LOVE IS THE DEVIL
Directed and written by John Maybury
With Derek Jacobi and Daniel Craig
Distributed by Strand Releasing
With its bag of distorted colors, stylized lighting, funhouse mirror effects, odd camera angles and focus tricks, LOVE IS THE DEVIL rubs one's face in its prodigious visual inventiveness. Alas, it never finds a particularly good use for this inventiveness. In telling the story of the self-destructive relationship between painter Francis Bacon (Jacobi) and the nightmare-prone, alcoholic thief George Dyer (Daniel Craig) who becomes his model and muse, Maybury takes his stylistic cues from Bacon's paintings themselves. In their fascination with close-ups of gargoylish faces, his images often come closer to bad Fellini. (Jacobi still looks fairly handsome in stills, but he's made up, lit and photographed to look much uglier for most of the film.) The point of this fascination is obvious - to lay bare the moral ugliness of Bacon and the bitchy queens and hangers-on who make up his circle of friends. (Almost every shot at their favorite bar is distorted in some way, and an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton is shot only in reflections.) But this ugliness is readily apparent, and Maybury's tendency to lay on the decadence with a steam shovel hardly helps. (In this respect, the scene where Dyer parties at a bar with sailors who seem to have stepped out of a Genet novel, as well as a gent in Nazi uniform, is especially egregious.) The relationship of Bacon and Dyer, even though it's a true story, could have come out of a Fassbinder film, but LOVE IS THE DEVIL doesn't have much to add to his portrayals of love at its most oppressive. Furthermore, it's no longer particularly interesting or profound to suggest that great artists are often nasty people, and the scene in which Bacon begins a painting by driving himself into a frenzy of paint-splattering could have come from any number of biopics about driven artists. Nevertheless, Maybury seems like a promising stylist, and I hope he'll put his skills to a more satisfying use next time around.
Directed by Christian Vincént
Written by Daniel Franck and Vincént
With Isabelle Huppert and Daniel Auteuil
Distributed by Phaedra Cinema
Vincént's first film, LA DISCRETE, was a blatant knock-off of Eric Rohmer's CLAIRE'S KNEE, and although his second, LA SEPARATION, doesn't bring any specific sources to mind, it's scarcely more original. (I missed his third, WHAT DO THEY SEE IN ME?, at last spring's Walter Reade series of new French films.) This is the kind of film that francophobes love to call "typically French": a look at the relationship problems of an urbane Parisian couple who have few connections with the outside world and no problems with money. (To seal its fate, it practically begins with a scene of conversation in a café.) In this case, said problems occur between Pierre (Auteuil) and Anne (Huppert), an unmarried couple with an infant son. Their relationship is in the midst of a slow, ugly, painful breakup, and Vincént depicts this crisis with a fine eye for detail. I recently wrote that Erick Zonca's THE DREAM LIFE OF ANGELS could be called NEW FRENCH FILM; a fitting alternate title for LA SEPARATION would be MIDDLE-AGED FRENCH FILM. Like DREAM LIFE, it's a well-made and well-acted film (with both Auteuil and Huppert, how could it not be?), but all the craft that went into it isn't enough to conceal my enormous feelings of deja vu.
Directed and written by Arnaud Desplechin
With Emmanuel Salinger, Jean-Louis Richard, Thibault de Montalembert, Valérie Dréville and Marianne Denicourt
Distributed by Strand Releasing
Arnaud Desplechin's two features, the 1992 LA SENTINELLE and the 1996 MY SEX LIFE...OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT, can't be faulted for lack of ambition. The MOTHER AND THE WHORE-inspired MY SEX LIFE took the standard French relationship film and, using a large cast and labyrinthian narrative, blew it up into an epic. LA SENTINELLE is even more ambitious. Its goal is nothing less than mapping the long-term legacy of World War 2, the Holocaust, the Resistance and 45 years of the Cold War onto the French psyche. Or, to be more specific, on the psyche of a young forensic pathology student Mathieu (Salinger) who becomes drawn into the world of espionage and political machination after discovering that someone has placed a mummified head in his luggage during a train ride from Bonn to Paris. Desplechin ably uses elements of the thriller and spy film to draw the audience in and maintain a high level of suspense and menace as Mathieu becomes more and more obsessed with the origins of the head. However, this is an anti-thriller, as talky and full of digressions as MY SEX LIFE..., and anyone expecting a speedy or unambiguous resolution of the questions it raises will disappointed. In France, this film was regarded by many critics as a new classic, and while I don't wholly agree with those hosannas, I'm pleased that Desplechin's flaws seem to lie in biting more than he chew, rather than settling for the ordinary.