Investigating the Opposite Sex: Her 13 Affairs vs. His Three

Valerie Breiman’s Love & Sex , from her own screenplay, is one of the happiest surprises of this horrendous movie season. Blessed with wry wit and high spirits, Love & Sex lifts Famke Janssen and Jon Favreau into a realm reserved for very few screen couples in this age of galloping alienation and dysfunction. Not that

Ms. Janssen’s Kate Welles is any sort of poster child for either the women’s movement or women’s magazines. Kate is hooked on the opposite sex from grammar school on, and she learns from grammar school on not to confide in her own gossipy sex. So how does she wind up trying to make her living? By writing for the kind of women’s magazine that prefers fantasies to facts about the dismal singles dating scene.

Actually, the whole movie is built around a deadline imposed by Kate’s impatient editor, who is on the verge of firing her excessively cynical writer. In one day, Kate goes over all the relationships she’s ever had, trying to find something positive to say about her love and sex life. Ms. Breiman manages to subject Kate to many disappointments without making her whiny and embittered. In fact, she’s quite the contrary. Kate rebounds from one disaster by plunging headfirst into another without any carnal restraint or hesitation.

By the time she meets Jon Favreau’s Adam, Kate’s one true and everlasting love, she has had 13 bed-and-breakfast affairs to Adam’s measly three, and he finds her more extensive experience so intimidating that it causes a temporary breakup. Ms. Breiman is anti-cliché here with a vengeance, since it is usually supposed to be the man who has more bedroom battle stripes, and the woman who believes in fewer but longer relationships. What is visually original about Kate and Adam is that she is too tall and has monstrously large hands, and he is conspicuously out of shape and overweight. Part of the fun they share is based on the awareness of their own shortcomings. Their exchanges are flip and hip without ever straining for effect, and this is something of a rarity in the independent cinema. Ms. Breiman knows the value of silence and speechlessness when the situation is too outrageous for comment-for example, Kate’s overnight affair with Eric (Noah Emmerich), who seems too good to be true until his wife and little girl turn up unexpectedly at his front door. Kate doesn’t even get fully dressed before she storms out of all this unsavory silliness.

The movie is the sum of all its felicitous switches on old conventions. It starts in the hilarious grammar-school sequence in which Kate allows her secret boyfriend to punch and insult her in public so he can stay cool with the guys. Later he kisses Kate in private, and allows her to kiss him. This ridiculously masochistic arrangement continues until Kate spills the beans to one of her girlfriends. Soon the whole school knows; the boy is humiliated by his buddies and angrily denounces Kate. As he storms away, Kate pathetically begs him to come back and hit her even harder. This is one of the sharpest depictions of the cruelties of one-sided passion since the comic-strip days of Krazy Kat and Ignatz the Rat, who expressed his feelings by regularly hitting the Kat with a brick, to which the Kat responded with a valentine heart emanating from her battered head.

We are not looking here at political correctness or militant feminism, but at the pluses and minuses in all relationships. Kate is not without her share of self-deceiving bluster, and Adam has more than a little of the egocentric frenzy of Albert Brooks and Woody Allen males. But together, Kate and Adam have a lot more than they have apart. This is the central assertion of Love & Sex -and, if you think about it, of virtually the entire oeuvre of Ingmar Bergman. Hence, one plus one equals infinity.

Ms. Breiman’s skill in writing and directing repartee puts to shame mainstream features that are more concerned with big-star likeability than the life-like flow of occasionally ungainly modes of expression. We like Kate and Adam not because they are ideal and predictable lovers, but because there is just enough tension in their connection to make us feel they have earned whatever uneasy happiness is possible in an increasingly unstable world.

Vive Catherine Deneuve!

Nicole Garcia’s Place Vendôme , from a screenplay by Ms. Garcia and Jacques Fieschi, continues the incredible saga of the truly ageless Catherine Deneuve. And what could be a better setting for her unique charisma than Paris’ famous Place Vendôme, with its 18th-century buildings and their glittering facades filled with precious gems and haute couture ? The plot hinges on the disposition of seven diamonds sought after by two shadowy cartels-DeBeers and the Russian Mafia. Ms. Deneuve’s Marianne finds herself unexpectedly at the center of the intrigue when her bankrupt gem-dealer husband Vincent Malivert (Bernard Fresson) commits suicide and thereby leaves her in a very precarious position.

Here I must interpose a piece of personal press-agentry. I may not have discovered Ms. Deneuve, but I was the first American reviewer to recognize her talent. As I wrote in the New York Film Bulletin of May 15, 1962: “I liked Roger Vadim’s new discovery, Catherine Deneuve, in the last episode of Tales of Paris . She is an improvement on Annette and even Brigitte.” Ms. Deneuve was 18 at the time, having begun her career at 13. Today she is in her late 50’s, more than five years older than Gloria Swanson was when she made Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). But there is not now and never has been any bit of Norma Desmond in Ms. Deneuve. Perhaps that is the difference between France and America. Perhaps Ms. Deneuve is a special case that transcends nationality, but she deserves special mention all the same.

The convoluted plot of Place Vendôme takes Marianne 20 years back, when she was a diamond dealer in love with an opportunist named Battistelli (Jacques Dutronc). After her husband’s death, Battistelli appears again to atone for having betrayed Marianne by running out on her on an illegal sale, changing her life forever. Battistelli has a new protégé and potential victim in Nathalie (Emmanuelle Seigner), a crack diamond broker like Marianne was in her youth. In the film’s one flashback, Ms. Seigner also plays the part of young Marianne.

An outsider to the diamond business named Jean-Pierre (Jean-Pierre Bacri) becomes involved with both Marianne and Nathalie, but tries to stay outside all the intrigues, and comes to love both women. The rest is atmosphere and shimmering camera movements that illustrate the paradox of restless people frantically searching for objects of fixed and stable value. But at the center of all the confusion is the immovable Marianne-in Ms. Deneuve’s persona, the spirit of France.

A Movie Trapped in a Dream

Tarsem Singh’s The Cell , from a screenplay by Mark Protosevich, turns out to be one of those rare films that arouses in me completely contradictory impulses, which is to say I can make equally strong arguments for it and against it. I have a feeling that most people won’t like it if they bother-or dare-to see it, whereas a small cult minority will proclaim that this is the cinema of the future.

I dared to see it, and I remain of two minds about it. The first mind says that I have to get over my congenital squeamishness and accept a certain portion of pure horror in future entertainments of this genre and the like. The second mind says that the narrative film is never going to change so much as to become unrecognizable to a viewer with classical tastes. This is to say that I recognized a good-old-fashioned movie trying to break out of all the gimmickry, gadgetry and arbitrary dream fantasies in The Cell .

Jennifer Lopez plays Catherine Deane, a sci-fi-extended psychologist who has found a way to enter the minds of comatose children. As a favor to the F.B.I. and for the sake of an imperiled kidnap victim, she does the same with a comatose schizophrenic serial killer. This monster is named Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), and Catherine is reluctant at first to take on the assignment because of what she knows about schizophrenics and their tendency to believe in their own fantasies. In a conversation with F.B.I. agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), Catherine deduces that Peter was abused as a child, but does not accept child abuse as a defense for homicidal sociopathic behavior. Yet the first thing Catherine does when she gets into Carl’s diseased brain is to tap into his memories of his childhood. Her mission is simply to find out where Carl has hidden his last victim, but before she is through, Peter has joined her in dreamland to rescue her from schizo Carl’s evil clutches. There is a hint of romantic adventure here, but it is supposed to end for the sake of rededication to duty.

From time to time, the Indian-born Tarsem Singh displays the technical ability to make a good movie without sci-fi protuberances. But ultimately, the reliance on a dream world tends to reduce suspense and even narrative logic. Thus, everything is possible and nothing is necessary. The cast performs adequately, but Ms. Lopez, particularly, spends so much time in varying dream spectacles that she never has time to build a coherent character. Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dylan Baker and Patrick Bauchau provide a steady, unobtrusive excellence in supporting roles. I suppose deep down I admired the movie that The Cell might have been more than the movie it became. But I can’t dismiss all the talent involved.