The Real World? Solondz at School

Todd Solondz’s Storytelling , from his own screenplay, is the work of an auteur whose six-year, three-movie career has been on the cutting edge so consistently that his directorial hands must be bleeding from his derisive stabs at what may laughingly be called the American Dream. Storytelling consists of two separate films, the much shorter one entitled “Fiction” and the longer and more nihilistic one entitled “Non-Fiction.”

“Fiction” is destined for easy laughs, being set mostly in a college creative-writing course taught by a surly Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American writer, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), who lords it over his ridiculously eager-to-please white students. One of them, Vi (Selma Blair), goes so far as to offer her body to the comically indifferent teacher in order to obtain fresh material for her classroom assignment. After the peculiarly blocked-out sex scene, Vi shows up in class with her kiss-and-tell story, only to have it ridiculed by both the teacher and one persistent student heckler.

As it stands, the situation incites politically correct laughter, despite Mr. Scott’s ethical lapse and unprofessional conduct. Is there anything easier than laughing at a student in a creative-writing course being humiliated for his or her efforts? The laughter of superiority is both easy and cheap. But let’s suppose the situation was reversed; let’s say the victimized student were an African-American and the professor white. Would the humiliation of the student seem funny at all?

In “Non-Fiction,” the American family is the subject of a documentary by Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), a not-to-be-taken-seriously filmmaker. With the best intentions, Toby brings out the most grotesque aspects of the Livingston family, headed by Marty (John Goodman); his fragile wife, fittingly named Fern (Julie Haggerty); and their three sons, Scooby (Mark Webber), Brady (Noah Fleiss) and Mikey (Jonathan Osser). The family is cross-sectioned into the most diverse sibling variations imaginable, all in the service of a melodramatic plot involving Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), the family’s maliciously mistreated maid, who seeks and obtains the most complete Third World revenge against an American family one was free to imagine before 9/11. Not that the family doesn’t deserve our utter disapproval, but the devious manner in which Mr. Solondz makes them appear eligible for extermination seems, at the very least, to be suspiciously excessive.

When Mr. Solondz screened his film at the New York Film Festival last fall, his ultra-nerdish appearance convinced me that he was playing out some revenge fantasy of his own in all his films–from the ugly-duckling bitterness of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) to the child-molestation outrages of Happiness (1998), all the way to the white-guilt frenzies of this year’s Storytelling . Mr. Solondz has acquired many articulate champions, especially in Europe, where anything seeming to take Americans to task acquires an instant profundity. I’m not suggesting that Mr. Solondz study the old Andy Hardy movies for a corrective vision. Yet despite his undeniable talent, however manipulative, his stories are too sour and mean-spirited for my taste.

Dinner for Six

Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners , from her own screenplay, ostensibly follows the strictures of the Danish-spawned Dogma 95 movement, which demands hand-held cameras, location shooting and natural lighting, and which forbids special effects, crane shots, rack-focus trickery, zoom shots, period costumes, flashbacks, etc. In this context, Ms. Scherfig is doubly unique in being the first woman director of a Dogmatic bent and in writing the first light romantic comedy to be filmed under the hair-shirted discipline.

Fortunately, it is rumored that even people in Denmark are beginning to look askance at the self-styled Dogmatists. Still, the combination of lightness and strictness in this instance gives Italian for Beginners an amiable aimlessness that keeps it from seeming predictably formulaic. After all, nothing really happens beyond the felicitously arranged mixing of six almost comically dysfunctional characters into three contentedly compatible couples with a minimum of fuss or heartbreaking competition.

One of the characters has a slight overview of the elective affinities at play here: Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), a Lutheran minister hired as a temporary replacement for a local church’s regular pastor, who had lost his faith and begun to angrily harangue the parishioners for keeping theirs. The recently widowed Andreas is no beacon of belief himself, but he doesn’t impose his doubts on others, instead listening patiently to his parishioners’ problems without committing himself until they have found the solution on their own. All six of the movie’s characters are attending a night course in elementary Italian, where Andreas soon drifts into a romance with Olympia, an agreeable but accident-prone bakery worker who must endure the endless taunting of her sick, ill-tempered father.

When the expatriate Italian professor suffers a fatal heart attack, Hal-Finn (Lars Kaalund), a short-tempered ex-soccer player for Team Italy who has lost his job as a restaurant manager for insulting the customers, is quickly recruited to teach. Hal-Finn pairs with local hairdresser Karen (Ann Eleanora Jørgensen), while Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), a fearfully impotent hotel receptionist, ends up with the emotionally generous Italian waitress Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen). Karen, like Olympia, is burdened with a dying and abusive parent–in her case, a mother who wants ever more morphine to ease her pain, until Karen turns the spigot full blast, releasing her at last from her torment. Hence, both parents must die before their children can begin to live.

Despite this, the movie never loses its odd buoyancy. This is not a story of characters finding the great loves of their lives in unison, but rather of ordinary people finding someone with whom to have dinner. Despite her clergyman protagonist, Ms. Scherfig does not bring the existence or nonexistence of God and the afterlife into the picture; instead, she affirms the sublimity of lifelong companionship.

Crying Wolf

Christophe Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf ( Le Pacte des Loups ), from a screenplay by Stéphane Cabel and Mr. Gans, weaves a fanciful “solution” to the lingering mystery of the Beast of Gévandan, which rampaged through the reign of Louis XV a little more than two decades before the French Revolution deposed his son and Marie Antoinette. After all, was it not Louis XV who declared, ” Après moi, le déluge “?

End of history, beginning of contemporary trendy filmmaking in the horror-adventure genre, complete with anachronistic Asian martial-arts specialties, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and echoes of Japanese Samurai movies and Sergio Leone fantasy westerns. On the other hand, the swordplay in the film is presumed to be more authentic than is customary in films depicting this period.

Mr. Gans has stated in an interview that he set out to mix genres so as to reach younger audiences–as America filmmakers do so well–and yet to introduce important political ideas into the mix. It is perhaps too early to tell whether Brotherhood of the Wolf will attract audiences beyond the art-house patrons of French movies with subtitles. As it happens, when I saw Brotherhood of the Wolf , there wasn’t a woman in the bunch. My companions seemed to take the subtitles and the period costumes in stride; they even sat patiently through the historical narration. But when the warrior team of French explorer Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and Iroquois martial-arts master Mani (Mark Dacascos) arrived on the scene to demolish the human monsters in their path, we were back on familiar ground.

The cynicism prevailing in the French court is to be expected, and the casual cruelty of the aristocracy foreshadows the guillotine. This being a French film, there’s more sex and nudity than is to be found in Anglo-American exercises in the genre. And of course, the young studs on display outnumber the women in the cast.

Still, my hard-core companions didn’t seem restive when the very strong women in the cast were front and center. Emilie Dequenne and Monica Bellucci play decisive roles in the final unraveling of the lupine conspiracy, which is led by someone you would least expect. But I will not say who because that would spoil much of the fun in this fun movie, animatronic beast and all. Women might like it, too.