FILMS

Lovers and exiles

Five movies track thwarted passion in locales ranging from Paris to Miami

Brian D. Johnson May 15 1995
FILMS

Lovers and exiles

Five movies track thwarted passion in locales ranging from Paris to Miami

Brian D. Johnson May 15 1995

Lovers and exiles

FILMS

FRENCH KISS

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Romantic comedy, an oxymoron if ever there was one, is one of Hollywood’s more difficult stunts. The trick is to get the audience to laugh uproariously at two characters who are thrown together in highly implausible circumstances—and then, in midstream, to get the same audience to take these two people seriously as they surprise themselves (but nobody else) by falling in love. Romantic comedy, in other words, is as delicate and demanding to execute as a soufflé. French Kiss would appear to have all the right ingredients. The irrepressibly cute Meg Ryan, Hollywood’s reigning queen of the genre, costars with the mischievously witty Kevin Kline in a postcard-pretty tour through Paris and the French Riviera. But this is one of those dream vacations that goes terribly wrong.

The formula is familiar. Ryan plays Kate, a woman who, at the start of the story, has a fiancé and a future securely lined up—just like Ryan’s character in Sleepless in Seattle. The fiancé is Charlie (Timothy Hutton), a nice Canadian doctor; Kate, an American eager to become a Canadian citizen, lives with him in Toronto. A snag occurs when Charlie flies to Paris on business and phones home to say he has fallen madly in love with a French “goddess.” Determined to win him back, Kate hops the next Air Canada flight to France—

and ends up sitting next to a rakish French criminal named Luc (Kevin Kline).

In A Fish Called Wanda (1988), Kline proved he could work comic wonders with an accent As an ersatz Frenchman, he is funny for a while. And Ryan gamely mugs her way through some entertaining scenes of physical comedy.

But the script is a joke. After parodying the clichés of French romance so relentlessly, the movie then turns around and tries to sell the same dopey clichés with barefaced sincerity. As director Lawrence Kasdan clumsily downshifts from comedy in Paris to romance in Cannes, the pace slows to a crawl. And the story’s credibility melts faster than ripe Brie in the Riviera sun.

Kline makes a delightful cad, but his aboutface to moody romantic is impossible to buy. Meanwhile, Ryan, who co-produced the movie, has never been filmed in a more flattering light. In every frame, she looks as if she has just towelled off after an Arizona spa treatment, even if her character has spent a sleepless night on a Paris sidewalk.

While the camera dotes on its two leads, other characters are woefully sketchy. The fiancé is such a jerk that it is hard to imagine why Kate would cross the street for him, nev-

er mind an ocean. In one of the flatter comic scenes, Canadian actor Michael Riley plays a generic Canuck, an embassy official who dashes Kate’s hopes of obtaining Canadian citizenship. That, of course, turns out to be a blessing in disguise—in Hollywood, true romance can save a girl even from the unthinkable fate of becoming a Canadian.

BURNT BY THE SUN

Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov

Stalinism, the cruel answer to revolutionary hubris, remains the primal tragedy of Russian culture in the modem age. And rarely has it been so effectively dramatized as in Burnt by the Sun, this year’s Oscar winner for best foreign film. The story spans one long and languid summer day in the countryside. It is 1936, but the Stalinist purges that are sweeping the Soviet Union seem far away. Kotov, an aging military hero of the Bolshevik revolution (played by the movie’s director, Nikita Mikhalkov), is enjoying an idyllic day off with his family at their dacha, an elegant country estate. He is a grand old man with a warm heart, a gregarious style and an air of invincibility. But he meets his nemesis when a dapper young man from Moscow pays a surprise visit. Dimitri (Oleg Menchikov) shows up at the dacha like a long-lost family friend. In fact, he is the ex-lover of Kotov’s young wife, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite), the man who broke her heart and nearly drove her to suicide. He is also working for Stalin’s secret police, and his smiling facade masks a sinister mission.

The early part of the film unfolds as a family reunion, hectic with frivolity and nostalgia. Mikhalkov occasionally overworks the sentiment between Kotov and his six-yearold daughter, who is played by the director’s own daughter, Nadia. But the film’s mood of false serenity—with the sly charade by Kotov and Dimitri forestalling the inevitable— is exquisitely rendered. And as the story’s tragic undertow gradually takes hold, the drama acquires a chilling, double-edged tension, like a Chekhov play reincarnated in post-revolutionary Russia. With its final, haunting images, shot along a road cut through a golden field, Burnt by the Sun—like Stalinism itself—casts a long and unforgettable shadow.

Five movies track thwarted passion in locales ranging from Paris to Miami

VANYA ON 42ND STREET

Directed by Louis Malle

While Mikhalkov pays subtle homage to Chekhov, French director Louis Malle finds the playwright’s work alive and well in, of all places, a dilapidated theatre wedged among the pom arcades of Manhattan’s ten-

derloin district. This ingenious stage production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1897) originated in a faded Times Square movie palace, where tiny but select audiences watched New York City director André Gregory and his actors run through y without sets or costumes. Preserving the informality of the process, Malle filmed the runthrough in another old theatre, an abandoned wreck on 42nd Street.

The Chekhov translation, by playwright David Mamet, is wonderfully lucid. And an exceptional cast brings this family drama of longing, regret and unrequited passion into crisp, contemporary focus.

Julianne Moore lends mercurial spontaneity to the role of Yelena, a beautiful young woman who is married to a famous but infirm scholar twice her age. Wallace Shawn (Gregory’s co-star in Malle’s My Dinner With Andre) plays her Uncle Vanya, the family provocateur, with an inspired, crackpot energy. And, as the visionary Dr. Astrov, who cannot tear himself away from Yelena, Larry Pine breezes through his speeches about forest management and social justice with honeyed eloquence.

Screen adaptations of plays tend to be stiff and stagy. To avoid that, film-makers often set the action outdoors and try to make the play’s theatrical trappings as invisible as possible.

Malle has taken the opposite route. By making it obvious the actors are performing in a theatre (they even pause for refreshments

halfway through), he makes the play that much more intimate. Vanya on 42nd Street is rivetting drama.

flamboyant ex-prostitute is dreaming the American Dream

A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE

Directed by Suri Krishnamma

Another great 19th-century dramatist, but one with a lighter touch than Chekhov, provides the inspiration for this slight tale of a man deluded by love and art. Albert Finney plays Alfie, a secretly gay bus conductor who is obsessed with Oscar Wilde, and who entertains a rapt audience of regular passengers by reciting excerpts from the Irish author’s work. With that picaresque premise, A Man of No Importance sounds enticing, and so does the cast. The stage-trained British actors backing up Finney include Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot), Tara Fitzgerald (Sirens) and Michael Gambon (The Cook, The Thief His Wife and Her Lover). But this feature debut by British director Suri Krishnamma is an embarrassment.

It is amusing at first as Alfie mounts a shambling production of Wilde’s Salomé in a

church hall for his drama club.

Among his passengers, he “discovers” the sweet-faced Adele (Fitzgerald) and casts her in the title role.

But the local butcher (Gambon), a leading light of the drama club, brands the play salacious and conspires to sabotage it. The narrative then takes a maudlin swerve as Alfie’s homosexual urges come crashing out of the closet. In love with a handsome (but straight), young bus driver, he sinks into self-pity. And Finney’s indulgent performance turns into a mawkish parody of past triumphs, notably The Dresser (1983). The result is a movie of no importance, a sad footnote in the career of an important actor.

THE PEREZ FAMILY

Directed by Mira Nair

Filming vibrant, sensual dramas of the dispossessed has become a speciality for Mira Nair, the Indian-born, Harvard-educated director who portrayed street kids in Salaam

Bombay! (1988) and UgandanIndian exiles in Mississippi Masala (1992). Now with The Perez Family, a tale of star-crossed romance among Cuban refugees, Nair celebrates the salsa rhythms and tropical colors of Miami’s Little Havana.

Set in 1980, the whimsical story concerns the entangled fates of two emigrants who meet on the last boat lift of Cubans allowed to leave the country. Dottie Perez (Marisa Tomei), a flamboyant ex-prostitute, is dreaming the American Dream— her ambition is to meet John Wayne. Juan Perez (Alfred Molina), who has survived 20 years in jail as a political prisoner, is longing to reunite with his wife, Carmela (Anjelica Huston), and grown daughter, Teresa (Trini Alvarado).

Carmela is still waiting for Juan, but news of his arrival fails to reach her after an immigration official mistakes Juan and Dottie for a married couple. While the dour ex-prisoner and the saucy ex-prostitute form a fake family to qualify for housing, Juan has trouble tracking down his wife. And the aristocratic Carmela, losing hope, gradually succumbs to the charms of a courtly cop (Chazz Palminteri).

Oscar-winning Tomei, who gained 20 lb. for the film, gives a spirited performance as a voluptuous Cuban sexpot. But her char-

acter, like most of the others, is cartoonish. And although Nair’s images are seductive, the plot’s prolonged tease ends with a bogus climax. To get there, the narrative shimmies all over the place, bouncing from farce to pathos, and slipping in and out of fantasy. The movie seems unable to decide if it wants to be a gaudy American sitcom or a hallucinatory Latin American fable. Splitting the difference between magic and realism, The Perez Family ends up being dispossessed by both.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON