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Petulia (1968)
The rich are not like you and me
2 February 2003
Lester's one grab for auteur status, before he settled for empty spectacle (Superman II and III, The Three and Four Musketeers, etc). Sorry to say, despite the extreme beauty of some of the sets and costumes--Tony Walton was chief designer, with David Hicks assisting--and Nicholas Roeg's superb camerawork (those sun-drenched streets, the boats, everything lovely), this film is a confused mess.

If Lester had tried to make it with Arthur Penn's emotional directness instead of Alain Resnais's scrambling of time and plot elements, it might have been very good. Instead we get barrages of chopped-up scenes thrown at us; we don't know if Petulia was beaten last week, last year or next week. Very few scenes are allowed to stand on their own, one such is the George C. Scott-Shirley Knight argument at his place when he throws the bag of cookies at her. We are able to see his frustration and wild humor surface here. You can't tell what's going on inside Christie's head for most of the picture, one dumb shtick act follows another (stealing a tuba, turning up in the hospital library just to bug Scott, and on and on). Christie is a fine actress, and was just about the sexiest woman on the screen then--forget about that Jacqueline Bisset robot--but Lester doesn't let her develop her character.

What we have is a sado-masochistic couple (Chamberlain-Christie) with a sinister Faulknerian father in Joseph Cotten: listen to him talk about family values in the old south in a tone of barely-suppressed rage as Christie lies in her hospital bed, comic-horror. Into the mix strides Scott, with a lot of emotional issues of his own (wife lost, kids estranged), and our hapless surgeon must try to keep Christie out of the morgue. It just doesn't work.
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Taking Off (1971)
Forman's most unassuming film
28 January 2003
Milos Forman is settling in to America here, learning the ways of rich Puritans. The casting is just about perfect; I don't recall Buck Henry being as expressive--in that deadpan way--in a movie. The scene between Georgia Engel and Lynn Carlin, in which Engel relates stories of her husband's incredible sexual drive is wonderfully funny. The strip poker scene between Henry, Carlin and their guests Audra Lindley and Paul Benedict, that ends with Henry singing an aria, naked, on top of the dining-room table has passed into cinematic legend.

Miroslav Ondricek's camera work is really exceptional; it makes a success of one scene that drags on too long--the therapy group with the participants smoking reefer. Ondricek's ability to give life to interiors is amazing: see how he cuts from the ancestral paintings to the would-be dopers, making comments on both. This man, who turns 70 this year, is a master, and if I just give a partial list of his work you will know what I mean: The Fireman's Ball, If..., O Lucky Man!, Hair, Amadeus.
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Powerful story of faith and love
27 January 2003
Allegret's most impressive location story, far better than the damp philosophizing of Une si jolie petite plage. I liked the approach: the characters are not symbols of alienation or corruption but have lives of their own. The meningitis outbreak in this Mexican town doesn't stand in for the moral decline of the West, unlike the plague in Puenzo's La peste, one of the worst films William Hurt ever made. I imagine that if Luis Bunuel had done this adaptation of a Sartre story, it would have looked a lot like Los olvidados, and the vomiting and sweating of the victims would have taken precedence over the moral self-questioning of the characters.

Gerard Philipe is tremendous as the drunken ex-doctor with a terrible secret; he was able to forget that he'd become the official leading man of French cinema, star of the Cinema of Quality that Truffaut detested so much. Ditto for Michele Morgan, whose parts usually had aristocratic backgrounds, or at least great wealth. As the not-very-grieving widow of the first disease victim, she holds the picture together, making sure we don't get too swayed by Philipe's lowlife antics.
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Noir?...yes, but
20 January 2003
The text we read at the beginning indicates the direction of the film; we are asked to sympathize with and not to condemn the orphans and abandoned children brought up in state-run facilities. We are told that these children often grew up to become the "elite" of society. The Gabin character in Carne's Le jour se leve also grew up on the "assistance publique," but he is a fighter for justice, unlike the passive, tormented Pierre. Yves Allegret has filmed Gerard Philipe as a sort of Christ-figure walking through the muddy streets of this third-rate resort town. There is a scene with Madeleine Robinson cuddling Philipe that is very much like the Pieta.

Jean Servais as the slimy Fred has some effective scenes; he reminds us of Jules Berry driving Gabin to murder in Le jour. If the script had focussed more on the conflict between Pierre, the killer of the club singer and Fred, the dead woman's old boyfriend, instead of devoting reams of script pages to the social and political aspects of homeless children (no matter how moving their plight may be) the noir tradition would have been much better served.

I'll finish by praising the actors: Servais is great, Jane Marken as the proprietress of the hotel is a model of petit-bourgeois intolerance, Carette's salesman is boring and right. Only Gerard Philipe fails to give a rounded performance because the script won't let him.
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Love delayed
19 January 2003
Gilles is sponging off his mother, who runs a small hotel in a French coastal city. When he meets Helene, she takes over the job of mothering him, even treating his minor wounds at the hospital one night when he gets into a fight. Gilles's other passionate relationship is with Bernard, a self-absorbed, mediocre singer-guitarist who can't stay out of trouble with the law. Bernard's true passion is probably for Luc, the gay man he beats up in a washroom.

It's beautifully made; sometimes I thought I was watching a Carne film with Michele Morgan instead of Catherine Deneuve. Bruno Nuytten was the cinematographer; there's no one better for moody night scenes. Philippe Sarde's music is full-blown romantic, sometimes too much so. Techine doesn't bother with character development through plot, he just assumes that whatever passes in front of his camera is telling the story. Those casino scenes go nowhere, and the effort to bring Helene's dead lover's architectural plans to life is wasted, since it's just another occasion for Gilles to look hangdog and helpless.

All in all, it left me wondering about Techine's willingness to engage the viewer in the film's material. I walked out of Barocco many years ago, and Soeurs Bronte left me pretty much cold, although I admired the acting. Hotel des Ameriques doesn't seem to be about anything, and the characters are cardboard.
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Between reality and fantasy
14 January 2003
Delvaux was one of those directors who kept on working in his own creative world, seemingly oblivious to the pressures of the commercial world. He got his start by playing the piano for screenings of silent films in Brussels in 1950, just as the hero does here. Then he did TV documentaries before making his first feature, The Man Who Had his Hair Cut Short. Like Un Soir, Un train that preceded it, Rendez-vous a Bray is very lovely to look at (cinematography by the great Ghislain Cloquet) but it unfolds in a sort of glacial calm that leaves me cold.

Because the tone is so restrained, the acting so diminished in expression, the story never really engages the viewer. Mathieu Carriere was never my idea of a romantic lead (he was thinner than David Bowie), and Anna Karina, trying to start her career again after the breakup with Godard, just does the minimum, with no help from Delvaux. There are hints of a Jules et Jim type of triangle, with pixyish Bulle Ogier as the girl who would interrupt the passionate friendship of Carriere and van Hool, but it isn't fully developed. Delvaux is just too fixated on those beautiful interiors, and nothing, not even the carnage of the war--it's 1917--can get him out of them.
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Grandly entertaining
13 January 2003
Andre Cayatte was the director of many tiresome pictures in which he took moral positions on capital punishment (Nous sommes tous des assassins), the yellow press (Il n'y a pas de fumee sans feu), and just about any other issue that came to his attention. Now, we could dismiss him as just a French Stanley Kramer if he hadn't made films like this one in his younger days. It's a very highly-colored version of Romeo and Juliet in which Jacques Prevert's script dispenses with most of the play's story to concentrate on political comment. The Maglias are a very disturbed family indeed. Not only is the head an ex-fascist but the brother, played by Dalio, is hallucinating pretty freely (he had a bad war, we are told). Only Georgia, Ettore's daughter, played by the 16-year-old Anouk Aimee, has any quality of humor and generosity. The Romeo is played by Serge Reggiani, looking somehow a lot younger than he did in Casque d'or.

When we add Pierre Brasseur to the mix, things really get wild. He's playing a sort of Satanic figure, a demon of hate and revenge, as if trying to top his portrayal of the thug in Quai des brumes. There's a wierd sado-masochistic character to his relationship with the Maglias that I can't recall seeing before in film. He won't stop at murder to have Georgia as his wife. Cayatte's direction has pace and the lighting is especially fine--Alekan's camera really caresses the lover's faces.
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Les Biches (1968)
So elegant, so empty
10 January 2003
Chabrol had a habit in the 60's of casting his wife in lead roles; these are often the most forgettable of his films. Stephane Audran was used for her object-like beauty (her cheekbones are really striking)but there isn't much behind the mask. Here, playing Frederique, a bisexual rich woman in glamorous decors out of Vogue or Madame Figaro, she gets to swan around in chic clothes and give jokey line readings. To the cook: "Vi-o-let-ta, je te pre-sen-te Ma-de-moisel-le Whyyyy-eee!"

Thankfully, there is a story to be told, and Chabrol does that competently enough, although there is far too much time given to those two stalwarts Attal and Zardi, here playing gay musicians sponging off Frederique. Jacqueline Sassard plays Why with no discernible interest or ability; she's got a luscious, pouting mouth but no presence on the screen. Jean-Louis Trintignant, the boy toy, is as earnest as a Boy Scout, which is all the part calls for. This is not a serious study of polyamory, or alternative sexuality or anything else. It's chic, expensive and dead.
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Moloch (1999)
Pretty interesting
6 January 2003
Yes, it would be easy to criticize Molokh for being slow, and for having Russian actors mouthing German words that aren't natural to them, but I found this film to be fascinating through most of its length (and if Tarkovsky had made it, it would have been TWICE as long).

What we see is Hitler and his inner circle being jovial and vicious by turns, along with loopy discussions of racial characteristics (Czech men have droopy mustaches, indicating moral turpitude; the Finns are rendered mentally unfit owing to cold weather, etc.) There is a lot of backstabbing going on between Bormann and Goebbels; pity that Goering isn't in the film--we would have benefitted even more from his cynicism. All of this has the ring of truth--I recently read Speer's memoirs, Inside the Third Reich, which has detailed accounts of these lunch and dinner talk-fests.

Yelena Rufanova is not convincing as Eva Braun--too slavic looking--but Leonid Mozgovoy with his dumpy body is great as Hitler. The hypochondria, the refusal of middle-class pleasures--no slippers!--the insane political musings: it's all here. Leonid Sokol is Goebbels, absolutely. The rat face on a dwarf's body, the desperate ridicule of Bormann whom he knows is cutting him down: this is fine acting.

Sokurov adopts Leni Riefenstahl's style to tell a Wagnerian story of grandeur and collapse.
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A Village Affair (1995 TV Movie)
Deepest, darkest Albion
24 December 2002
Seen on TV: A Village Affair provides an opportunity for Kerry Fox to stalk around the pretty countryside, chewing the scenery and wailing about her thwarted love affair with Sophie Ward. Joking aside, she's pretty good in this picture that sometimes threatens to drown in good taste, like sub-Merchant-Ivory. Don't know much about Sophie Ward; she seems too restrained, too well-brought-up to be convincing as a wife and participant in a lesbian relationship. Shouldn't she show us that she has a lot on her plate? Michael Gough does a good job as Kerry's indulgent father.
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Animal (1977)
Enjoyable knockabout comedy from a master
24 December 2002
Claude Zidi has made comedies with all the best actors in France: Coluche, Thierry Lhermitte, Daniel Auteuil, Josiane Balasko; I imagine they sign on when they know he's directing. Here he has got Belmondo and Raquel Welch in an entertaining but not deeply probing picture(certainly not as deeply as Salut l'artiste, Yves Robert's film on stunt performers, with Mastroianni).

Belmondo has a lot of fun being physical, throwing his 44-year-old body down staircases and over moving cars. That stomach is still as flat as when he made Breathless with Godard, he's a marvel. Raquel Welch looks better here than I can remember her in Hollywood pictures, she's well lit and wears some great outfits by Scherer. She looks a lot better than she did in Mother, Jugs and Speed, or any of those junkfests. Finally, Aldo Maccione as the director is so easy to watch--and I've watched him in many pictures--he's like the perfect shady night club manager, married to the mob.
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If you can't beat them, join them
17 December 2002
This is a good introduction to late-period Godard: all (ideological) passion spent, Oncle Jean is just going to show us a good time. Pretty girls lolling around the pool naked, glamourous stars like Hanna Schygulla with little to do, Isabelle Huppert when she could still play dewy-eyed ingenues, a ridiculous peplum being filmed by greedy, unscrupulous types (the director should have been played by Jacques Dutronc instead of that dour Polish actor).

It's 1982,these are the Thatcher-Reagan years, nobody thinks about Vietnam or the Palestinians or civil wars in Africa--people only want to make money. Godard gives us hip product-placement, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Mozart instead of Coke or Pepsi.
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Fairy tale
15 December 2002
The most delightful daydream has always been the one in which you're put into an environment completely different from the one you know, and you become much happier as a result. In the cinema, this has resulted in some classics: A Yankee in King Arthur's Court comes to mind, or Chatiliez's first film, La vie est une longue fleuve tranquille, which hangs on two babies being switched at birth, and the families find out about it many years later.

This picture has the great Michel Serrault playing the lead, a frustrated businessman who is mistaken for a man who disappeared many years before, and who is tracked down via a TV show that specializes in this sort of squirm-inducing hokum. He's only too glad to abandon the snobby, sarcastic wife (Sabine Azema) he's spent miserable years with, to go live with Carmen Maura in the sun of Provence. There is the sense that the dream cannot go on forever, but you enjoy how the story plays out.
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One notable sketch
11 December 2002
The sketch film was a staple of European cinema in the Fifties and Sixties. It allowed directors to work out some interesting ideas in 15 to 20 minute segments, on small budgets. Most of the directors on view here are forgotten today--Indovina, Bolognini, Autant-Lara--or in eclipse: de Broca, who never was a real new wave filmmaker, but who had a sure grasp of commercial cinema, is known today for Le Roi de coeur.

The stories are mostly silly, the actors are often mediocre: Elsa Martinelli and Michele Mercier are Eurobland, like Capucine or Dana Wynter. Jeanne Moreau is terribly wasted in a boulevard farce with ridiculous costumes--her hat is bigger than she is. Nadia Gray and Dalio sing a lusty song together in the otherwise forgettable Autant-Lara. We have to wait for the final episode, Anticipation by Godard, to experience a real jolt. Nobody has used everyday settings like airports and office towers to create menacing environments the way Godard has; there's terror in that chrome and Formica. Jacques Charrier with his vaguely Teutonic looks is perfect as the Russian who just wants some human contact (excellent sound work to give him a foreign accent). Marilu Tolo and Anna Karina as the sensual and spiritual aspects of prostitution are wonderful. There's more punch here than in the 90 minutes of Alphaville (which admittedly has some wonderful scenes).
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Autumn Tale (1998)
Rohmer's faded charm
28 November 2002
Pauline Kael once made the comment that she heard a man say, enthousiastically, "It's so French!" when coming out of a so-so film, and hated the mixture of complacency and cultural one-upmanship contained in the remark. Rohmer appeals to snobs, mainly: people who disdain American films because they are made with big budgets and bankable stars, and the story had better move forward.

This is Beatrice Romand's sixth film with Rohmer, Marie Riviere's seventh. By now the octogenarian director has gotten so stuck in the groove with these actresses he can direct in his sleep (I never felt that way with Bergman and Bibi Andersson, or Liv Ullmann). Push the Romand button, you get pouty obstinacy, arms crossed defiantly. Riviere gives you smiling indulgence, matronly charm--she's a sort of June Allyson. This is a really tiresome picture lacking story, characterization, social comment, any of the things I look for in French cinema. Rohmer is like one of those old singers who should have retired years ago, but the fans keep going to the shows because they're afraid to admit they're aging too. Avoid.
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The guy who practically had SPY written on his forehead
11 November 2002
Norman Mailer and Lawrence Schiller have collaborated four times for TV; they specialize in examining the life of somebody who is talented, a high achiever and desperately unhappy. Marilyn Monroe, O. J. Simpson and Robert Hanssen certainly achieved much, while it might be argued that Gary Gilmore (The Executioner's Song) managed to bring capital punishment back to the United States.

I did not see much success in bringing Hanssen to life. Admittedly he's a very strange bird, a loner in an organization (the FBI) that prizes teamwork and conformity above all else. It seems he could never manage to conceal his disdain for the mediocrity he saw all around him in the New York office. The most telling moment comes in the park with Ron Silver, his boss telling him he's got to dumb down and play the game if he ever expects to rise in the ranks. The expression on William Hurt's face is an amalgam of contempt, self-pity and a touch of Why Me, Anyhow.
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Yes, but...
8 November 2002
TFO, a French-language network, has been showing the Contes moraux for the last few weeks, and the strengths and weaknesses of Rohmer's approach are easy to see. When he has fine, committed actors like Francoise Fabian and Jean-Louis Trintignant in Ma nuit chez Maud, he can create a flow and vibrancy in the story-telling that make us forget the didacticism of the script (who cares about Jansenism and Blaise Pascal, anyway?).

Where he fails is in not being able to create three-dimensional characters, or not being able to coax a good performance from an actor. The glaring example of this is Brialy in Le genou de Claire who, wearing a thick beard, seems to sleep-walk through his part: his erotic obsession with a girl's lissome kneecap never comes to life. In the film in question today, Bernard Verley has a bland, pudding-like face that hardly provokes any interest in the viewer. How can such a pallid bourgeois be appealing to a bohemian girl like her?

Francoise Verley as the wife has all the best moments; certainly the final scene is more interesting than what went before. She is not a beautiful woman, but her quiet strength and natural acting style are very convincing. Zouzou does not have the underlying restless energy and fierce sexuality you would expect in a girl who drifts from man to man, and her acting skills are minimal. All in all, a good film when concentrating on the family dynamics, but those scenes at the office between Verley and Zouzou are often tiresome.
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Série noire (1979)
Corneau's excellent noir
2 November 2002
Jim Thompson wrote dark thrillers that were turned into some superb films (The Getaway-Peckinpah, 1972; Pop. 1280, as Coup de torchon-Tavernier, 1981; The Grifters-Frears, 1990). In 1979, Alain Corneau took A Hell of a Woman and made Serie noire, one of the most remarkable French crime films. The tone is very bleak, and there is a strong element of surrealistic humor. Georges Perec co wrote the script and he contributed many nonsense words and phrases to Frank Poupart's role

Frank is a small time salesman in a Paris industrial suburb who supplements his meager earnings by stealing from his boss, Staplin. The latter has Frank tossed in jail, whereupon Mona, the seventeen-year-old girl Frank's fallen for, pays Staplin to have Frank released. Mona's aunt, who has been prostituting the girl to the neighbourhood men, now becomes a tempting target for robbery.

Marie Trintignant has made five pictures with Corneau; she has a dark, brooding quality (big black eyes) that is perfectly suited to this story. She plays the part of guardian-angel-cum-slut wonderfully. Bernard Blier is Staplin, the oily, dishonest boss to a T. Andreas Katsulas has a ball with his character, a guy so dumb you don't know how he functions in this world. Patrick Dewaere, who was to kill himself only three years after making the film, is astonishing as Poupart. Just look at the desperation behind the cool exterior, the wild things he does--smashing his head against the hood of his car, or almost drowning in the bathtub. There is a savagery about his work that you don't find in other French actors.
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arduous travel across North America
31 October 2002
Alison Murray gave up a job in London to ride the rails on our declining freight network. The stock looks old, at least to me, and the conditions in those freight cars are anything but comfortable. She and her companions bake in the heat or are chilled to the bone in rainy weather. They are always dirty. The bath in the lake when they reach their destination is always dramatic and pleasurable.

Sometimes they are removed from the train by police, but more often the problem is getting on a train going the wrong way, or meeting people they don't like. There's a hobo convention to attend--watch for Firecracker, a teenage girl, to galvanize the crowd. Primitive sound and camerawork, but can you blame them?
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Swann in Love (1984)
Fine adaptation of Proust
27 October 2002
For a long time I've thought that the Nobel Prize should go to a filmmaker, and who better than Volker Schlondorff. He has taken so many literary classics and turned them into fine films--Young Torless (Musil), The Tin Drum (Glass), Coup de Grace (Yourcenar), Michael Kohlhass (Kleist), The Ogre (Tournier) and many more. He has worked in Germany, France and the US and shows great ability and imagination always. This is the first film adaptation of Proust and it is wonderful in many places. The long sequence at Odette's house when an hysterical Swann goes on a rampage--looking for the source of the sound he imagines he hears--only to drive Odette into a fury as she smashes a vase is a classic of modern filmmaking. The pettiness and claustrophobia in the lives of aristocrats circa 1900 is superbly brought out. Sven Nykvist is the cinematographer (deep black night scenes, lovely) and Hans Werner Henze wrote the superb music: it's like another actor in the story; jangled, dissonant sound accompanying Swann's frantic travels through Paris.
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Pure Fiction (1998)
Nightmarish study of pedophilia and politics
26 October 2002
I remember the impact of the uncovering of a pedophile ring in Belgium a few years ago on the people of that country. I think the government fell over this blend of perversion and official coverup. Handwerker's film evokes the feeling of desperation you get when your efforts to do good are blocked; the examining magistrate tries to kill himself when he runs into a stonewall from the police and judiciary.

Anne Coesens gives a fine performance as the young woman who had been kidnapped and raped by the man who supplied children to the ring, and who discovers the identity of her rapist several years later.
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Rohmer's dullest conte moral?
24 October 2002
This is such a flimsy story, as slight as Le Genou de Claire but not as well acted. Patrick Bauchau has a splendid profile, Haydee Politoff's mouth is adorable and Daniel Pommereulle knows how to tense his lips for dramatic effect but the story is dead in the water.

A typical Rohmer protagonist is on holiday or somehow separated from his partner, and we are shown how he copes with temptation (Trintignant does so, splendidly, in Ma Nuit chez Maud). Who cares what happens to Bauchau's marriage here, when the actions of the characters are so uninvolving?
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Snapshot of French cinema in early 60's
22 October 2002
This is a blend of the bad, commercial work of journeymen French directors and the exciting new wave of Godard, Chabrol and Demy. Anger is the first sin to be treated, and Sylvain Dhomme does a terrible job with this silly story of flies in the soup provoking world catastrophe. Molinaro's version of Envy is no better. Philippe de Broca gets a fine hammy performance from Georges Wilson in Gluttony; some great satire of French country eating habits here. Jacques Demy is next with Lust, and he loses steam with a static visual style (none of the grace of Lola) and stiff acting. We can only surmise what he could have done with a better script.

Godard has the best segment, he's got Eddy Constantine playing a loafer for a change, not his Lemmy Caution-like nerveless violence. The cheesy Hawaiian music suits the story well. It's more verite than we are used to from Godard. After Sloth, we get Pride from Roger Vadim, and the banality of the story is relieved by some good acting by Sami Frey and Marina Vlady. I always thought it was a shame Vlady wasn't more popular; she had a gorgeous sleek cat's face and could do comedy. Chabrol is last with Greed, and he shows the usual facility and empty social commentary we have come to expect from him.
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I thought it would never end
10 October 2002
If you are looking for a movie that goes nowhere, is static and didactic and completely boring, this is the one. Maybe one scene works: when Desiree confronts the woman who was her rival when they were teenagers. Charlayne Woodard is good in her cameo. Otherwise be prepared for windy rhetorizing in the Florida heat.
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If you like Mary Gaitskill's stuff, you'll love this
2 October 2002
Actresses know that they have to do extreme parts to get noticed. Isabelle Huppert has played her share of murderers, women executed for crimes, all for the sought-after statuette. This time though, she has strayed too far from the every-day world. Erika belongs to the library of clinical perversions; she's one of the case studies in Freud or Krafft-Ebing, not a living person.

Erica rules with an iron fist at school; untalented students leave her classroom sniveling in terror and disgust. At night though, she returns to the apartment she shares with her monstruous mother and it's Joan and Christina Crawford dominance and submission games, Mommie Dearest in lovely old Vienna. It's impossible to understand how Nurse Ratched could turn into a battered child without any explanatory material.

Erika's constant eulogizing of Schubert hides an unpleasant reality. A great artist turns his pain and torments into art that can be approached without fear by the public. Unlike Erika, Schubert always found ways to communicate with others without losing his sense of self. The song "Im Dorfe" from Winterreise, which we hear several times in the course of the film, contains much sadness transmuted into lovely sound.

I have no desire to see another one of Michael Haneke's films. This has no energy (despite the occasional violence), no humor, no sense of life at all. Just like Eyes Wide Shut.
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