The First Wives’ Complaint: If You’re Going, Stay Gone

Jonathan Nossiter’s Signs and Wonders , from a screenplay by James Lasdun and Mr. Nossiter, from a story by Mr. Lasdun, plays out as a striking gothic tale of passion and death through marital, geographical and political displacement. Stellan Skarsgård embodies a new vision of the ugly American abroad, as a commodities trader who assumes he has a divine right and a manifest destiny to be happy, even after betraying his Greek-American wife (played by Charlotte Rampling) not once but twice.

Mr. Skarsgård seems at first to be way over the top in his portrayal, with the borrowed boisterousness of his Americanoid manner and the incredible presumption he gives off while guiltlessly humiliating Ms. Rampling’s character as well as his mistress, whom he marries and then leaves. The second wife jilted by Mr. Skarsgård’s trader in broken hearts is played by the usually feisty and self-possessed Deborah Kara Unger, but here she is reduced to a pathetic supplicant as the action switches back and forth between Athens and New York and Mr. Skarsgård’s character returns to foreign soil to try to reclaim his family.

Mr. Nossiter and Mr. Lasdun have endowed Athens, particularly, with sinister angles and textures as they provide an anti-American political subtext in the matter of U.S. support for the colonels and their junta dictatorship in Greece so long as the country remained aligned with the anti-Soviet bloc. Unfortunately, it is a stretch to link American foreign policy with one deranged individual.

Yet Signs and Wonders does work after a fashion as an eerie evocation of horror through technological deception. Mr. Nossiter’s Athens is not the Athens of tourists, but rather a steamy labyrinth of treacheries ancient and modern, through which evil can flourish in an atmosphere of chaos.

Back for Another Bite

Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, from a screenplay by David Mamet and Stephen Zaillian, based on the novel by Thomas Harris, takes the creepy character of Hannibal Lecter about as far as it can go with his increasingly campy cannibalism, without turning him into a serial monster on the order of the 30’s Frankenstein-Dracula sequels. Hannibal the Cannibal’s evolution on the screen–from a small role in Michael Mann’s Manhunter in 1986, to Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, to Mr. Scott’s new entry–has magnified Hannibal finally to the point of vanishing returns. Lecter has even sunk to the level of making Bela Lugosi-like jokes on the order of “I don’t drink [pause] wine.” In this vein, Lecter evokes giggles every time he makes a reference to his “dining.”

I haven’t read Mr. Harris’ latest manifestation of Lecter, though I did somewhat admire Silence of the Lambs as a good read, in the same way I enjoyed Mr. Demme’s movie version. Since I don’t know how faithful Mr. Mamet and Mr. Zaillian have been to the novel, I have no way of evaluating the publicized defections of Jodie Foster and Mr. Demme from the project on the grounds of deficiencies and excesses in the book. Still, I didn’t find the movie as unspeakable as all that–even though there are undeniably too many gaping holes and glaring improbabilities in the narrative, possibly to supplant the curse of sequelitis with the curse of pretentiousness.

Julianne Moore is not inferior to Ms. Foster as F.B.I. Agent Clarice Starling, she is just distractingly different, and she has much less to do in the way of missions that make sense. Hence, she ends up saving Lecter from an even more malignant villain, after which she tries vainly to capture him for the greater glory of the F.B.I., which has done nothing but treat her shabbily.

The big plot difference between Hannibal and Lambs involves the corruption of the F.B.I. and other law-enforcement authorities here and abroad by the new villain, Mason Verger (played by an unrecognizable Gary Oldman). Verger seeks revenge against Lecter for horribly disfiguring him in what started out as a homosexual tryst. Verger has conveniently inherited a huge fortune from his family, and this gives him the capacity to cavort like a megalomaniac in the manner of the global madmen of the James Bond series. For the gruesome process of the revenge, Verger has assembled a herd of man-eating hogs to prepare Lecter himself for his last meal with Verger. Imitation, I suppose, is the sincerest form of flattery. Since I have been warned by the producers not to give away the last 10 minutes of the film, I presume that I am not free to tell you whether Hannibal–or Agent Starling, for that matter–survives for the purpose of still another sequel.

In the decade since Lambs , the F.B.I., Lecter and just about everyone else in the film have become more wired. Agent Starling, particularly, spends more time at her computer and cell phone than she does in the field, which ranges in Hannibal from Florence and Sardinia in Italy to Richmond, Va. Ray Liotta’s Agent Paul Krendler torments Agent Starling until he is subjected to a climactic punishment that made even the kids in the audience gasp. Fear not: All the bad guys get theirs, and Lecter himself serves as a tour guide through Florence and the Italian Renaissance.

The Consequences of Cliques

Agnès Jaoui’s The Taste of Others ( Le Goût des Autres ), from a screenplay by Ms. Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, is this year’s French entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. As such, it partakes of many of the virtues to which we have become accustomed in the French cinema. It is civilized, polite, gentle, occasionally bitter and sardonic, more often wise and perceptive–and, from the point of view of an American art-house audience, understandable and universal, in that it is all about cliques and the often heartbreaking but futile attempts to break into them. The Taste of Others thereby goes beyond satire into Chekhovian irony as it traces a variety of socially awkward moments without condescension or exaggeration.

Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is a financially successful suburban businessman who feels insecure around the better-educated colleagues with whom he comes into contact. He is particularly vexed by Weber (Xavier De Guillebon), a subordinate he has hired to facilitate a foreign deal. Weber, the product of exclusive schools in Paris, tends to intimidate Castella with his smooth bureaucratese in conducting negotiations. Castella is also henpecked by a foolishly snobbish wife who lacks the good taste to support her domineering manner.

One night, when the wife, Angélique (Christiane Millet), drags him to a local performance of Racine’s Bérénice , Castella is unexpectedly moved by the performance and comeliness of the lead actress, Clara (Anne Alvaro), who plays the Queen. Castella fails to recognize her as the woman–hired by his subordinate, Weber–who is teaching him English, and whom he dismissed curtly at their first meeting. Castella has the same problem pronouncing the English “th” as Emil Jannings’ German students had, with sibilantly comic effect, in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930). But Clara’s English is not all that confident either, and the interaction between student and teacher is more comic than Pygmalion -like. Still, Castella learns enough English to express his romantic feelings for Clara; and though he is rebuffed, he has already moved into her circle of aesthetes, where he is treated with a smirking amusement that Clara detects and Castella does not.

Intoxicated by this new world of artistic activity, Castella buys a painting from a member of the clique and commissions a costly mural for his factory as well. When his wife removes his painting from the living-room wall, he revolts at long last over her bad taste and leaves her. For her part, Clara has second thoughts about Castella. There are two subplots involving Castella’s bodyguard Moreno (Gérard Lanvin), the woman bartender Manie (Agnès Jaoui) with whom he has an affair, and Deschamps (Alain Chabat), the lovelorn chauffeur of the Castellas, who finds some solace in the flute.

The main emphasis, however, is not on who winds up with whom and why, but on the manner in which various circles intersect while jealously guarding their exclusivity. One of the most moving encounters occurs when Weber tenders his resignation, and Castella–realizing for the first time how inconsiderate he has been of Weber’s feelings out of his own insecurity–apologizes and humbly asks him to reconsider.

The Taste of Others is at its best when it exposes the cruelty of exclusion by one self-styled band of elitists or another. It applies to us all, in one way or another–whether we happen to be on the outside looking in, or on the inside looking out.

Rohmer, Highly Recommended

Eric Rohmer, at 80, is probably the world’s greatest living (and active) movie director, and certainly the most consistently effective and expressive one. I say “probably” because I have no idea how many European and Asian directors have had most, if not all, of their careers pass unnoticed in America. I say “active” because Billy Wilder, at 94, could make a strong claim to global greatness. In any event, Mr. Rohmer is being honored with a 22-film retrospective at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, 727-8110) of his work over 40 years. The series begins Feb. 9 and extends through March 15. I recommend the whole program, but if one has to make choices, these would be my 10 recommendations:

1. My Night at Maud’s (1969).

2. A Tale of Springtime (1990).

3. Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987).

4. Claire’s Knee (1970).

5. Pauline at the Beach (1983).

6. The Marquise of O (1976).

7. The Aviator’s Wife (1980).

8. A Tale of Winter (1992).

9. Autumn Tale (1998).

10. A Summer’s Tale (1996).

My list is Machiavellian only to this extent: My Night at Maud’s is the first film in the series and Mr. Rohmer’s breakout film as well. If you catch this work on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, Feb. 9, 10 or 11, you can get the program for the rest of the retrospective, and particularly for my favorites. The only film on the list I have not seen before is A Summer’s Tale , which I shall take this opportunity to catch, and I hope you will, too. I have never known Mr. Rohmer to let me down completely.