Now that it’s November, the days are getting darker and so are the movies. This weekend offers a couple of excursions into dark nights of the soul, both feature directing debuts dominated by strong female performers: Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long), a French drama about a tortured ex-con, and, an American portrait of a tortured artist. The superior film is the one from France. This is, in fact, shaping up to be an exceptional year for French cinema, even if some titles are taking a while to get to the screen. This year’s Palme d’Or winner in Cannes, (due to open here in January) is a riveting verité drama set in a multi-racial French classroom. And this fall finally saw the Canadian release of the 2006 thriller Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One), one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Now this. . .
I’ve Loved You So Long
It’s been 12 years since Kristin Scott Thomas seduced audiences inThe English Patient, and although she’s done some good work since, her talent has never been properly exploited. Perhaps it’s because her severe beauty and sharp gaze never quite fit the Hollywood mold, or that, in her late 30s, she was already middle-aged according to the dog-years by which movie actresses are measured in America. Well, the French know how to appreciate Englishwomen of a certain pedigree. Just ask Jane Birkin and Charlotte Rampling. And at the age of 48, Scott Thomas— who is fluently bilingual with just a slight accent—has shown up speaking in French in two pictures: in a supporting role as a rich lesbian in Tell No One, and now generating serious Oscar buzz as the star of I’ve Loved You So Long.
After Marion Cotillard won last year for playing Edith Piaf in , it’s unlikely Hollywood would go so far as to give the Oscar to another actress playing a tragic French figure—count on Anne Hathaway and Angelina Jolie to be catfighting it out for the statue this year—but if there’s any kind of Oscar campaign behind Tell No One, expect Scott Thomas to be nominated for her searing performance.
I’m no longer sure how much plot should be given away. (In this week’s magazine, I let slip a detail that, for some viewers, may be de trop, although it’s revealed fairly early in the story.) But for safety’s sake, I’ll be vague, and say only that Scott Thomas plays an ex-con who moves in with her younger sister (Elsa Zylberstein) and her two adopted children after serving a prison sentence for an unspeakable crime.
One of the most remarkable things about Scott Thomas’s performance, aside from its heart-stopping gravity, is her physical presence. She allows herself to be scarily grim. Without any evidence of makeup, and with her downcast features cast in a grey pallor, this luminous actress has somehow managed to drain the light and beauty from her face. As she gingerly strips away her dark secret in rationed increments, and secures some emotional warmth from her sister’s family (and a couple of interested men), the life slowly begins to creep back into her ghostly complexion. Potential love affairs emerge, as a depressive parole officer and one of her sister’s colleagues take an interest in this sharply intelligent, enigmatic woman. But almost half the movie goes by before she offers a trace of a smile.
First time director and screenwriter Philippe Claudel, a novelist and literature professor, doesn’t match the flair and finesse of his star with the camera. But he does a decent job of telling a strong story in that unadorned realist style so many French filmmakers employ to make middle-class family dramas compelling and credible. The film’s bleakness, which is not as oppressive as it may seem, is relieved both by incisions of wit in the dialogue and a late plot turn—although that final reveal is as predictable as it is convenient.
The reason to see I’ve Loved You So Long is quite simple: Kristin Scott Thomas. The subtle precision and softly withheld sadness of her performance achieves a transcendent beauty—which is strange considering that she has gone so far out of her way to appear nondescript.
Synecdoche, New York
When you’re trafficking in writerly genius, there’s a danger of having too much of a good thing. Charlie Kaufman is the brilliant, trippy screenwriter who gave us such post-modern mind-benders as Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman makes his feature directing debut, trying to make cinematic sense of his own Byzantine script while navigating a shoot that is colossally complicated, a Rubik’s cube puzzle involving vast sets populated by actors playing multiple meta versions of themselves.
The chaos and confusion that runs riot through Synecdoche, New York can be certainly construed as intentional. And fans of the film will forgive Kaufman’s manic over-indulgence as a kind of Method directing, as if the filmmaker is a life-mirroring-art reflection of his protagonist—a wildly over-indulgent playwright (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who tries to turns every detail of his artist’s life into a massive and endless play-within-a-play that builds upon itself like a viral reef. (Sorry for all metaphoric overkill, but consider it a side-effect of the movie.) The movie is true to its title. Everything is standing in for something else, as a whole of the part or a part of the whole. (The New York reference in the title is a pun on Schenectady, N.Y. which seems to have nothing to do with anything.)
This Kaufman/Hoffman hall of mirrors is great fun for a while, especially in the early innings when the wit is still light and playful, before it succumbs to a vortex of creative angst. Such herculean ambition, saddled to a surreal agenda, is a rare thing to behold, a perfect storm of cinematic hubris driven by an artistic death wish as the director tries to film the unfilmable. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch are prior examples that come to mind. But Kaufman, who lacks the controlled detachment of either Gilliam or Cronenberg, gets lost in his own movie.
This is one of those glasses of existential elixir that some will see as a half-empty and others as half-full. It’s a fine line between clever and stupid, as This is Spinal Tap so sagely taught us. And who knows? Synecdoche, New York is such a staggering monument to esthetic confusion that I could have it all wrong. My disappointment can be measured only by the scale of hefty expectation set up by Kaufman and his cast. Nothing I say should dissuadeintelligent and curious film-goers from running out to see Synecdoche, New York and witness this catastrophe for themselves. It’s like asking someone not to slow down as they drive by a horrific accident. Besides, how could anyone resist the high-minded harem of fabulous actresses Kaufman has brought together under one roof? They include Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, Dianne Weist, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson and Samantha Morton. Jeez. (I’ve always mixed up Emily Watson and Samantha Morton, and when I saw these dopplegangers lined up on a press conference stage in Cannes, I could see why: even they talked about people getting them mixed up.)
If this review sounds equivocal, let me conclude this way. Synecdoche, New York is a movie that asks the question, why make art? It’s about creative failure and monumental delusions of artistic grandeur. So it should not be surprising that it’s an example of both. As an example of failure, and delusion, it’s fascinating but ultimately frustrating.
If I can employ some synecdoche of my own, Synecdoche, New York represents a syndrome that has afflicted so much of American indie cinema, from Tarantino to the Coens — a smart-assed obsession with its own tropes, and a refusal to see the social and political reality beyond their own cinematic grammar. That’s why the Coens’ No Country For Old Men felt like such a breakthrough, even if the Coens went back to their old tricks with Burn After Reading. When you see great films from other countries—The Lives of Others, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Entre les murs, the contrast becomes immediately apparent. Despite their strong auteur styles, they take into places that matter. Which is not to say all filmmakers must succumb to social realism. But if they turn a blind eye to the outside world in the pursuit of a cinematic grail, they risk marginalizing their art and their audience.
A clip of the Kaufman and his cast that I shot in Cannes, focussing on Michelle Williams, who makes her first public appearance since the death of Heath Ledger:
And the Synecdoche, New York trailer: