Finally, some fresh air. In The Romance of Astréa and Celadon, 88-year-old Eric Rohmer follows 5th-century nymphs, shepherds, and druids instead of the modern dreamers from his most beloved art-house hits (Claire's Knee, Chloe in the Afternoon). What are a few tunics, however, when you've been contemplating morality and romance for five decades? Astréa (Stéphanie Crayencour) catches her beau Celadon (Andy Gillet) innocently kissing another maiden, and forbids him to ever speak to her again. Distraught, Celadon declares his intention to toss himself into the river, and does so; he survives and finds himself in the castle of beautiful, smitten Galatea (Véronique Reymond) while the bereft Astréa laments the loss of her true love. Recovered but on self-imposed exile, he contents himself with a lute on which to play his longing: "She ordered me to stay away. Love commands me to obey her." I remember seeing Astréa and Celadon on a double-bill with the Wachowski brothers' Speed Racer, and thinking of Rohmer's picture as by far the more aesthetically radical of the two. "Quaint"?! It's a Chinese-box bazaar in here: A 5th-century pastoral drama imagined by 17th-century performers and finally presented by a Nouvelle Vague master in the new millennium. The movie's alien quality stems from the manner Rohmer combines this playfully self-reflexive erudition with a directness and gravity of feeling that cuts right through the purposely archaic gestures. What other film this year radiates as much carnality as the moment Celadon runs his gaze over the sleeping Astréa's bare leg and foot, while a narrator speaks of the character's wish to have "eyes all over his body"? And the cross-dressing denouement between the two young lovers is a bit of gender-blurring sublimity can claim its place next to Some Like It Hot or Twelfth Night. The Romance of Astréa and Celadon is blissful -- if it turns out to be Rohmer's final work, then he could not have picked a more crystalline conte moral for a swan song.
Rohmer is reportedly Neil LaBute's favorite director, though, to judge from the hammy way he metes out his would-be provocations, William Castle would seem a much more logical candidate for his personal pantheon. In Lakeview Terrace, Samuel L. Jackson has had it with these motherfucking interracial liberals in his motherfucking neighborhood: As a widowed LAPD officer simmering with frustration and prejudice, the actor makes Dave Chappelle's caricature of him as a pitchman for black-guy fury ("No I can't stop yellin'! Ain't never seen my movies!?") look positively Bressonian. Waging war on the "brave new world" all around him, Jackson trains his wide-eyed anger on the two-tone young couple next door (Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington), and soon enough tires are slashed, chainsaws are wielded, and guns are pulled. LaBute, hailed by some (though not by me) as a quasi-Strindberg for slick detest-fests like In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, handles everything flaccidly, like a theater director picking up a camera for the first time -- to adduce a note of lust, he cuts from the frisky yuppies in their new pool to a close-up of Jackson licking his lips. "Can't we all just get along," Wilson meekly quotes to raging Sam, but despite its racial abrasion the film's less ersatz Spike Lee than reheated Peckinpah, a clunky pressure-cooker in which the weakling becomes a man by standing up to the Boogeyman. (Or is it the Ooga-Booga Man?) Lakeview Terrace isn't anywhere as wacky as LaBute's Wicker Man remake, yet the two reveal an artist too caught up with his misanthropic conceits to notice the ridiculous humor in them. Too bad -- an image of Jackson posed against risibly symbolic, CGI-embellished forest fires just about begs for the actor to bellow, "How did it burn? HOW DID IT BURN?!"
The fun of Burn After Reading has been watching the people whose nihilistic streaks had been stroked by the emptily portentous No Country for Old Men contorting themselves to put this doodle on a similar pedestal. The same exact thing happened ten years ago when The Big Lebowski followed Fargo; the difference, of course, is that Lebowski was a marvelous film, and Joel and Ethan Coen's new mug-a-thon barely qualifies as an afterburp. The camera descends from the stratosphere to witness the firing of a pompous-ass CIA analyst (John Malkovich), then skips around the stooges caught in the desultory mock-intrigue that follows. There's Tilda Swinton as Malkovich's iceberg wife, who's having an affair with George Clooney's ex-secret agent half-wit, who's dating Frances McDormand's plastic surgery-crazy gym instructor, and so it goes. Brad Pitt as McDormand's dense partner in extortion lets his frosted pompadour (recycled from the early '90s -- Johnny Suede to be exact) do most of the acting for him, though he's pretty funny when his character tries to suggest menace by cluelessly narrowing his eyes. I usually prefer the Coen brothers' comedies over their dramas -- their sense of the grotesque feels less forced, and they seem to like their characters a little more. Still, despite a characteristic cruel streak (in "all bureaucracy, no mission" times, stupidity is what gets you shot between the eyes), Burn After Reading is gratuitous stuff, flat and desperate. (Think Malkovich exclaiming "what the fuck!" is funny the first time? About the twenty-second?) In this metallic-tasting farce, the sweetest of exchanges takes place between J.K. Simmons and David (TV's "Sledge Hammer!") Rasche as a pair of deadpan government wonks: "Report back to me when, uh, when it makes sense."
Frances McDormand, God bless her, bravely suffers jokes about her sagging ass and belly in Burn After Reading. Her husband Joel's cold, crow's feet-enhancing camera is unkind, but it's still preferable to the Botox Central of Diane English's The Women. The 1939 comedy it's based on brimmed with energized cattiness, yet director George Cukor's affection for the sundry facets of womanhood extended from Norma Shearer's aristo prissiness to Joan Crawford's prole drive to Rosalind Russell's high-society bulldozing. By contrast, the drippy remake is virtually anti-woman: The tale of a moneyed housewife (Meg Ryan) discovering that her husband is having an affair with a perfume-counter gold-digger (Eva Mendes) has been made into a politically correct you-go-girl slog that hates every suggestion of femininity that doesn't fit into the heroine's privileged bubble. The result is the cinematic equivalent of yoga-class muzak, with Annette Bening, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett-Smith and other unlucky actresses competing for bad one-liners and worse lighting. (And so much for the no-guys-allowed cast idea: Who could miss the Bruce Vilanch-in-drag cameo? Oh shit, that's Bette Midler!) Lip-service about "natural beauty" doesn't fly when the sanest voice belongs to Candice Bergen, whose acerbic-mama character still has the facelift-bandages on. Come to think of it, Bergen already played Ryan's mother in Rich and Famous, directed by... George Cukor. Sorry, sorry. Faced with misbegotten pap, the cinephiliac mind tends to wander.
Reviewed September 26, 2008.