Out of Sight Woody Allen! Plus Perfect Téa Leoni!

Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending solves some of his recent problems by coming up with the brilliantly absurdist comic device of having his alter ego, Val Waxman, go psychosomatically blind just as he’s about to direct a high-budget movie that may be his last chance in Hollywood. Though Val has won several Oscars in the distant past, producers have wearied of his neuroses and psychoses on the set, which have sent costs spiraling in their wake. The only reason he’s been given this last chance is that his ex-wife, Ellie (Téa Leoni), is a studio executive who has gone to bat for him with her studio boss and lover, Hal (Treat Williams), who is reluctant to hire Val for business reasons more than because of his relationship with Ellie.

By making Val the hypochondriacal victim of Woody’s worst fears throughout his career, Mr. Allen has found an inspired way to get easy laughs out of sick but safe sight gags about the sightless. Though there aren’t many more belly laughs than those seen in the coming attractions, there are smiles and chuckles aplenty, and many unexpected layers of comic invention. Thus, at a time when many people have been writing Mr. Allen’s professional, commercial and artistic obituaries, our Woody has successfully mined for gold in the rough terrain of his own life and career. And in the process, he has come up with a cultural curtain line that would have made the legendary George S. Kaufman beam with pride.

We are also seeing a new Woody on the publicity front. No more ostentatious reclusiveness for the Woodman: His new studio backers have reportedly required him to promote his own product in person, with the result that his old standup-comedy skills, on display at this year’s Oscars, will get another workout at the Cannes Film Festival, where Hollywood Ending has been chosen as the opening-night film.

But the really big news for me is that not since the glory days of Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) has Mr. Allen come up with a leading lady of such romantic stature as Ms. Leoni’s Ellie incarnates here. I’ve liked her winsome, deadpan quality in the past, but it was generally displayed in subordinate parts with darker hair. Here, Woody has given Ellie industry heft, a cool intelligence and a subtle sweetness. He takes a leaf from Molière’s Tartuffe by delaying Val Waxman’s entrance until a roomful of studio executives have responded to Ellie’s championing of Val as the perfect director for a “hot” New York property the studio is getting ready for production. One by one, the executives tell a different Waxman horror story of perfectionism run amok to rival the most lurid rumors of Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles assaulting the studio balance sheets without any concern for potential box-office returns. Ellie holds her ground, however, and Val gets his chance-though not without a great many doubts being expressed out loud.

When we finally do meet Val, he’s almost buried in a Canadian snowstorm that he’s had to endure for the sake of filming a television commercial-a fate worse than death for an auteur of Val’s peerless snobbery. Indeed, Val the eternal victim brings out the screechingly nasty worst in Woody as he extends his range of insults from Hollywood to Canada-perhaps as a way of getting back at filmmakers who have abandoned New York City as a shooting location for lower-cost sites in Toronto and Montreal. Nor is Val’s verbal abuse of Debra Messing’s Lori, the self-parodying bimbo with whom Val is currently cohabiting, witty enough to get the misogynistic laughs it is seeking.

When Val’s fabulously loyal agent Al (Mark Rydell) almost tearfully informs him that he has secured a prize directorial assignment, and that all he has to do to clinch the deal is to “do” lunch with Ellie in New York, Val demurs. But the combination of Al, Lori and his own dire straits ultimately persuade Val to “take” the meeting. There ensues a curious scene in which Val alternates between making serious suggestions about the script and frothing at the mouth over Ellie’s betrayal of him with Hal, even while they were married. The Three Stooges –type nomenclature of Val, Hal and Al is Mr. Allen’s shrewd way of introducing a cartoonish element to his characters. But here again, he succumbs to such overkill that I began to wonder if he was building up to a permanent case of Val’s schizophrenia.

At this juncture, Val goes blind, and the film takes off into the stratosphere of farcical whimsy, requiring a lot of discipline by the entire cast to preserve the logic and believability of the conceit. Val needs at least one person he can trust at all times, not only to keep his secret, but to assist him in his ridiculous directorial deception. Mr. Allen’s ingenuity in plot construction comes to the fore as the hitherto supposedly self-sufficient Val finds himself so completely dependent on other people for the basic necessities of survival that he makes Blanche Dubois look dynamically independent.

Al takes care of putting him to bed at night and taking him to the bathroom in the morning, but he is not permitted to accompany Val on the set because it is company policy to exclude agents. Here, Val’s previous eccentricity in hiring a Japanese cinematographer who doesn’t speak English enables Al and Val to take the Japanese interpreter into their confidence and keep him close by Val, much to the discomfiture of the Japanese cinematographer. Meanwhile, Lori has conveniently gone off to a spa to get in shape for her small role in the film. Eventually, the Japanese-American interpreter from N.Y.U. adds a satiric dimension to the narrative by intervening in the creative process, much as Chazz Palminteri’s gangster kibitzer did so memorably and hilariously in Mr. Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway in 1994. As the circle of initiates into Val’s bizarre secret ominously widens, Ellie has to be told at last so as to salvage her own career.

The farcical circle has been completed so as to produce the “Hollywood ending” of the title. But here Mr. Allen injects a note of realism into the situation by limiting the creative miracle that can be achieved by a blind director, and by making what is finally created the cream of the jest. As in the best farces, Hollywood Ending does not venture too far beyond reality and probability and necessity for its humor. For the first time in several years, Mr. Allen has surpassed himself with the magic he’s spun with the Hollywood empress of Ms. Leoni’s Ellie.

Off-Key Exploration Of Life and Love

Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher , from Mr. Haneke’s screenplay, based on the novel by Elfriede Jelinek, seems to arouse wildly conflicting responses among viewers. One either admires this painful contemplation of kinky sex among otherwise cultivated characters, or one hates it-but no one despises it, simply because there is not a trace of sentimentality or titillation in the whole film. The sado-masochism on display here is singularly ugly and ungainly, and the characters are uniformly strident and unsympathetic. By significant contrast, the music-which consists mostly of Schubert selections-is exquisite.

Nonetheless, count me among The Piano Teacher ‘s haters, despite my eternally high regard for Isabelle Huppert, who plays the title character. Her oddly astringent performance won her an acting award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and I can certainly see why. Her role defies the audience to like her or be charmed by her. Indeed, she is presented as a monster in her personal life, despite her admirable mastery of the piano in her musical life.

Not only is it somewhat shocking that Ms. Huppert’s middle-aged piano teacher, Erika Kohut, still sleeps alongside her blowzy and bossy mother (Annie Girardot), but she also patronizes a sex shop for vicarious thrills. When a mysteriously adoring and undeniably talented young male student named Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel) comes on to her, she initially tries to block his admission to the musical academy at which she teaches, and then proceeds to demand that their relationship go according to her own peculiar tastes. Along the way, Erika commits a vicious act against a young female student she jealously imagines to be her rival for Walter’s attention. She never shows the slightest remorse for her outrageous behavior, and she is never discovered. This is not the prescribed method to win friends and influence people in conventional movies. I suppose that is what film festivals are for, but once one experiences Mr. Haneke’s own sadistic tendencies toward his audience, one is left with a sour taste in one’s mouth, and little else.

Stamp Sting

Fabián Bielinsky’s Nine Queens , from his own screenplay, was last year’s Oscar nominee from Argentina as Best Foreign Film, and it’s almost too thoroughly entertaining to fit comfortably into that often austere category. Two con men team up to pull off a stupendous swindle with a forged set of stamps, the “Nine Queens,” as their bait. Juan (Gastón Pauls) and Marcos (Ricardo Darín) don’t know each other well enough to trust each other beyond a certain point, but after some stormy disagreements they make an effective team.

We gradually get to know the family backgrounds of the two men and their diverging objectives, and we learn to suspect them both as much as each suspects the other. When Marcos’ beautiful sister Valeria (Leticia Brédice) enters the picture and becomes part of the swindle, the stakes begin to escalate and the audience is set up for the final surprise-which I shall not reveal here, for fear of reader retribution. Nor will I communicate to the reader the American movies to which Nine Queens bears a certain twisting-plot resemblance. And for those in the audience who claim to demand social significance in their entertainment, Mr. Bielinsky has fashioned a wicked parable of the financial chaos in contemporary Argentina.