A Perfect Couple (Robert Altman / U.S., 1979):

Robert Altman's introduction of Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin at the L.A. Philharmonic -- the camera rests on them after contemplating two glamour-pusses miming infatuation -- is a sterling, deflating joke that keeps on giving, down to the racial interpretation of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle decades later. (Other consequences include Punch-Drunk Love and Altman's own The Company.) The two are matched at a video-dating service, their first date is rained on, the sunroof of his company Cadillac is stuck open under the downpour; Dooley and Heflin on the elevator, soaked and silently negotiating a kiss, is the kind of human gesture scarcely chronicled outside of Olmi's I Fidanzati. A world of "freaks" and "weirdoes" separates the couple, divided into contrasting families of allure and suffocation: Dooley's Greek clan (lorded over by Titos Vandis) prefers the rigid stability of black suits and classical music, Heflin's rock-hippie commune (the band "Keepin' 'Em Off the Streets," led by Ted Neeley) offers an open road and the blurring of social and sexual lines. Dooley brings Heflin a flower following a false start only to find another video-dating hopeful (co-screenwriter Allan Nichols), the resulting mock-fight strengthens their love all the way to the emergency room ("I don't think you two should be kissing while I'm suturing," the doctor says). The characters are Chayefsky's "dogs" (Marty), only scrubbed off paternalistic condescension and endowed with radiant emotional potential -- a scrawny, frizzy harlequin, Heflin walks over to the mike in the midst of a night-long rehearsal and suddenly lets out her full bluesy force. Romance, like cinema, is a reconstructionist work for Altman, not unlike harmonizing to a song and tapping into each other's melodies towards an improvised finale. The transcendental reunion at the Hollywood Bowl, with its coffin-to-piano dissolve and lateral pan into the audience, further reveals that Altman, like Cassavetes in Minnie and Moskowitz, was wondering all along what a Borzage movie in the '70s would be like. With Belita Moreno, and Henry Gibson.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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