Soderbergh’s Hollywood-Through Clouded Windows

Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal , from a screenplay by Coleman Hough, makes me suspect sadly that the participants derived more pleasure from making it than viewers will get from the final result. I say “sadly” because I have been beating the drum for Mr. Soderbergh ever since sex, lies and videotape (1989) outraged many of my colleagues by winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Yet this is not the first time his reach has exceeded his grasp, and it’s not his fault that this summer’s relentless mainstream-movie mediocrity made Full Frontal one of the most eagerly awaited events of the season. Class with pizzazz; humor with bite and wit. But why did so many of us expect so much? Hollywood, after all, is a rather tired target and subject for a movie. And when the filmmakers play with movies-within-movies, as Mr. Soderbergh and Ms. Hough do, one must expect a degree of déjà vu –itis.

The production notes suggest that the screenplay for Full Frontal was constructed from snippets of dialogue heard or overheard here, there and everywhere. As Mr. Soderbergh says of his screenwriter, Ms. Hough, “She has a gift for the way people talk in that it’s full of half-remembered ideas and non sequiturs and has the lack of cleanliness that real dialogue has. When you watch most movies, including a lot that I’ve made, people talk in a way that’s very ordered. And that’s not how most of us speak extemporaneously. I liked that she has an ear for those sorts of natural rhythms. To create the sloppiness with which most of us speak actually takes real discipline.”

Well, perhaps. But I have been listening to this kind of theorizing about how people really talk ever since the Method actors mumbled their way into our ears in the late 40′s. Even before that, people marveled about Hemingway’s realistic dialogue-that is, until people came along self-consciously sounding like Hemingway characters. Right now, there must be millions of people who have been trained by television to talk in sound bites that conceal as much as they reveal. Mind you, Mr. Soderbergh and Ms. Hough have not gone to Cassevetean extremes of improvisation; they have simply written a script that is supposed to sound “natural.”

The seven major characters in Full Frontal constitute an interconnected cross-section of showbiz types. David Duchovny plays Gus, a prominent producer from New York who is celebrating his 40th birthday in L.A. His one scene makes him the near-equivalent of the unseen Kevin Costner character in Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983), another not-so-bad movie despised by most of my colleagues for allegedly slandering the wonderful 60′s generation.

Nicky Katt plays Hitler in the wittily titled stage play within the movie, The Sound and the Führer . Mr. Katt plays his character as just another monomaniacal actor, not unlike the Great Exterminator himself. Strangely, Mr. Katt mostly gets away with it. Catherine Keener plays Lee, a hatchetwoman at a failing company, with a husband, Carl (David Hyde Pierce), who is to be fired from his job at Los Angeles Magazine this very day in one of the funniest bits in the script. Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood play dual roles both inside and outside a movie-within-a-movie and end up with one of the few follow-through big-star interracial romances of recent years. Mary McCormack plays Linda, Lee’s sister, a masseuse who provides an “extra” service in one of the most farcically distasteful scenes in the movie. Try as I may, I cannot add these seven characters up to make any sort

of adequate dramatic, sociological or satiric paradigm; I quite simply didn’t get it. The parts are very unevenly written, with Mr. Underwood shining in a well-delivered riff on the history, paradoxes and incongruities of black actors in Hollywood. But the make-believe context of his character makes this monologue a disconnected piece of performance art to which no attention is paid.

Many of the actors wore their real-life clothes, and some even did their own makeup, as if they were in some vintage, inexpensive Jean-Luc Godard picture. The overall effect is more distracting than authenticating, and reminds me how new movies like Full Frontal bring out all the Old Hollywood in me. Still, I liked seeing all the major stars, if only because they seemed like such good sports in trying something at least purporting to be new.

On the other hand, Mr. Soderbergh’s direction and visual style struck me as unusually and unimpressively fussy and pretentious. I never felt that I was being admitted inside somewhere to get the real poop on what’s going on. I felt instead that I was on the outside looking in, but often unable to see even the occasional sex through the artily clouded windows. So what was the film really about? I’ll have to wait for colleagues wiser than me to explain everything.

In Search of a Bride

Zhang Yimou’s Happy Times , from a screenplay by Gui Zi, based on the novella Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan, begins as a grotesque, almost cruel farce about an impecunious, aging bachelor, Zhao (Zhao Bensham), who-having run out of “skinny” women to court in 18 previous tries at matrimony-falls madly in love on his 19th try with an imperiously zaftig woman (Dong Lihua) who accepts his offer of an expensive wedding. As they sit opposite each other on a restaurant date in “romantic” profile, our comparatively anorexic Western eyes are titillated by the spectacle of Zhao’s desperate passion for a creature unloved by the cruel camera. Still, there is a strange Queen of Sheba glint in her eyes, expressing enormous self-confidence and self-esteem, that reduces Zhao to a pathetic supplicant for her favors.

Unfortunately for Zhao, he is not only much poorer than he pretends to be with the woman he yearns to marry, he has also borrowed so much in his previous attempts at mating that his friends run away when they see him coming. Even Zhao’s best friend Li (Li Xuejian) sneaks out the back door when Zhao approaches his house. When Zhao finally catches up with Li, his friend insists that he has no more money to lend Zhao for his latest marital mission, but that he does have an idea how Zhao can make money on his own-by converting an abandoned bus on a deserted industrial lot into the Happy Times Hotel for young lovers seeking privacy for a limited time.

Emboldened by a little money from his first customers, Zhao visits his prospective bride at her home, where he discovers that she is something of a wicked stepmother to her blind stepdaughter, Wu Ying (Dong Jie), whom she inherited from her ne’er-do-well ex-husband when he ran off with her savings, leaving her to care for Wu as well as with her own spoiled-rotten, overfed son. We now enter Dickensian territory, watching the stepmother begrudge Wu Ying the food left over after her oafish son has eaten amply. The stepmother virtually orders Zhao to take Wu Ying off her hands by giving her a job at his Happy Times Hotel, about which he has begun to boast. Trapped in his own lie, he takes Wu to the “hotel,” only to discover an industrial crane hauling it away from the empty lot.

When Zhao and Wu return to the stepmother’s house, they discover that she has installed her fat slob of a son into Wu’s room, so there is no longer any place for her in the apartment. She insists that Zhao take Wu away again and put her to work in his hotel as a masseuse, a job in which she has been trained. Zhao is still clinging to the lie that he’s a hotel manager-and stranger yet, he still has not become disillusioned with his prospective bride. He enlists the help of his friends to construct a fake massage parlor, with the friends posing as customers and handing out Zhao’s money to Wu as tips. The ruse seems to work well enough, and Wu Ying seems happy, but when Zhao returns alone to his future wife, he is startled to find her in the arms of a new, rich husband-and aware, after an investigation, that Zhao is a complete fraud.

Zhao is now at the end of his rope, and all he has left is his deep love and concern for Wu Jing, and the capacity to perform one last act of noble sacrifice. For her part, Wu Ying movingly acknowledges her gratitude for the generous deceptions of Zhao and his friends. There is no Dickensian rich-man benefactor to come to the rescue of Zhao and Wu, but there is a powerful and tearful catharsis all the same. Throughout Zhang Yimou’s illustrious career, he has counterpoised the Old China with the New China, and his heart has remained with the noble simplicity and innocence of the Old China, incarnated here in the exquisitely kind instincts of Zhao and Wu Jing. Happy Times endows humanist cinema with a heroic moral dimension.

Family Tangles

Claude Chabrol’s Merci pour le Chocolat , from a screenplay by Caroline Eliacheff and Mr. Chabrol, based on the novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong, does not treat its delicious ingredient as the benign delicacy of Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat (2000), or as the affectionate racial metaphor of Claire Denis’ Chocolat (1988), but rather as a malignant instrument of the inexplicable and unmotivated evil raging within two families in the upper-class French-Swiss environs of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Isabelle Huppert’s Mika Muller, the head of a Swiss chocolate-manufacturing company, marries piano virtuoso André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc) for the second time years after their first, very brief marital try. In the meantime, André had married a woman named Lisbeth, who bore him a son, Guillaume. On the day of the boy’s sixth birthday, while the family was staying with Mika in Switzerland, Lisbeth died in a car accident. There were whispers in the community about the strange coincidence that accompanied Mika’s second marriage to André.

Nor was this the only strangeness affecting and afflicting the Polonski family. At the hospital in which Guillaume was born to André and Lisbeth, Jeanne Pollet-born the same day as Guillaume-was mistakenly placed in the wrong crib, resulting in some temporary confusion as to which baby belonged to which family. But both families collaborated to straighten out the mess to everyone’s satisfaction. Nonetheless, the gossip continued after Guillaume grew up without the slightest musical interest or aptitude, while Jeanne Pollet became a world-class pianist at a very early age.

Jeanne’s widowed mother, Louise Pollet (Brigitte Catillon), is therefore uneasy when Jeanne invades the Polonski household to get assistance from André for her scholarship recital. Mika welcomes Jeanne with open arms, and seeks to make friends with her mother. Several disturbing incidents-minor accidents, really-keep occurring while André and Jeanne accompany each other on two pianos, day and night.

Almost everything is expressed under the surface of a continuous feast of classical music. Much is suspected, but almost nothing is confronted until the end of the film, which concludes with one character in a fetal position and the other in a bizarre state of moral detachment. The horror is in the indirection: Once one’s parentage is put into question, the ground seems to give way to the abyss. This is one of Mr. Chabrol’s subtlest works, but also one of his most uncanny. Along with Eric Rohmer, he remains a glorious survivor of the Cahier- ist nouvelle vague , and an artist still in the hunt.