FILMS/BRIEF ENCOUNTERS

Dramas of despair

Three movies pivot on tormented characters

BRIAN D. JOHNSON August 24 1992
FILMS/BRIEF ENCOUNTERS

Dramas of despair

Three movies pivot on tormented characters

BRIAN D. JOHNSON August 24 1992

Dramas of despair

FILMS/BRIEF ENCOUNTERS

Three movies pivot on tormented characters

SINGLE WHITE FEMALE

Directed by Barbet Schroeder

In its relentless manufacture of psychological thrillers, Hollywood seems to have settled on a formula: a psychotic killer exploits a close trust to invade the home of a successful professional. In each case, the villain murders out of loneliness, jealousy and despair—the adulteress in Fatal Attraction (1987) and, more recently, the nanny in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and the policeman in Unlawful Entry. Now, in Single White Female, the enemy is a roommate with a lethal disregard for privacy. Based on the John Lutz novel S WFSeeks Same, the movie is a goose-bump thriller that goes only skin deep. But it features superb performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bridget Fonda. And director Barbet Schroeder, who guided Jeremy Irons’s Oscar-winning tum in Reversal of Fortune (1990), displays a subtle and insidious wit.

Responding to a classified ad, Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) moves into a Manhattan apartment with Allie (Bridget Fonda), who has just kicked out her unfaithful boyfriend, Sam (Steven Weber). Hedy has been secretly pining for her dead twin sister, and is intent on making Allie her replacement. Hedy steals Allie’s clothes, hairstyle—and boyfriend. The plot contains some tangential twists, but the suspense is based on the audience knowing the outcome as the story heads to a predictable and gruesome climax.

The movie does, however, revise some thriller clichés. Schroeder gleefully turns Allie’s unfaithful boyfriend and her sexually harassing boss into victims. Leigh’s villain, meanwhile, inspires more empathy than hatred. Still, Schroeder directs with the eye of a male voyeur. With Leigh and Fonda constantly walking about the apartment in unlikely states of undress, Single White Female seems designed to thrill the single white male.

THE BEST INTENTIONS Directed by Bille August

A headstrong daughter from a wealthy family declares her love for a dour, lower-class idealist devoted to the clergy. Distraught, her mother says, “I can’t imagine a more impossible and fateful combination.” That prophecy is amply fulfilled in The Best Intentions, a Swedish saga of class conflict, emotional anguish and the general cruelty of human existence. The movie is not just about any tormented relationship, although it could be. It is about Anna and Henrik Bergman, parents of legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who wrote the script. Bergman announced his retirement after making Fanny And Alexander (1983), a portrait of his own childhood. And he entrusted The Best Intentions to Danish-born director Bille August, who made the Oscar-winning Pelle the Conqueror (1988), a father-son epic about migrant work-

ers at the tum of the century.

More than three hours long, The Best Intentions patiently makes its way through 10 years of Anna and Henrik’s agonized courtship and marriage, ending just before Ingmar’s birth in 1918. The pace seems slow at first. But once the conflict sets in, the film acquires the emotional luxury of a fine novel—worth savoring until the (sweetly) bitter end. Winner of the best film and best actress awards at the Cannes Film Festival in May, The Best Intentions features exquisitely balanced performances by Pemilla August as the status-conscious Anna and Samuel Frôler as the stoical Henrik. The story, meanwhile, takes place against the grim backdrop of a general strike, and the austere beauty of northem Sweden, where Henrik drags Anna to be a parish wife. Bille August’s images unfold with lyrical grace and echo with Bergman’s severe moral

vision—of a world where happiness, despite the

best intentions, is an aberration.

ON MY OWN

Directed by Antonio Tibaldi

Set in southern Ontario, On My Own is a tender tale of a 15-year-old boy at an elite boarding school who endures a painful reunion with his schizophrenic mother. It looks, feels and sounds like a thoroughly Canadian movie. But it is, in fact, a co-production involving Canada, Australia and Italy. Making his first feature, Italian director Antonio Tibaldi wrote the script with a U.S. and a Canadian co-writer. Playing the mother, Australian actor Judy Davis is, as always, a treat. And the movie’s Toronto-based star, Matthew Ferguson, now 17, is captivating in his first screen role. But although the film draws an evocative portrait of prep-school adolescence, it is a coming-of-age story that never reaches maturity.

Sensitive, ingenuous and cute, Simon (Ferguson) is passionate about soccer and curious about girls. His separated parents live abroad—his father (David McDwraith) in Hong Kong and his mother in London. At Christmas, Simon leaves boarding school to meet them in Toronto, only to learn that his mother is in hospital. Later, she makes a surprise visit to his school—and takes him on an excursion dripping with Oedipal menace.

Canadian cinematographer Vic Sarin finds poetry in the flat grey light of an Ontario winter, and in the rain-swept surfaces of VIA trains sliding between the school and the city. Tibaldi, meanwhile, creates a strong naturalism out of lingering iipages and awkward silences. But the story lacks momentum. The subplot of Simon’s sexual awakening takes a perplexing detour. Several characters, including his father, remain ciphers. Ferguson, meanwhile, acts with such energy and candor that he seems betrayed by the script’s halfhearted resolution.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON