores her and she brings home a mute, spritelike little girl she sees walking out of the sea. (Yes, the girl is symbolic in exactly the way you're thinking.) Keren (Noa Knoller) is a newlywed with a broken ankle and a perennial spoiled-girl demeanor, who's had to give up her Caribbean honeymoon for one in a second-rate beach hotel (with no view of the ocean). Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre) is a homesick Filipina immigrant who speaks no Hebrew, taking care of a sourpuss old lady who speaks no English.

These three stories are lovely and concise, with little emotional depth charges beneath them and nary a second wasted. ("Jellyfish" runs just 78 minutes in all.) The filmmakers offer sympathy for these three women but not much sentimentality; each of them is at least partly responsible for her own dilemma. Batya seems to be willingly sliding into psychosis; Keren conceives an illogical jealousy after her husband talks to the voluptuous poet in the upper-floor suite; Joy seems far too ready to play her role as downtrodden outcast. Still, I appreciated and admired the craftsmanship of "Jellyfish" more than I loved it, and I found its whimsical, magic-realist touches a bit cloying. Just as I began to appreciate that it had depths I hadn't perceived, it was over. Based on the rapturous international response, and the wide release planned for this film in the United States, it's safe to predict that your reaction may differ. (Opens April 4 at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York and the Bijou Theatre in Iowa City, Iowa; April 25 in Los Angeles and San Francisco; May 2 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; May 9 in Boston, Washington and San Luis Obispo, Calif.; May 16 in Chicago and Seattle; May 23 in Baltimore and Philadelphia; and May 30 in Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and Great Barrington, Mass., with more cities to follow.)

Water Lilies Another debut film from last year's Cannes roster -- and one that has sparked considerable critical debate -- this tale of teenage love and lust from 28-year-old French director Céline Sciamma has a powerful and disturbing undertow. Dismissed in some quarters as trash because it depicts a sexual act (of sorts) between two teenage girls, "Water Lilies" struck me instead as a hypnotic and wholly convincing look at teen culture from the inside, with all its courage, cruelty and unspoken codes of silence intact. This is another story of three interlocking female characters, but it has an electrical charge and a sense of tragedy and mystery that, to my taste, "Jellyfish" strives for but cannot reach.

Filming in a '60s-vintage outer suburb of Paris (where Eric Rohmer once shot), Sciamma follows the uneasy awakening of a stone-faced, gawky tomboy named Marie (Pauline Acquart), who develops an unexpected and devastating crush on a popular older girl, the Renaissance-grade beauty Floriane (Adèle Haenel). At least, Floriane is popular with boys; the other girls on her synchronized-swimming team keep their distance, given her reputation as "une vraie salope" (a real slut). At first, Floriane's not interested in Marie's almost canine devotion, but then she sees that the younger girl can be a useful tool, and even, perhaps, begins to enjoy the attention.

Marie's best friend and fellow outcast is a big and not especially pretty girl named Anne (Louise Blachère), who nurses an unrequited passion for François (Warren Jacquin), a muscular water-polo player who seems way out of her league. In fact, if any character displays true heroism in this zone of teen torment, it's Anne. Sciamma captures the heavily disciplined, almost paramilitary world of synchronized swimming as a kind of boot camp for femininity -- those fake smiles! those clingy swimsuits! -- one whose rigors are likely to drive out social pariahs like Anne and Marie. She also nails the distinctive loneliness of a conventionally desirable girl like Floriane, without excusing her cold, careless treatment of others.

Whatever else it may be, "Water Lilies" isn't a teen satire or a suburban docudrama or a standard-issue lesbian coming-of-age film. (And it isn't porn, either: The sex scene is intense and troubling but not at all graphic.) Sciamma creates her own free-floating teen zone, free of time or place or adult issues. While the clothes seem contemporary, the girls don't have cellphones and avoid contemporary French slang; the pop music they listen to was invented specifically for the film. If "Water Lilies" feels like a remarkably realistic rendering of teen culture, that's because teen life is always mythic in scale, at least when you're inside it, and the unrequited, inexpressible and painful desires of Anne and Marie and Floriane are inside us all. (Opens April 4 at the Sunshine Cinema in New York. Other engagements will follow.)

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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