Audrey (Amélie) Tautou: More Than Just a Pretty Face

What could be more appropriately festive and French than the opening of Laetitia Colombani’s He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not on Valentine’s Day at the Paris Theatre? Think of it: a Gallic man-woman romp starring Audrey Tautou, the winsome ingenue star of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001), in her latest role as Angélique, a lovelorn student. When I saw Ms. Tautou in Amélie , she struck me as too oppressively whimsical. I have since seen the 24-year-old actress in two much less popular but, happily, less cutesy vehicles, Happenstance (2001) and God Is Great, I’m Not (2002), in which she displayed more range and variety in projecting her undeniable charms and talents.

Alas, the opening shots of He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not are not reassuring in this regard. As the camera roves across a sea of red roses, Angélique’s beaming face pops up in the midst of the floral extravaganza. Smiling sweetly, she persuades the florist to deliver a single rose to her beloved, though it’s against store policy-and apparently that of every florist in the world-to send a messenger with just a single flower. We eventually learn that the recipient of Angélique’s rose and affection is Loïc (Samuel Le Bihan), a handsome cardiologist who happens to be married to a heavily pregnant wife.

The dominoes of desire fall one by one. Ms. Colombani tells us virtually the same story twice: first from Angélique’s point of view, then through the eyes of Loïc. But unlike Frédéric Fonteyne’s A Pornographic Affair (1999), this isn’t a he-said/she-said exercise in gender conflict. Nor is it, as one critic suggested, a reprise of the vengeful-woman-scorned scenario of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987), in which Glenn Close stalks Michael Douglas following a weekend thrill.

There are no quick thrills in He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not , but the writer-director, thanks to some cryptic storytelling, leads us to reinterpret what we actually see and hear from the male and female characters’ perspectives. There’s a great deal of disturbing collateral damage to property and reputations in the destructive course of the two versions of the same story.

Ms. Colombani may have tapped into a deepening malaise by making even Valentine’s Day seem worrisome and sinister. But though she scores a few gasp-inducing coups with her convoluted narrative form, she pays a price for her cleverness: She loses the audience’s sympathy for her characters.

As for Ms. Tautou, she demonstrates that she’s much, much more than just another pretty face. You may love her or you may hate her, but you will never be bored by her.

Black and Blue

Ron Shelton’s Dark Blue , from a screenplay by David Ayer, based on a story by James Ellroy, explodes on the screen with a taboo-shattering ferocity. It depicts the 1992 riots in South Central L.A. following the acquittal of four police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. There is no pussyfooting here around the black-against-white looting, stomping and killing. But Messrs. Shelton, Ayer and Ellroy have tried to take the sting of racism out of the violent spectacle by showing as many interracial personal and professional relationships as possible, while demonizing the corrupt white police commander (Brendan Gleeson) to the same degree that the African-American deputy police chief (Ving Rhames) is ennobled. A conscience-stricken white detective (Scott Speedman) falls in love with an African-American woman cop (Michael Michele), and she serves as his means of moral salvation. But all these stratagems for expressing racial harmony are overwhelmed by the chromatic imagery of black rioters raging out of control.

Back in 1949, Joseph L. Mankiewicz demonstrated that racial conflicts could be handled in the cinema. In No Way Out , black vigilantes were shown beating up white racists-a twist hitherto ignored in Hollywood, which was unwilling to challenge Southern white bigotry in theaters below the Mason-Dixon line. Mankiewicz failed to stiffen the resolve of the big studios to resist Dixie pressure against any depiction of racial integration or, horror of horrors, miscegenation, which was explicitly forbidden in the Production Code. We’ve come a long way since 1949-or, for that matter, 1849-but we still have a long way to go.

Dark Blue preserves the anarchic spirit of such pioneering L.A. muckraking ventures as Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown (1974) and Curtis Hanson, Brian Helgeland and James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential (1997). If Dark Blue is less purely entertaining, if it doesn’t quite match the narrative excitement of its two distinguished predecessors, that’s partly because it gives away its plot twists too quickly, and partly because it fails to balance good and evil as deftly and satisfyingly as Chinatown or L.A. Confidential .

Fortunately, Kurt Russell, blue-collar action-hero par excellence, is on hand to hold this picture together. He gives a mature and charismatic portrayal of a modern hero who starts out as an antihero, and rises from the ashes of corruption and dissipation to find redemption by repudiating everything that his admired predecessors in the hierarchy of that secular religion, law enforcement, once represented. This is what is profoundly original about Dark Blue . There have been countless movies about police corruption, but whenever a son spoke of a father or a grandfather in the same line of work, it was always with a feeling of reverence. For the first time in my memory, this hereditary bond is broken.

Mr. Ellroy’s original screenplay, titled The Plague Season , actually concerned the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. He later brought the material up to date to accommodate the Rodney King scandal and, in the process, to create a hero with more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Ellroy himself and his wildly erratic existence and horrifying family history.

Mr. Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948. His mother was a nurse and his father an accountant who held a series of other jobs during his intermittent working life. When his parents divorced in 1954, young James went to live with his mother in El Monte, a low-rent, high-crime district in L.A. that became the scene of his mother’s murder in 1958. The crime was never solved and has since haunted Mr. Ellroy’s noirish writings, particularly the semi-autobiographical My Dark Places , published in 1996. After his mother’s death, Mr. Ellroy went to live with his father until he too died. The father’s parting words to his son: “Try to pick up every waitress who serves you.”

A stint in the Army followed, but Mr. Ellroy received a medical discharge after convincing a psychiatrist that he deserved one because of his debilitating stutter. As a civilian, Mr. Ellroy turned to petty crime, sending pornography and swastikas to girls he liked, sometimes breaking into their homes and stealing their underwear. In 1981, already in his mid-30′s and after several incarcerations, Mr. Ellroy published his first crime novel, Brown’s Requiem . He’s now written more than a dozen books.

Brown’s Requiem was made into a movie in 1998, featuring Michael Rooker as a private eye. Also filmed were L.A. Confidential and Cop (1987), a striking detective thriller with James Woods.

In adapting Dark Blue , screenwriter David Ayer has followed the familiar path of corrupt-older-cop-mentoring-innocent-younger-cop. (See his earlier screenplay for Training Day in 2001, which earned an Oscar for Denzel Washington as the bad influence.) For his part, director Ron Shelton has been praised for directing such anti-cliché sports films as Bull Durham (1988), on baseball, and Tin Cup (1996), on golf.

Collectively, Messrs. Shelton, Ayer and Ellroy have managed to avoid any needless moralizing and false sentimentality. But though the central themes remain uncompromised, too many of the crucial characters are either inadequately developed or only rhetorically resolved.

Thus Scott Speedman’s Bobby Keough, a sacrificial lamb on the altar of police wrongdoing, is too stridently over the top with his one-note emotional vulnerability and his too-sudden conversion to proper police procedures at all costs. It’s simply bad luck that he misreads a dangerous situation and suffers fatal consequences. Yet without this blunder, his partner, Kurt Russell’s Eldon Perry, would lack the motivation to bring down the whole evil system in full view of the media. This is the only questionable contrivance in the plot, and it’s minor enough.

The mystifyingly short shrift given to the two crucial female characters is a more disfiguring flaw. Lolita Davidovich’s Sally Perry, Detective Perry’s disgruntled wife, has only time enough to make a series of pouts and frowns, a mere semblance of characterization. Michael Michele’s Beth Williamson is given more time as Bobby Keough’s sometime lover, as well as the deputy chief’s past mistress, but her duplicitous behavior is brushed aside almost immediately after it’s revealed.

Nonetheless, Dark Blue provides exciting entertainment without neglecting its social and moral obligations. But like Gangs of New York , Dark Blue does not offer a genteel escape from reality. And also like Gangs of New York , it does not shrink from the horrors of mob violence.

A B-Picture Bonanza

Allan Dwan (1885-1981) is the subject of a 24-film series entitled The Last of the Pioneers . Dwan had a 50-year career that encompassed 400 films as a director on both sides of the sound barrier. He made a significant contribution to the technology of the cinema. Later in his career, he was confined to B-pictures, the best of which include Tennessee’s Partner (1955), with John Payne and Ronald Reagan, and Silver Lode (1954). The latter film was an anti-McCarthyism western fable, starring Dan Duryea as a villainous character actually named McCarthy and John Payne as his would-be victim. There are also two thoroughly charming comedies to catch: Rendezvous with Annie (1946) and Brewster’s Millions (1945). Ah, the Beatitudes of the B-pictures.