If anyone were to ask me at this moment to pick the best movie of the year, with all of December still to come, I would find myself torn between Spike Jonze’s Adaptation , from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman, based on the book The Orchard Thief by Susan Orlean, and Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her , from his own screenplay. Of course, I could fudge the issue by selecting Adaptation as the best English-language film and Talk to Her as the best foreign-language (Spanish) film.
The funny thing is that neither Mr. Jonze nor Mr. Almodóvar have been among my favorite directors in the past. I found their work interesting, original and strange, but in Mr. Jonze’s case too strange and too cold, and in Mr. Almodóvar’s too strange and too campy. In their current films, however, they have sacrificed none of the originality of their previous efforts while adding exquisite, full-bodied emotions that blew me away. Both films are rich in feeling and complex in structure, and yet they follow a direct line to the heart and the psyche, while proving, among other things, that all love is local. As there are echoes of Pirandello in Adaptation , there are memories of Murnau in Talk to Her .
The collaboration of Mr. Jonze and Mr. Kaufman (with his fictional alter ego, his screenwriter brother Donald) is as seamless as that of Joel and Ethan Coen. Yet, despite the stunt-like status of the fraternal feelings expressed by Nicolas Cage’s impersonation of the two “brothers,” Adaptation got to me in a way than Mr. Jonze’s debut feature film, Being John Malkovich (1999), never did, despite that film’s comic ingenuity, particularly its office half-floor with low ceilings and stooping workers.
In Adaptation , the Jonze-Kaufman team seems at first content to rework that old chestnut of American independent films: the Persecuted Screenwriter Up Against the System. Mr. Cage’s nebbishy Charlie Kaufman is virtually banished from the set of Being John Malkovich for hanging around hoping to make some helpful suggestions to the director, cast and crew, but instead inadvertently getting in the way of the high-priest cinematographer. This inside joke about filmmaking is merely the prelude to a portrait of a pathologically shy introvert who can’t summon the courage to kiss the already quivering lips of Amelia (Cara Seymour), his sometime girlfriend, or introduce himself to the author of the book he is supposed to adapt to the screen when he encounters her on an elevator. It doesn’t help matters that Charlie has developed a vicarious crush on the author, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), from her attractive picture on her book’s dust jacket.
The cream of the jest is that Charlie has a twin brother named Donald, who is the exact opposite of Charlie in every way-extroverted, self-confident with women and, as an aspiring screenwriter in awe of his professional-screenwriter sibling, blessed or cursed with a much surer commercial instinct about what the market will bear. Though Charlie has a hard time concealing his condescending reactions to Donald’s ultra-banal ideas, Donald never wavers in his idolatrous affection for Charlie, and, in the end, the love between the two brothers is confirmed in the midst of a catastrophic adventure they share. Having lost my own beautiful 28-year-old brother in a sky-diving accident more than 42 years ago, I am especially susceptible to stories of sibling loss, like Valerio Zurlini’s Family Diary (1962), with Marcello Mastroianni and Jacques Perrin. But what makes the fraternal drama in Adaptation so unusually moving is that it explodes unexpectedly from inside a comic-satiric context. Mr. Cage’s Charlie tells the studio people waiting impatiently for his screenplay that he wants to write a serious movie about the flower that is the subject and raison d’être of the real-life Ms. Orlean’s curious book, a nonfiction meditation on the passion of John La Roche (Chris Cooper) for orchids, and on the phenomenon of passion itself. Charlie’s cinebabble about not taking the easy way out by manufacturing a melodrama in which orchids would merely be props or pretexts like Hitchcock’s proverbial”MacGuffin”isfunny enough in its familiar way, but where Mr. Jonze and Mr. Kaufman break new ground is by crashing through their conceits to confront the harsh, ruthless consequences of adaptation, despite its Darwinian inevitability. Somewhere along the line there is a price to pay in pain and suffering, and Adaptation is a movie that pays it without becoming sentimental or maudlin in the process. Thus the cerebral appeal of Being John Malkovich is reinforced with the visceral vitamins of Adaptation.
Nicolas Cage heads a brilliant cast that includes Mr. Cooper and Ms. Streep as the ill-fated lovers lost in the drugged haze of their shared ecstasy over orchids, Brian Cox as the stormy real-life screeenwriting guru Robert McKee, and Tilda Swinton, Cara Seymour, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Judy Greer as four of the most generously and attractively drawn women characters to be found in a too-often-misogynist medium. I doubt that everyone will agree with my unbridled enthusiasm for this film. Most people never do.
Talk to Her should at the very least be a less controversial choice than Adaptation for best picture of the year. After all, Mr. Almadóvar has a much longer and more productive track record than the comparatively recent Jonze-Kaufman team, and thus is less in need of my questionable powers of persuasion. I have yet to meet anyone who disapproves of Talk to Her or, for that matter, of his previous picture, the 1999 Oscar winner for best foreign-language film, All About My Mother .Mr.Almodóvar’sjoyously transparent gay sensibility provides him with enough aesthetic distance in the form of confessional irony to take the sting out of his blatant outrageousness, and to take the softness out of his soap-opera sentimentality. Still, the dozen films he has made before All About My Mother over the past 22 years would have been inconceivable before the death of the unglorious Franco and the birth of glorious Technicolor. Hence, even when Mr. Almodóvar’s ploys have verged on unacceptable silliness, his ravishing color canvases have dazzled the eye with a lyrical exuberance.
But what his entire career suggests, and what Talk to Her sublimely confirms, is Mr. Almodóvar’s unquestioning love of women as a condition of existence. What strangely moved me in Talk to Her was the writer-director’s almost insane insistence that a man must keep talking to the comatose woman who has been the love of his life as if she were fully conscious. In a way, it’s like talking to the dead, and when you think about it, what’s wrong with that? Mr. Almodóvar, reportedly like Buñuel before him, enjoys talking to himself. I can understand the feeling involved, since I frequently dream of the dead members of my family as I try to explain what I have done with my life.
In Talk to Her , Benigno (Javier Cámara) has spent his life caring for his bedridden mother, who, as she approached middle age with nothing medically wrong with her, took to her bed and remained there until she died. Benigno tended to all her needs and took correspondence courses to qualify as a beautician and a male nurse. Before she died, his mother urged her dutiful son to go out into the world and find a life of his own after she was dead. Looking out the window at a dance-rehearsal studio, he becomes infatuated with a dance student named Alicia (Leonor Watling). He accosts her in the street after she has dropped her wallet, then visits her psychiatrist father as a patient in order to get closer to her. Then Alicia is rendered comatose by a traffic accident, and he takes over her care and treatment in the hospital with her father’s consent.
This is not actually the way the film, multi-flashbacked, multi-flash-forwarded and multi-digressed as it is, actually begins. Instead, the first images take place on a stage where Pina Bausch’s curious spectacle Cafe Muller unfolds with two long-skirted women dancers who feign being sleepwalkers in a room filled with chairs, which a man keeps moving to keep the sleepwalkers from colliding with them.
In the audience, two men are watching the spectacle. One is Benigno, who notices that the male stranger sitting next to him is crying. Benigno looks at the stranger with a mixture of empathy and sympathy. The stranger’s name is Marco (Darío Grandinetti), and his back story is revealed to be no less bizarre than Benigno’s, but much more active, and more overtly heterosexual. Marco is married to a beautiful drug addict whom he has abandoned to her family. He is pursuing a bullfighter named Lydia (Rosario Flores), who is gored by a bull when she is distracted by the two men in her life, one being Marco, the other an ex-lover, a fellow bullfighter to whom she has returned without telling Marco.
Unlike Benigno, Carlo does not believe in talking to the comatose, but the two men become friends anyway and share each other’s most intimate secrets. There is never any suggestion of a homoerotic involvement between the two men. It is only the women who bring them together and impose upon them two very separate destinies. Benigno is the more dedicated and more steadfast romantic lover of the two. Having learned that Alicia loved to attend silent movies at the Cinematheque, Benigno follows in her footsteps and tells her the stories afterward when he is tending her. On one occasion, he describes a mock-Murnau silent film entitled The Shrinking Man in which, after a scientific experiment goes awry, the male protagonist slips into an orifice of his beloved and becomes part of her forever. Almodóvar shot this scene with such gravity that we dare not laugh. The whole film is like that: transcendent.
Women on the Run
Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity , from her own screenplay and book of short stories with the same title, selects three of seven female portraits in her book-Delia (Kyra Sedgwick), a sexually uninhibited working-class woman trapped in a physically abusive marriage who runs off with her two children in search of a new life; Greta (Parker Posey), a cookbook editor who hits the big time in her profession while being periodically unfaithful to her loving, loyal but underachieving husband; and Paula (Fairuza Balk), a onetime good-time girl who discovers she is pregnant and drives off on a journey as metaphoric as it is geographic. I felt most entertained by Ms. Posey’s playfully flippant adventures, less so by Ms. Sedgwick’s strenuous efforts to regain her sense of sexual power and self-respect in a trash-ridden environment, and least by Ms. Balk’s convoluted quest for her maternal instincts. It may be a matter of social affinity for me, and perhaps for Ms. Miller, the author-auteur, as well.
The Fight Against Lynching
Joel Katz’s Strange Fruit is the kind of nonfiction film that is often dismissed by film purists as “just a lot of talking heads,” regardless of the fascinating wisdom imparted by these talking heads. In Strange Fruit , we also have singing heads, most notably that of Billie Holiday, who first sang the famous anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” in 1939 at Barney Josephson’s Café Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub. (The more famous Cotton Club generally did not admit blacks as customers.) Mr. Katz traces the music and lyrics of this famous protest song to Abel Meeropol (pen name Lewis Allan), a Jewish school teacher in the Bronx in a period in which Jews and African-Americans were allies instead of antagonists in the fight against lynching and all forms of racial discrimination. This is a film well worth seeing, talking and singing heads and all.