Cédric Kahn’s L’Ennui , from a screenplay by Mr. Kahn and Laurence Ferreira Barbosa, based on the novel La Noia , by Alberto Moravia, has been given short shrift by most New York critics, a verdict that happens to be at variance with my wild contrarian enthusiasm for this latest envelope-pushing erotic sensation from Paris.
What is unusual about L’Ennui is that it was panned by the Paris critics as well, reportedly for its intellectual pretentiousness. Inasmuch as the French virtually invented intellectual pretentiousness, this complaint strikes me as particularly droll. That and the puzzled reaction in some of the local reviews to the effrontery of a chunky, huge-chested teenage siren romping around in the nude in violation of the American anorexic standards for such behavior. But to get back to the Parisian naysayers, I strongly suspect that the charge of excessive cerebration in L’Ennui may reflect nothing more than a rueful recognition on the part of the predominantly male French critics that their own feet are being put to the fire by Mr. Kahn’s hilarious deflation of a French philosophy professor named Martin (Charles Berling) in his analytical approach to carnal congress with a laconically lucid artist’s model.
Far from championing the examined life, L’Ennui suggests that the sex act itself can suffer paralysis through analysis. Mr. Berling’s Martin has reached a point in his professional and personal life where his midlife crisis has taken the form of writer’s block, academic burnout and virtually total alienation from other human beings, including his wife Sophie (Arielle Dombasle) from whom he is separated and by whom he is openly cuckolded, but from whom he still needs emotional sustenance, if only as a moderately attentive listener.
During one of his nocturnal wanderings, he stumbles into the lives of an eccentric painter named Meyers (Robert Kramer) and his mistress, a model named Cécilia (Sophie Guillemin). A few days later, Martin learns that the painter has died suddenly from a heart attack after a strenuous night of sex with his mistress. Cécilia patiently answers all of Martin’s morbid questions about her relationship with her former lover and matter-of-factly accepts Martin as his successor with no time out for seductive foreplay. Indeed, the extremely explicit expression of Cécilia’s carnal efficiency is itself merely the foreplay for the frustrating postcoital conversations Martin insists on pursuing despite Cécilia’s frustrating detachment. She truly lives for the moment even while Martin is thrashing about in an effort to deconstruct the immediate past to find out why what has happened has happened, and what it reveals about their interaction.
Mr. Berling’s Martin goes beyond the humor of the situation to the suicidal desperation of a bruised ego. Ms. Guillemin, by contrast, never loses her marvelously maddening serenity and self-confidence in the midst of Martin’s increasingly violent rages of jealousy and frustration. Her Cécilia is one of the cinema’s most wondrously original characterizations, never lapsing into either sentimentality or cynicism.
For the viewer who can see beyond the heavy-duty humping on display to the humorously dialectical man-versus-woman and intellect-versus-intuition duels staged between Martin and Cécilia, L’Ennui is a delectable treat.
David Fincher’s Fight Club , from a screenplay by Jim Uhls, based on the novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, may or may not be the silliest movie of the year. My esteemed colleagues seem to have split down the middle on what seems on the surface at least to be a simulated sadomasochistic, homoerotic, Luddite-anarchic orgy centered on a series of bare-chested male cockfights in which the stated purpose is not so much to inflict pain as to endure it. The bruises and welts on one’s body become badges of one’s regained manhood.
But only male consumers are accepted in Fight Club , a joint Brad Pitt-Edward Norton enterprise enlisting the leftover male losers Susan Faludi did not reach in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man , her elegy of male blue-collar blues. I may have to arm-wrestle some of my students to convince them that even Mr. Pitt and Mr. Norton can get trapped in a metaphorical mess like Fight Club.
Sydney Pollack’s Random Hearts , from a screenplay by Kurt Luedtke, adaptation by Darryl Ponicsan, based on the novel by Warren Adler, has been apparently left dead in the water by both the critics and the public for its alleged slowness and sogginess. It is an unabashedly grown-up love story involving two decent, subtle repressed human beings trying to deal with grief and betrayal–from the literally and figuratively dead past as they move gingerly toward a relationship of trust and love in the indefinite future. There are not many suds of self-pity in this supposed soap opera. It might have done better commercially if there had been.
Harrison Ford plays a detective in Internal Affairs and Kristin Scott Thomas is a Hillary-like Representative running for re-election in her Vermont district. The suggestion is made that both are such workaholics
that they never notice that their respective spouses are straying from the fold to the extent of taking a flight to Miami together for a bit of hanky-panky. The Ford and Thomas characters become grotesquely bonded survivors when their adulterous mates crash into the Florida Everglades. Slowly, ever so slowly, the two survivors reach out to each other.
In Mr. Pollack’s directorial hands, the inevitable becomes a hard and painful process for both characters. Fortunately, both the actors and the characters they play are endowed with enough wit, humor and irony to cope with their problems, and to thoroughly entertain at least this hyper-grown-up viewer.