Smile! Your Photo Developer Is Watching

Robin Williams is one of the funniest and sharpest comic talents working today, and yet there’s a certain logic in casting this merry man as one of the saddest and most delusional creatures on earth: one Seymour (Sy) Parrish, a snapshot developer at the local SavMart, just down the cinematic street from Jennifer Aniston’s Retail Rodeo in The Good Girl ‘s Wasteland, Tex.

One Hour Photo , written and directed by Mark Romanek, provides not only a flashy acting vehicle for Mr. Williams, but also a haunting, profound meditation on the way photography has changed the way we think about ourselves. Our 19th-century ancestors, who lived in the time of the first daguerreotypes, perceived the change right away. As André Bazin, the great French film theoretician, once observed, the first crude black-and-white photos were not nearly as “faithful” to their human subjects as were color paintings-and yet people immediately preferred the photos, which they saw as imprints of reality, over painterly interpretations. It was not, they instinctively felt, a picture of Aunt Mary; it was Aunt Mary herself who was the object of your gaze. Indeed, Native Americans who believed that photos would steal their souls were not entirely wide of the mark, as the victims of our contemporary paparazzi can attest.

Sy loves developing pictures, because it enables him to share the happiest moments of his customers’ lives. He has become especially attached to a seemingly idyllic family consisting of a mother, Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen), a father, Will (Michael Vartan), and 9-year-old Jake (Dylan Smith), whom Sy has “known” ever since his earliest baby pictures. For Mr. Romanek, the name “Yorkin” is a play on the words “your kin.” It’s the key to Sy’s emotional adoption of his customers, whose photographs he develops and then makes an extra copy of, to add to his living-room gallery of faces.

What begins as a seemingly harmless though obsessive hobby takes a dark turn when Sy discovers that there is trouble in the Yorkin household that, if left unchecked, will destroy the unity and sanctity of his favorite family. Gradually, Sy becomes a stalker-not for the usual lustful reasons, but to thwart an adulterous romance that threatens the “happiness” of the Yorkin ménage, Sy’s almost-decade-long ideal.

It is at this point in the film that the intrigue becomes too complicated for the sketchy characterizations to take hold. Sy is the only character we really know, and even he is something of a mystery. Why is he so alone, and why is his life so abnormally vicarious? At the end of the film, when he has seemingly gone too far in terrorizing Will Yorkin and his mistress, Maya Burson (Erin Daniels), he tries to explain himself to the authorities. But his suggestion that he’d been abused as a child seems tacked onto a plot that would have been better served by Sy’s remaining inscrutable.

There is also a gap between Sy’s lyrical sensibility, as he expresses the mystique of photography in the hyper-articulate inner monologues Mr. Romanek has written for the character, and the sad-sack social awkwardness Mr. Williams imposes on the protagonist. It’s no wonder that Eriq La Salle, who used to be so consistently headstrong on ER , seems merely confused as the detective assigned to listen to Sy’s tortured self-justifications. As for the human flies caught in Sy’s spidery photographic web, Ms. Nielsen, Mr. Vartan and Ms. Daniels try to flesh out their impossibly insubstantial one-dimensional characters with a touch of mannered exaggeration and stereotyping.

Still, there is much to commend in Mr. Romanek’s creative direction of his central concept, dramatically dubious as it turns out to be. A much-honored music-video and TV-spot director, Mr. Romanek seems to have the wherewithal to make interesting films in the future without relying too much on a single gimmick. In this instance, that turned out to be something of a trap.

A Splendid French Oedipal Drama

Anne Fontaine’s How I Killed My Father , from a screenplay by Jacques Fieschi and Ms. Fontaine, demonstrates why nowadays the best thing you can say about an American movie is that it plays like a French film. As its title suggests, How I Killed My Father is an Oedipal drama with no fewer than five characterizations that take us into areas of family feelings that twist and turn in unexpected directions. Yet the film never lapses into banality or sentimentality.

Forty-year-old Jean-Luc (Michel Berling) has reached the summit of his profession as a medical gerontologist in the upscale Parisian suburb of Versailles, whose aging citizens flock to his office for treatments that can halt the march of time. Jean-Luc’s beautiful and elegant wife Isa (Natacha Régnier) presides over her husband’s triumphant soirées, which enliven their childless marriage.

One day, Jean-Luc receives a letter telling him that his father has died. The film flashes back a few weeks to an evening on which Jean-Luc was being honored at a reception in his home. In the midst of his speech, Jean-Luc notices a strangely smiling, faintly familiar face in the crowded room. It’s Maurice (Michel Bouquet), his long-absent father, who abandoned the family many years before to practice medicine in an African village. Why has he returned now? This is a question Jean-Luc will continue to ask Maurice in the next few days, without really receiving an answer.

For his part, Maurice insists that he is delighted with his older son’s worldly success. Maurice’s younger son, Patrick (Stéphane Guillon), was only 4 when his father flew the coop, and he has few memories of him. Maurice notices sadly that Patrick has been much less successful than his brother, having been reduced to serving as Jean-Luc’s chauffeur and factotum. When Patrick begins moonlighting as a stand-up comedian at a local tavern, Jean-Luc attends the first performance and gives Patrick some tepid words of encouragement that suggest he was not overly impressed. But Maurice is beside himself with enthusiasm over his younger son’s performance, and belatedly begins bonding with him, much to Jean-Luc’s dismay.

Slowly, Jean-Luc’s once-secure world begins crumbling around him, especially when Isa forms an intensely intimate relationship with her mysterious father-in-law, who listens to her yearnings for a child with a sympathy beyond the emotional reach of her cold, detached husband. When Isa discovers that Jean-Luc has been lying to her about the dangers that would be involved in her becoming pregnant-a judgment he has given as her personal physician-she is enraged and threatens to leave him. In urging her to seek a second opinion, Maurice is ruefully aware that he may be responsible for his son’s desire not to bring any children into the world; presumably, he fears they’d be as miserable as Jean-Luc has been in all the years since his own father’s desertion.

Though Jean-Luc and his father eventually come to blows, the only killing in the film is metaphorical. Ms. Fontaine and Mr. Fieschi have very artfully supplied much of the family’s backstory through the stylized mimicry of Patrick’s onstage monologues. After an accident in which Patrick, driving a little drunk, crashes into a tree with Jean-Luc and Isa in the back seat as passengers, the two brothers nearly comes to blows, though no one has been physically injured. As with most families, violent feelings may lurk beneath the surface of daily routines without ever bursting forth as permanent ruptures. That is the hell of all families: One cannot live with them and one cannot live without them. Hence, the tragic inevitability of Oedipal conflict is generally expressed in emotional half-notes, at which French acting at its best is remarkably proficient. In this context, Mr. Bouquet, Mr. Berling, Ms. Régnier, Mr. Guillon and Amira Casar as Myriem, Jean-Luc’s discarded mistress, shine with a special luminosity in a time of splendid acting ensembles.

An Actor Meets His Waterloo

Ninety-three-year-old Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home , from his own screenplay, is an old man’s film in terms of its subject, star and protagonist, 76-year-old Michel Piccoli, but not in terms of its rigorous style or its austere denial of sentimentality and self-pity. Mr. Piccoli’s Gilbert Valence is first seen onstage as a popular theater actor in an extended passage from Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King . He is playing a character even older than he is, and the mocking, megalomaniacal words of Ionesco’s Lear-like monarch serve as a triple injection of allegorical reality, finality and fatality into the lives of the director, the actor and the character. After his performance, Valence is informed that his wife, daughter and son-in-law have been killed in an automobile accident. We never see the actor’s reaction to this dreadful news, and are reintroduced to him only after a period of mourning has passed and he is able to resume his daily routines on the streets of his beloved Paris.

Valence takes care of his grandson, joyously playing video games with him. He returns to the stage to play Prospero in The Tempest , with its eerily prophetic line: “Our revels now are ended.” He is again successful, but when an American film director (John Malkovich) persuades him to undertake a role in an English-language production of James Joyce’s Ulysses , he meets his Waterloo as an actor. As he leaves the scene of his linguistic humiliation, he says simply: “I’m going home.” The last image is that of his grandson in the doorway of their home looking upstairs to where Valence has retired, having finally realized that he is terminally tired. Mr. Oliveira’s camera remains still to the end, but as in the great films of John Ford (as Orson Welles never tired of marveling), inexplicably eloquent.

Self-Expressing Belly-Dancers

Raja Amari’s Satin Rouge , from her own screenplay, is the first Tunisian film I have ever seen, and it’s also probably the most good-hearted yet sensual entertainment I’m likely to see all year. David Stratton of Variety has likened the film’s widowed seamstress, Lilia (Hiyam Abbas), to Jane Wyman’s liberated mother in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows . Ms. Wyman’s new life for her character takes the form of a youngish Rock Hudson, whereas Lilia’s awakening from a life of dull housework takes the shape of belly-dancing in a cabaret she stumbles upon while trying to check up on her daughter’s nocturnal activities.

Ms. Amari actually began her career as a belly-dancer, and thus treats what seems at first glance a demeaningly sexist subjugation to the lecherous male gaze as an exhilarating transformation of hitherto repressed and confined women. Her belly-dancers are self-expressing creatures of desire, tantalizing their admirers without ever surrendering to them. The plot takes a bizarre turn when Lilia unknowingly goes to bed with her daughter’s lover, the cabaret drummer, and then dances up a storm at the daughter’s wedding to the drummer, who is now her own former lover. There are no hard feelings, just a great deal of uncertainty for everyone concerned.