Burr Steers’ Igby Goes Down , from his own screenplay, starts off with a bang by plunging us straight into the heart of a dysfunctional family drama and trauma even before all the opening credits have unfurled. One doesn’t know if the appropriate response is to laugh or to gasp with horror at a scene in which a loudly snoring, comatose woman wakes up with a grotesquely comic expression on her face as she realizes that she’s being suffocated by a carefully tied plastic bag over her head. This scene introduces three characters who are only later identified as 17-year-old Igby Slocumb (Kieran Culkin), his older brother, Oliver (Ryan Phillippe), and their dying mother, Mimi (Susan Sarandon). But at the very outset, we have not been told who anyone is, and consequently we don’t know if we’re witnessing a mercy killing or a cold-blooded murder.
By launching his narrative with this jolt of weirdness, Mr. Steers seems to be warning his audience not to make any easy assumptions about his tale of a Holden Caulfield–like preppy on the loose in New York with his mother’s credit card, having been kicked out of every private school in the East and, most recently, having escaped from a military school in the Midwest. The writer-director’s warning is fulfilled with dialogue that is often witty but never funny-that is, except for one campy, out-of-context joke delivered at the expense of a drag queen inserted into the proceedings to spice up a dull stretch in the film.
The best thing about Igby in comparison with his too faux-naïf predecessors is his ease with intelligent women, such as Claire Danes’ Bennington girl Sookie Sapperstein, who doesn’t mind Igby’s calling her a nymphomaniac but deeply resents being referred to as a “J.A.P.” Amanda Peet’s Rachel comes closer than Sookie to being a real nympho, but one with a strange kind of pseudo-artist’s dedication to achieving a lifestyle that keeps drifting out of her reach. Though Sookie “betrays” Igby with his older and more financially promising brother, and though Rachel casually “betrays” her married lover, real-estate tycoon D.H. (Jeff Goldblum), with Igby, it’s no big deal in either instance.
For an American filmmaker, Mr. Steers is remarkably cool about sex, neither avoiding it altogether (as is the mainstream custom these days) nor getting hysterical when it happens. There are always decisions to be made, and lives to be lived, after the sex, even though all the family machinery has broken down and is beyond repair. Igby’s father, Jason (Bill Pullman), has ended up in an insane asylum, but Igby loves him desperately, even after he’s told that Jason is not his real father. This is just another complication in his troubled existence that he must handle. And as much as Igby wages an endless war against his unloving mother and his calmly cynical brother, in the end he comes to realize, without any false sentiment, that Mimi and Oliver will always be part of him.
Igby Goes Down is, ultimately, the kind of film in which everyone’s point of view is respected, as in Jean Renoir’s masterpiece, The Rules of the Game (1939)-and yet everyone, including Igby, remains something of a mystery. Nobody wins, and nobody loses. This is one grown-up movie.
Claude Miller’s Alias Betty , from his own screenplay, based on the novel The Tree of Hands by Ruth Rendell, seems to delight in its congested narrative, in which the intersecting fates of nine characters are determined by the feelings aroused by two small children. The accidental timing of this release provides an eerie echo of a subject-the kidnapping of small children-that has been everywhere recently in the Amber Alert–crazed media, and it also addresses the mistreatment of small children by abusive mothers.
Françoise, who goes by the pen name Betty (Sandrine Kiberlain), is a young divorced mother who wrote a sensational best-seller while she was living in New York. She has returned to Paris with her young son, Joseph (Arthur Setbon), with whom she plans to live quietly in an outer suburb. She is divorced from Edouard (Stéphane Freiss), a struggling academic writer who resents her success.
We have already learned from an early, expressionist childhood scene that her mentally disturbed mother, Margot (Nicole Garcia), mutilated Betty’s hand in a fit of anger. Indeed, the grown-up Betty is introduced to us at the airport through a time-spanning close-up of the scar on her hand. Hence, Betty shows surprise and disbelief when Margot greets her at the airport. Despite Margot’s overtures, Betty still hasn’t forgiven her mother for having hurt her physically and emotionally throughout her troubled childhood.
After their return, Joseph wakes up from his afternoon nap one day to find himself in picturesque proximity to a little bird on the window sill. Joseph falls to his death trying to reach it.
After her son dies, Betty suffers a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized, while Margot carries out all the funeral arrangements without informing anyone in or out of the family of Joseph’s death. When Betty returns home in a dispirited state, the still unstable Margot decides to find a replacement son for her. Driving around the poorer inner suburbs of Paris, Margot snatches the unattended José (Alexis Chatrian), who slightly resembles Betty’s dead Joseph.
José’s unwed mother, Carole (Mathilde Seigner), has already been demeaned as something of a tavern wench, given to making flirtatious advances on men with shady reputations. Carole lives with François (Luc Mervil), a decent French laborer of African descent, who disapproves of her free and easy ways and her neglect of José, whom he often cares for while Carole is working and he is temporarily unemployed. Yet when José is kidnapped, the racist police descend upon François as the prime suspect.
For his part, François suspects one of Carole’s old lovers, Alex (Edouard Baer), who is currently married to a rich older woman who has left him alone in the house without any money while she’s off on a solo vacation. Alex, who forges passports as a sideline, hits upon a scam to “sell” his wife’s house without her permission, pocket the cash and flee abroad on a false passport.
The plot thickens when Betty discovers bruises on José’s body and resolves to keep the child away from his abusive mother. Margot is overjoyed by Betty’s change of heart, but Betty keeps an emotional distance from her mother. At this point, Betty’s ex-husband Edouard reappears and assumes that José is his own son, since Margot never informed him of Joseph’s death. Edouard proposes, to Betty’s horror, that they be reconciled to give their son a real father.
When Edouard discovers that “Joseph” is actually the kidnapped child José, he hits upon a scheme: He will pay Carole for consenting to Betty’s adoption of José, in return for which Betty will come back to him with the child in tow. But Betty doesn’t wait for the end result of Edouard’s maneuvers; despite a promising romance with the doctor who cared for her in the hospital, she resolves to flee abroad with José, leaving everything and everyone behind.
But the tangled web of other people’s feelings ensnares two of the characters in fatal consequences, traps another in a misguided police chase through an airport, and releases Betty and José to their journey of mutual redemption. The film thus achieves an audience-satisfying closure, after a fashion. In some respects, Mr. Miller’s opus may seem too facile for some tastes. Still, Ms. Khiberlain, Ms. Garcia and Ms. Seigner brilliantly play the three mothers like a dissonant string trio on a single theme: the varied agonies of motherhood.
As more than a footnote, the current golden age of child actors continues with the performances of Masters Chatrian (José) and Setbon (Joseph). Still, I remain suspicious of redemptive motherhood as a rebuke to “extreme” feminism, and of the treatment with kid gloves of the film’s token African character. It is all too easy.
Robert J. Siegel’s Swimming , from a screenplay by Lisa Bazadona, Mr. Siegel and Grace Woodard, takes place on the fringes of the eternal town-versus-gown turmoil, pitting local yokels itching for a fight against spoiled college kids looking for an easy score. In Myrtle Beach, S.C., Lauren Ambrose’s Carson McCullers–esque Frankie Wheeler, with her sexually ambiguous name, waits tables in her family’s greasy-spoon establishment on the boardwalk. Frankie’s closest friend is Nicola Jenrette (Jennifer Dundas Lowe), who operates a body-piercing parlor next-door. The party-loving Nicola keeps dragging the more serious-minded Frankie to ever wilder college gatherings.
When the high-spirited and glamorous Josée (Joelle Carter) bursts on the scene looking for a summer job, Frankie is immediately attracted to the stranger, and Nicola is immediately jealous. As Josée begins manipulating the shyly susceptible Frankie with her attentions. Nicola steps up her insults to the imperturbable Josée, forcing the reluctant Frankie to chose between her two friends.
The lesbian tendencies in the characters are subtle and restrained almost to the vanishing point. When Frankie finds herself attracted to a slow-speaking drifter named Heath (Jamie Harrold), who sells tie dyes out of his car, she is quickly abandoned by Josée without being reconciled with Nicola. Frankie is on her own at last, and she finds new strength in breaking away from her dependence on these old, vacuous girlfriends.
The film is an earnest try at beachcombing verismo , but it would be even more indistinct than it is were it not for the striking, quietly vulnerable personality of Ms. Ambrose, who is one of several acting stand-outs in HBO’s Six Feet Under .
From Sept. 11 through Sept. 17, the Pioneer Theater (at 155 East Third Street, corner of Avenue A; 212-254-3300) is reviving Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show , from the novel and screenplay by Larry McMurtry, with a new 35-millimeter black-and-white print. Mr. Bogdanovich will appear in person on Sept. 13 for a Q&A on his dusty 1971 celebration of old values both on and off the screen.
A Wyler Retrospective
Film Forum 2 is presenting an unusually exhaustive retrospective of the films of William Wyler (1902-1981) from Sept. 13 to Oct. 10. This is a collaborative labor of love for Bruce Goldstein of Film Forum and Wyler’s devoted daughter, Catherine Wyler, who was named after Merle Oberon’s Cathy in the director’s Wuthering Heights (1939), which opens the series along with The Little Foxes (1941), in which Wyler collaborated with Gregg Toland on several deep-focus effects that prompted French film aesthetician André Bazin (1918-1958) to proclaim ” Vive Wyler à bas Ford! ” I still don’t agree, but I’m prepared to concede that in my extreme contrarian period in the early 60’s, I gave much shorter shrift to Wyler than he deserved in The American Cinema . Still, I do like The Letter (1940), Dodsworth (1936), The Collector (1965), The Good Fairy (1935), Jezebel (1938) and Counsellor-at-Law (1933) enormously, so he must have been doing something right. And let’s not forget Roman Holiday (1953), Friendly Persuasion (1956) and Detective Story (1951). It’s time for a new generation to discover the glories of the old, classical Hollywood cinema through the works of one of its most honored artists.