Punch-Drunk Love: Mystifying, Then Enchanting

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love , from his own screenplay, turns out to be one of the most initially mystifying movies I have ever seen, which is to say I was completely in the dark about what was happening for the first half-hour or so, and then very pleasantly surprised thereafter. I have never considered myself one of Adam Sandler’s greatest admirers, but I was favorably impressed by Mr. Anderson’s strikingly original first three films, though more by Hard Eight (1996) and Boogie Nights (1997) than by the more grimly way-out Magnolia (1999). Mr. Anderson’s overall tone has been a precarious mix of the boisterous and the sardonic. He has a way with all sorts of actors playing against type, from Phillip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Samuel L. Jackson in Hard Eight to Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Luis Guzmán, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, Joanna Gleason and repeat appearances by Mr. Hoffman, Mr. Reilly and Mr. Hall (though in far different and, in the latter two cases, more subordinate roles) in Boogie Nights .

By the time of Magnolia , the recurring presences in the typical Anderson cast-Ms. Moore, Mr. Reilly, Mr. Macy, Mr. Hall, Mr. Guzmán, Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Molina-suggested the beginning of a versatile stock company. The multifaceted tendencies of Mr. Anderson’s narratives were expanded, if not bloated, by the explosively rabble-rousing male-chauvinist orations of Tom Cruise as we had never seen or heard him before, along with some Anderson newcomers: Jason Robards, Melora Walters, Jeremy Blackman, Michael Bowen, Melinda Dillon, April Grace, Michael Murphy, Henry Gibson, Felicity Huffman and Eileen Ryan.

Yet, for all its seriousness and ambition, Magnolia seemed to overextend Mr. Anderson’s talents, particularly in his descent (or was it an ascent?) to the supernatural with a Biblical plague of frogs coming down from the heavens on the writhing wretches below.

The time had come, apparently, for Mr. Anderson to simplify his palette and lighten his load of suffering. As his perennial producer, JoAnne Sellar, is quoted in the production notes to his newest film: “After Magnolia , which was a huge, dark, challenging movie, I think Paul wanted to make something that was contained, uplifting and sweet.”

Punch-Drunk Love fully lives up to Mr. Anderson’s intentions, thanks to some inspired screwball-comedy-couple casting and the showcasing of Mr. Sandler as Barry Egan, a wholesaler of toilet plungers in the San Fernando Valley (Mr. Anderson’s traditional stamping ground), and Emily Watson as Lena Leonard, a mysterious English looker who drops into Barry’s life as miraculously and almost as inexplicably as the torrential frogs in Magnolia .

What puzzled me at first was what Barry was doing in what looked like a huge, empty warehouse or garage. His desk in long shot is way down in the corner, and he is dressed, violently inappropriately, in a robin’s-egg-blue suit that was reportedly designed to evoke memories of the golden age of MGM’s Technicolor musicals in the 1940′s and 50′s. Later in the film, Mr. Sandler performs an expert soft-shoe routine in a supermarket. Still, I was unable to fill in the missing dots, as one incongruous occurrence followed another with no comic logic. Then, suddenly, I was dazzled by a magical camera movement following Ms. Watson’s blond goddess in shimmering white and high heels going click-clack on the concrete pavement. There is no back story for this haunting symphony in white and light; there is only the dazzle of the moment. And, in essence, it’s a musical passage from one level of feeling to another. There was a similar moment with a young woman in high heels on a Paris pavement in Jacques Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient ( Paris Belongs to Us , 1960), and I always thought that Mr. Rivette blew this chance at a lyrical epiphany and was therefore revealed as not a “natural.” I have held to this view for more than 40 years, because a critic’s intuition is just about all he has to sustain his insights. The point here is that Mr. Anderson can transform a series of seemingly discordant images into an eventually coherent narrative simply by avoiding easy payoffs along the way.

The plot of Punch-Drunk Love was reportedly inspired by a Time magazine article concerning David Phillips, a University of California civil engineer who accumulated 1.25 million frequent-flier miles by purchasing 12,500 cups of Healthy Choice pudding for a mere $3,000. Mr. Anderson met with Mr. Phillips and purchased the rights to his story. But aside from a few scenes in a supermarket and a few product placements for the real-life brand Healthy Choice, the frequent-flier subject is a very small part of Barry Egan’s modus operandi . Much more attention is given to Barry’s misadventure with a phone-sex operation that shows its fangs when Barry cancels his credit-card payments to the anonymous voice on the other end of the line. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Dean Trumbell, a kind of phone-sex pimp behind the cover of a mattress shop in Utah, warns Barry that he is going to send people to the San Fernando Valley to collect his phone-sex bill. True to his word, Trumbell sends four young, blond tough guys played by the real-life Stevens brothers, David, Jimmy, Nathan and Mike D., four Mormons from Utah. The four bullies beat Barry up, dump him in their pick-up truck and drive him to his A.T.M., from which he is persuaded to extract $500 to pay his “debt.” Far from chalking this bit of extortion up to experience and moving on with his life, Barry gets his own back, and then some. Indeed, it is Barry’s propensity for violence that elevates him above the sad-sack status to which his awkward mannerisms and social unease would normally consign him.

This, I suspect, is what Mr. Anderson saw in Mr. Sandler all along: an instinctive refusal in all his previous films to be intimidated by anyone and anything. This is what makes him and all the great comedians so popular and so beloved: that they simply draw a line in the sand that is not to be crossed. This is what Bob Hope always lacked in his tediously cowardly screen persona.

Mr. Anderson’s use of nonprofessional actors extends to six of Barry’s seven sisters (including four who are sisters in real life), who have made his life hell since childhood and are now pressuring him to get married. By limiting his supporting cast of professionals to Mr. Hoffman, who manages to outshout Mr. Sandler in their anticlimactic non-confrontation, Luiz Guzmán as Barry’s perpetually puzzled second-in-command with the whimsical name of Lance, and Mary Lynn Rajskub (from the amazing Larry Sanders Show ) as Elizabeth, the nagging oldest sister, Mr. Anderson eliminates any possible distractions from the lyrical Barry-Lena romance. Their bond survives any number of Barry’s maladroit mishaps and temper tantrums-none of the latter, of course, directed at Lena, the redemptive love of his life.

It is already apparent that Punch-Drunk Love will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but nonetheless Mr. Anderson has found a way to fashion a passionate romance out of the materials of postmodern chaos. He has his hero hop off to Hawaii and Utah at a moment’s notice, and ennobles him in the process by driving him to declare his love of Lena with a volcanic eloquence that seems to emanate from the depths of his soul. What does it matter if we never find out why Lena is always traveling on “business”? The important thing is that she can exert enough magnetism to make Barry follow her to the ends of the earth. As Pascal once said, “The heart has its reasons.”

French Filmmaking Under the Nazis

Bertrand Tavernier’s Safe Conduct ( Laissez Passer ), from a screenplay by Mr. Tavernier and Jean Cosmos, unfolds as one of the most politically audacious films of recent decades from any country, but especially from France. The subject is French filmmaking during the Nazi occupation at the Boulogne studios, located in a suburb of Paris, from the years 1942 to 1944. It’s a subject that Marcel Ophüls touched upon in his monumental The Sorrow and the Pity (1970), a scathingly revelatory portrait of collaboration and resistance in Clemont-Ferrant and elsewhere in both Vichy France and German-occupied France, including Paris.

Mr. Tavernier and Mr. Cosmos have taken a different tack by rendering the period in varying shades of gray, in the context of an apolitical passion for making movies under the most difficult circumstances. There are 139 speaking parts in this dark, shadowy epic, in which many conflicting personalities and political convictions collide in the crucible of history, only to come together through the collective faith of filmmaking.

Mr. Tavernier has fashioned a bleakly darkened Paris with many bicycles and few cars (those belonging to Germans) in the far-from-bustling streets. Parisians were hungry and fearful of Allied air raids. The Gestapo with its network of informers was everywhere, and yet Continental Films-a German-controlled production company founded in 1940 in Paris by Dr. Albert Greven (Christian Berkel)-knowingly employed a few Jewish and Communist screenwriters to keep up the artistic level of production. Still, a screenwriter like Charles Spaak (Laurent Schilling), with Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1937) to his credit before the war, found himself writing screenplays in prison for such well-regarded Continental projects as Who Killed Santa Claus? (1941), Premier Bal (1941) and The Woman Who Dared (1944). Though Renoir, Max Ophüls, Louis Jouvet and many other film luminaries fled the country after the fall of France in 1940, first-rank directors like Robert Bresson, Jacques Becker and Claude Autant-Lara stayed behind to make such quality films as Les Anges du Péché (1943) by Bresson, Goupi Mains Rouges (1943) by Becker, and Douce (1943) by Autant-Lara. Bresson and Becker are not mentioned in Safe Conduct , and Autant-Lara is only a name that is dropped.

Mr. Tavernier and Mr. Cosmos focus instead on the veteran director Maurice Tourneur (1873-1961), who was working during the Occupation on Les Mains du Diable ( Carnival of Sinners , 1943) with Pierre Fresnay, who is seen on the screen in this gripping horror film. Tourneur is an elderly figure of accommodation to a horde of comparatively young screenwriters, the most prominent of which (in the Tavernier-Cosmos story at least) was Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydes), a womanizing poet and screenwriter who flitted from mistress to mistress as he tried to avoid working for the Germans at all costs while practicing his craft. A more heroic figure is young assistant director Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin), who remains active in the Resistance while he works at Continental Films at the suggestion of his Resistance section chief, Communist Party member and screenwriter Jean-Paul Le Chanois (Ged Marlon). Neither Mr. Gamblin nor Mr. Podalydes are ever shown in big-star close-ups to dramatize their central roles in the narrative. Hence, they tend to be upstaged by every new mystery person that crosses their paths, as well as by the pulse-quickening images of real historical figures in what many of us were brought up to think of as superior-to-Hollywood French art films.

Toward the end of the film, the Resistance melodrama begins to overwhelm the serio-comic contemplation of the life-and-death issues of survival during a horrible period in European history. Mr. Tavernier extends full sympathy to his predecessors in the French film industry, though in passing he takes a swipe at the French Stalinist proprietors of the French Communist Party and their double-dealing before and after the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union. Mr. Tavernier is particularly close to Aurenche, with whom he worked on his first film. Curiously, Aurenche is one of the villains in François Truffaut’s formulation of the Politique des Auteurs, but that invokes an even fiercer ideological conflict than little old World War II. Don’t miss Safe Conduct if you have the slightest affection for the cinema.