A Film Fanatics Dream
by Greg Rawlings
The end of 2002 produced some strong releases
for the alternative film fan
Two of the biggest holiday releases, at least to the film fanatic crowd, were "Talk to Her" by Pedro Almodovar, the greatest Spanish film maker of our time, and "Far From Heaven" by Todd Haynes, the young American iconoclast behind the intriguing "Safe." In the spirit of the season, meaning love vs. commerce, and in honor of my favorite TV show, "Iron Chef," I saw the films in close proximity, filmo-a-filmo.
The winner of this winner-take-nothing: "Talk to Her." Almodovar’s films always feature brilliantly colored palettes, frenetic characters and utter directorial daring. "Talk to Her" is no exception. It is the single most inventive film by anyone since Spike Jones and Charles Kauffman birthed that cinematic mindblast "Being John Malkovich." In "Talk to Her," two very different men watch over the comatose bodies of the women they love (a major if enigmatic step beyond "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"). Miracles occur, love festers, strange events unfold. There is an almost virgin birth, there is friendship above and beyond the call of duty, there is heartbreak at a cosmic level. There are really hot looking Spanish men and women having more fun than we do. A wild Saturday night at Sevilla’s this is not; this is in another realm.
Imagine a film that begins with one avante-garde ballet and ends with another, with a cooler-than-thou x-ratable black-and-white featurette stuck in the center. As always, the acting in an Almodovar film is superb. Not since the breakout performance of Antonio Banderas in "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" has anyone grabbed a film and danced off with it like Dario Grandinetti (as Marco) does in this baby. And Javier Camaera as Benigno shows himself to be a Spanish Philip Seymour Hoffman: calm, competent and completely insane. Or maybe he isn’t. Insane that is. This is that weird modern amalgam of the surreal and the commonplace. It may be the finest film of 2002.
On the other hand, Todd Haynes’s "Far From Heaven" left me scratching my head, and not from the parasites on the art cinema seats. Julianne Moore is amazing in this film. Is there a better actress in America right now? I think not. She has no fear. And like all great actors, she makes everyone around her seem better than they actually are. She makes Dennis (Meg? Where’s Meg?) Quaid come off like Marlon Brando—she’s that good.
Then again, there are many good things about this film; sadly, though, for all the hype, there are few great things about it. Sure, the period details are aces; sure, the relationship among the proto-yuppy Connecticut Wasps is limned with total purity; yet, something, somehow, is missing. Perhaps it is the unearthly perfection of the African-American gardener Deagan, or maybe the rapacious rapidity of the cold-hearted propaganda that sinks Moore’s otherwise Wasp-paragon character; whatever, something is way wrong in this film.
Critics the world over have compared this film, at the studio’s urging, to the Douglas Sirk "Weepies" of the 1950s. Okay, I buy that, but there have been a number of films since then that seem truer than the Sirk ilk. Think "Splendor in the Grass," that 1961 Elia Kazan classic, or more recently, Tran Anh Hung’s brilliant "The Scent of Green Papaya," from 1993, one of the few great films of the wretched ’90s. Basically, Haynes seeks a rebirth of Rock Hudson-era melodrama. How sad, in that he is a smart, effective director who doesn’t need throwbacks to capture an audience. See both of the films and, trust me, you’ll enjoy Almodovar’s better; even with subtitles, it is more easily comprehended than Haynes’s film.
Lastly, see Peter Jackson’s amazing "The Two Towers," which may even be better than his "Fellowship of the Ring." I like the Almodovar film better, but certainly not the Haynes. And in these times of moral uncertainty, Tolkien’s tale rings so true (pardon my pun). There are some things worth fighting for, freedom not least among them. Not least at all.