Blame Canada (or Me), But See Set Me Free

Léa Pool’s Set Me Free , from a screenplay by Ms. Pool with Nancy Huston and Monique H. Messier, belongs to that most endangered of all cinematic species, the French Canadian film, which has to contend with the same language barrier as the French cinema, but without the cultural cachet of coming from across the ocean where a supposedly superior civilization resides. It doesn’t help that Parisian sophisticates condescend to the French Canadians almost as rudely as to the Belgians. The Anglophones in Toronto have it both easier and harder than do the Francophones in Montreal. On the one hand, Toronto has become a low-budget replica of New York and Los Angeles, and the natives can “pass” as Americans without much difficulty, but, by the same token, they have a much harder time establishing a distinctively Canadian identity for their film culture.

Over the years, I have been to enough film festivals all over Canada to realize that now, as always, more has been going on up there than has been dreamed of in our parochial moviegoing down here. Léa Pool is a recent case in point. Set Me Free was originally shown to New York audiences at Alice Tully Hall as part of the 37th New York Film Festival. It received moderately favorable reviews, and it is now slipping into very limited and unpublicized regular release, thus guaranteeing that it will disappear from the local scene faster than you can say Gladiator .

It deserves better, of course, particularly since Ms. Pool is responsible also for La Demoiselle Sauvage (Savage Woman), a 1991 love-on-the-run tragic romance, which was never shown in New York until this year’s Canadian series at the New York Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater under the fittingly rueful rubric of Blame Canada! Classic and Contemporary Cinema from the North Country. Despite the catchy title, from a song in the South Park movie, the series was reportedly poorly attended and La Demoiselle Sauvage , like Set Me Free , deserves much, much better.

I have written in the past about how Australian movies are more exotic to American audiences than movies from just across the border, but that is only part of the story. The best filmmakers in both Australia and Canada tend to be anti-formulaic in their choices of genres and subjects, though the Aussies can be more uncontrollably gross and violent than our comparatively well-behaved neighbors to the north, both Anglophone and Francophone. In the past, I have bemoaned the lasting influence of onetime Canadian Film Commissioner John Grierson and the documentary movement on the Canadian fiction film. I have complained that the mandated realism of this tradition has virtually outlawed romanticism even as an option. But now I am beginning to wonder if I have not overstated the case.

Set Me Free is nothing if not anti-formulaic as it follows a perpetually perplexed young girl named Hanna (Karine Vanasse) through a perilous rite of passage, taking her to the brink of lesbianism and prostitution, and even suicide, before pulling her back to a richer and deeper understanding of her extended family and friends. At times, the film just seems to meander, but it never rings false, and it never resorts to easily caricatured villains in order to gain sympathy for the protagonist. One can never predict with certainty what anyone in the film will do because, in Renoir’s words, everyone has his reasons, good or bad.

Ms. Vanasse gives a hauntingly yearning performance as Hanna, though, like the other completely unfamiliar performers, she both gains and loses in our estimation for being a hitherto uncharted talent. There are so few guideposts in Canadian films for American audiences to follow on those infrequent occasions they just happen to stumble on some cinematic gem from north of the border. I myself just happened to stumble on Léa Pool, and I intend to keep an eye peeled for her just in case there are any future sightings.

In the meantime, I keep banging the drum for French Canadian Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire (1986) from my academic perch at Columbia University. I have taken a proprietary interest in Mr. Arcand’s career ever since seeing his Rejeanne Padovani back in 1973 at the New York Film Festival. I am consequently more than a little curious about his latest film, which is scheduled as the closing night attraction at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Such are the endless obsessions of this auteurist film critic.

Casting Rescues Up at the Villa

Philip Haas’ Up At the Villa , from a screenplay by Belinda Haas, from the novella by W. Somerset Maugham, has opened to an unseasonably chilly reception from most of my esteemed colleagues, and though I do not share in the general disdain, I can understand it at least partly as an anti-gentility reflex, otherwise known as the anti-Merchant-Ivory syndrome, though the Merchant-Ivory team had nothing to do with this latest exercise in period adaptation.

I am not suggesting that the film’s detractors are suffering from the cinematic version of nostalgie de la bou e, nor that W. Somerset Maugham is on the same literary level as Henry James, E.M. Forster or Edith Wharton. And while I am delivering my disclaimers, I might as well confess that I may be prejudiced because of my vicarious infatuation with Kristin Scott Thomas, the heroine and virtual raison d’être of the film. Indeed, I may have been the only reviewer to find some merit in last year’s Thomas-Harrison Ford critical floperoo, Random Hearts . No matter, I have liked Ms. Thomas in just about everything, in both English-language and foreign-language films, on both the big and small screens. And though I was pleasantly surprised by Julianne Moore’s expertly passionate playing in last year’s The End of the Affair , I would still have preferred Ms. Thomas in the part. That’s how far my actress-worship for Ms. Thomas has come in the past few years.

But there is more to my predilection for Up at the Villa than the exquisite delicacy of Ms. Thomas’ portrayal of the bewitched, bothered and bewildered Mary Panton, and that of Sean Penn’s remarkably engaging rascal, Rowley Flint, Anne Bancroft’ s authoritatively magisterial Princess San Ferdinando, James Fox’s shrewdly and comically stuffy Sir Edgar Swift, Jeremy Davies as pathetically desperate as a desperate refugee can be, Karl Richter, Derek Jacobi as gay, campy Lucky Leadbetter, a caricature with finely articulated feelings and intelligence, and Massimo Ghini’s sinister Beppino Leopardi, a reprise of his fascist villain in last year’s Tea With Mussolini , with which Up at the Villa may become associated.

The plot reminded me very much of Maugham’s 20’s play The Circle , which Louis Kronenberger, my old Columbia drama professor in the 40’s compared very favorably with S.N. Behrman’s Biography . The difference between Maugham and Behrman, Kronenberger observed, was the difference between irony and allegory. Kronenberger preferred irony because with irony you go out a different door from the one you came in, whereas with allegory you go out the same door.

The irony in Up at the Villa is that the penniless expatriate widow makes the same bad choice of a lover a second time despite the dire warnings of her friends. In traditional movie terms, Ms. Thomas and Mr. Penn make a logical couple in terms of chemistry, if not of emotional and marital stability. The Haas writer-director-spousal team has not spelled out that irony, but it is there just the same, though with more sweetness and less sourness than is to be found in the Maugham novella. With two other lead actors, the movie might have collapsed from its contrivances, but here the casting has come to the rescue of the writing, direction and the ghostly vagueness of the milieu. The movie is thus worth seeing more for the foreground than the background, and, come to think of it, isn’t this the way it should be?

American Beauty : Is It Fading?

People are still stopping me in the street to complain that they just saw American Beauty for the first time, and they felt it was overrated. Well, of course it was overrated. Every movie that has ever won an Oscar has been automatically overrated. People take Oscars too seriously as guarantors of value, especially nowadays when many people see only five movies a year at regular theaters, and demand full value on each visit. The only question now is by how much American Beauty has been overrated in comparison with its predecessors.

The point is that the Oscars, more often than not, pass up the best movies of the year for the splashiest or the most deviously sentimental. American Beauty was far from being the best movie of 1999, but, sadly, more people have seen it than have seen The End of the Affair , The Straight Story and Topsy-Turvy combined. And so it has gone from the beginning of the Oscars to the present. All we critics and historians of the medium can do is occasionally set the record straight.