Middlebrow artisan that he is, Ang Lee likes to work with absences. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a martial-arts bonanza without the thrills, The Hulk is a comic-book blockbuster without the wonder, and Brokeback Mountain is a queer romance without the passion. Now here's Lust, Caution, a spy yarn with sex scenes that, though stamped NC-17, have all the physical-emotional explosiveness of a freight train slogging by an intersection. Whoever claimed there's no such thing as bad sex should see the way Lee's cold eye oh so tastefully drains all heat and insight from the Tony Leung-Tang Wei fuckathons, efficiently turning the Kama Sutra into a garden tool catalog. If the sex is arid, the foreplay is worse: The narrative is Black Book minus Verhoeven's bracing luridness, with Eileen Chang's short story laid on the rack and stretched to 157 minutes. The setting is 1942 Shanghai, Tang is introduced as part of Joan Chen's mahjong-playing aristocratic group, Leung steps in and the two furtively lock eyes, his Boyer gaze all but ripping off the young woman's blue cheongsam. He's Chen's husband, a businessman working as "interrogator" for the occupying Japanese and, as a flashback soon reveals, the main target in the assassination scheme of a group of Chinese rebels. Tang is a Sternbergian sight in lipstick and trenchcoat, though she started out as a plain, pigtailed Hong Kong coed, fervently bringing down the house in Wang Leehom's patriotic plays. Acting skills are valuable in times of turmoil, but the heroine's preparation for her role as mistress demands her de-virginization -- the first time she recognizes the toll the mission will take on her as a woman.
Hitchcock daringly mixed eroticism with espionage in Notorious, and, indeed, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman appear (separately) in Lust, Caution via clips from the movies watched by the theater-hopping Mata Hari. Lee's oblique reference tantalizes: What if Grant, with that submerged rage underneath the polished surface, were cast in the Claude Rains role? Never laboring to be romantic, Leung gives his character sleekness, paranoia, and a kind of watchful weariness ("If you pay attention, nothing is trivial") that all erupt into violence and ardor in bed; Tang, a newcomer unafraid of ambiguity, captures the knotted feelings of a young rebel whose assignment triggers in her unwanted desire and sympathy for the man she wants dead. Both of these performers are great camera objects, even if Lee does not know how to move them through lush film space -- think of Bertolucci or Wong Kar-Wai dramatizing the synergy between them, and the deficiency of Lee's prosaic champ contre champ turns obvious. The director knows how to keep the plot moving efficiently, but that's a mechanical talent; when it comes to the increasingly complex dynamic between the two characters, however, Lee's treatment is so perfunctory that, when Tang tells her superiors that Leung "worms his way into my heart like a snake," you have to take the actress' word for it. The plot's collision of politics and sex could rival Oshima's in In the Realm of the Senses, but, for all the sweatily contorted bodies, the Caution overwhelms the Lust. Repression, Lee's ongoing subject, unfortunately continues being his approach as well. Lovers of genuine cinema will get blue balls.
Michael Clayton is a different breed of cocktease -- the "adult" stuff promised is grave analysis of personal crisis in a corrupted world, what you get is a glum remake of Absence of Malice, with Sydney Pollack himself on hand for good luck. Much like Lust, Caution, it opens on a game of bluff (a poker session played, for some reason, in an underground Chinatown den) then rewinds at a literally explosive point: Michael Clayton (George Clooney), the seasoned "fixer" of a New York law firm, ambles over to three horses that have just wandered from a John Huston film, and the car parked down the road goes up in flames. "Four days earlier..." Clayton is mildly disgusted with his function as a well-oiled cog in a machine yet soldiers on, "just a janitor" in a sea of systematic shit. Director Tony Gilroy wants catharsis, however, and so gets the redemptive ball rolling by giving the protagonist's colleague (Tom Wilkinson), the litigator in a civil-action case involving an agro-chemical company, a flash of clarity. Suddenly conscious of his role as corporate asshole, he bares soul and body in court and becomes Peter Finch in Network, only minus the satire; the situation points Clayton toward his own epiphany, while the company's nervously nefarious chief counsel (Tilda Swinton) takes the cleaning into her own hands with a pair of hired killers. Like Syriana, Michael Clayton equates serious inquiry with inert filmmaking, and Gilroy's ponderous touch is symptomatic of the old screenwriter-cum-director syndrome, declaring outrage without engaging emotions. Clooney's cockiness is getting interestingly wrinkled -- give him another five years or so and he may grow into fascinating William Holden territory. Right now, however, he remains a weightless snake-charmer, and in the wide space of his final close-up he just rattles around.
Might as well keep up with the sex metaphors, especially as the calamitous Elizabeth: The Golden Age offers itself perpetually on the cusp of orgasm. Shekkar Kapur's direction amounts to one giant ejaculation, spinning, rotating, shooting through candelabra and veils and frosted glass, cutting to overhead views apropos of God knows what. At the receiving end of all this jabbing and pounding, the title of "Virgin Queen" bestowed on Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) seems a little suspicious, but whatever -- the 16th-century monarch's unruptured hymen is here what supposedly drives her from a "toy of the fates" to the grand oak so many actresses yearn to play. The path is a wacky one, accommodating a bit of swashbuckling from Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen in Seinfeld's puffy shirt), sub-Faye Dunaway camp ("My bitches wear my collars!") and a Spanish Armada straight out of some Pirates of the Caribbean flick. For all the talk of holy wars and the power of fear, any modern relevance is stomped out by a hollow bombast that makes Blanchett look like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Elizabeth may be able to turn an assassin's cocked pistol to ice by just staring at it, but the film's most chilling gaze belongs to Samantha Morton as Mary, Queen of Scots, whose last moment on the chopping block achieves the majesty Blanchett whirls and bulldozes for in vain. The wrong regent got beheaded.
Reviewed October 21, 2007.