Women on Top, for Once, In French Feminist Fairy Tale

Coline Serreau’s Chaos , from her own screenplay, promotes an amusing feminist bias: Its females are strong, intelligent, almost superhuman, and its males bullying, maladroit and too stupid to carry out their carelessly thought-out aggressions against women. Every fair-minded and clear-eyed viewer would like to believe that women always get their own back and that men (in the words of the Kander and Ebb song in Chicago ) “had it coming.” But, alas, such is not the case in real life.

Ms. Serreau is not without skill and guile in pulling out all the stops in the eternal battle of the sexes. At first, she seems to be indulging in what our plutocratic President dismisses as “class warfare,” placing an upscale bourgeois couple, Hélène (Catherine Frot) and Paul (Vincent Lindon), and their luxury car at the scene of a brutal assault by a gang of pimps on an Algerian prostitute named Malika (Rachida Brakni).

During the assault, Malika is thrown onto the hood of the couple’s car, bleeding and unconscious, as her assailants flee the oncoming sirens. Paul’s instinctive reaction is to lock the car doors and drive off, but Hélène feels such remorse over not intervening that she locates the hospital to which the comatose Malika has been taken, and stays with her until she recovers.

While Hélène is away from her home, her husband proves to be comically inept at the simplest household tasks, and their spoiled-rotten grown son, Fabrice (Aurélien Wiik), is equally ridiculous, clumsily juggling two girlfriends and stumbling into two disastrous misunderstandings.

Hélène, meanwhile, succeeds in rescuing Malika from a kidnap attempt at the hospital by her criminal assailants. This is Malika’s predicament: Fleeing from her family after they contract an arranged marriage for her with an old man, she is forced into prostitution. But then a wealthy client finds himself so entranced by her that he leaves her his fortune when he dies. When the paths of Malika and Hélène first cross, the gangsters chasing Malika are after her signature on a document giving them power of attorney over the late john’s safety-deposit box. Malika enlists Hélène as an ally in double-crossing the gangsters and thwarting her family’s wishes for her and her sister in one fell swoop.

Here, Ms. Serreau’s bold feminism invades multicultural issues very much in the news these days, from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia. Malika’s family-her greedy, materialistic male siblings willing to sell their sisters off in loveless marriages for the price of a pair of shiny new motorbikes-are treated with the contempt they deserve.

But isn’t this just meddling with other people’s customs in the name of progressive European-American secular values? After all, if husbands in rural India can accuse their wives of infidelity and have them burned so that they can get fresh dowries by remarrying, who are we to look askance at this barbaric practice? Who are we, in America, to impose our values by force anywhere and everywhere in the world?

Of course, I’m being confusingly ironic in these morally confused times. But we can still applaud Ms. Serreau’s small gesture toward the physical and spiritual liberation of women, particularly in the most malignantly sexist societies with their “religious” excuses for injustice.

Chaos is not reality, of course, or anything close to it, but as a feminist fairy tale, it provides enough grown-up pleasure to justify its convenient contrivances. And, happily, Ms. Frot as Hélène and Ms. Brakni as Malika-winning performances, both-are icing on the cake.

A C.I.A. Whymakeit

Roger Donaldson’s The Recruit , from the screenplay by Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer, tells us less about the C.I.A. than a recent Time magazine cover story. In fact, it tells us almost nothing about the tense world we’ve been living in since 9/11. There’s much talk on the screen about evil in the world, but it’s all vague and abstract and video-gamey. So why was The Recruit made at all?

Director Roger Donaldson tries to answer the question in the production notes: ” The Recruit is a psychological thriller, with twists and turns. You’re never sure who the good guys are, and what’s going to happen next. It’s set in the CIA’s training facility, but at its heart it’s a performance piece anchored by Al Pacino.”

Producer Gary Barber provides a subtext of sorts: “On another level, this is a story about a young man searching for his father. It’s a journey for James to come to terms with his father’s absence.”

James-James Clayton-is played by the much-heralded new heartthrob, Irish-born Colin Farrell, and James’ surrogate-father figure is, of course, C.I.A. recruiter Walter Burke, a creation of now-60-ish, bearded Al Pacino, whom I first saw to be revelatory and spectacular as an actor back in the late 60′s in the Off Broadway play The Indian Wants the Bronx .

This, in a nutshell, is pretty much why the movie was made, i.e., to provide a vehicle for an older star to bond on the screen with a new pretender to the acting throne-a position Mr. Pacino has long occupied. The trouble with Mr. Donaldson’s description of his movie’s aims is that there are too few major characters to act as suspects in the paranoid plot. Aside from Mr. Pacino’s Walter Burke and Mr. Farrell’s James Clayton, the only character with more than a few lines to speak is the possibly treacherous but all the more scrumptious love interest, Layla (Bridget Moynahan), whose telltale sinister changes of expression reek of red herring.

So it’s eeny-meeny-miney-mo time again for the hunted “mole” in the C.I.A. Believe me, folks, both Psycho (1960) and The Crying Game (1992) took me completely by surprise when the (transvestite) truth was revealed. But here I suspected the ultimate villain almost from the very beginning-and, if I wasn’t fooled, I can’t imagine anyone else will be, either.

With the surprise and the suspense gone, all that remains is the tedium of C.I.A. schoolyard-testing sequences and pointlessly complicated technological circuses. As for the lead performances, Mr. Pacino reprises his satanic majesty from The Devil’s Advocate (1997), while Mr. Farrell displays as little charm and fluidity as he did in a supposedly less sympathetic part in Minority Report (2002). Ms. Moynahan does the best she can, which is pretty good, until her part simply peters out. Many of my esteemed colleagues like Mr. Farrell much more than I do; I have yet to see anything that will make Brad Pitt, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Grant or George Clooney lose sleep at night. I’d like to see what Mr. Farrell can do with an opportunity to rise from the darkest depths of noir projects. Perhaps he doesn’t really want to become a star in franchise properties-in which case, he should look for roles with more meat on them than there is in the anemic, ultra-formulaic The Recruit .

Male Bonding

Steve Guttenberg’s P.S. Your Cat Is Dead , from a screenplay by Jeff Korn and Mr. Guttenberg, based on the 1975 play and novel by James Kirkwood, marks my first exposure to the once reportedly inflammatory material of Mr. Kirkwood’s play and novel. It seems an eternity has passed since the days when gay-themed material was regarded with homophobic suspicion as an alleged pretext for “perverted” proselytizing. Nowadays, when The New York Times ‘ Sunday Styles section runs pictures of same-sex couples who have exchanged lifelong vows, we can say very tentatively that the population is less given to homophobia than it once was. I do not come to this subject with clean hands, having published back in the 70′s a provocatively homophobic article entitled “Heteros Have Problems, Too”-in The Village Voice , no less. The reaction was so stormy I had to run a partial retraction the following week. It was in 1970 that William Friedkin brought Mart Crowley’s smash Broadway comedy, The Boys in the Band , to the screen with the original stage cast. Curiously, I had already seen the play in London with an excellent all-British cast. At the time, many gay critics jumped on the play for being too morbid and pessimistic about the possibilities for happiness and contentment in gay relationships. No one accused Mr. Crowley of proselytizing-who would want to be as gloomy as the main characters in the play?

I bring up all this ancient history only to emphasize that Mr. Guttenberg’s version of P.S. Your Cat Is Dead (a brilliant title, by the way) is not at all what I expected after all I’d heard and read about it. The central gay-straight dialectic is there, as widely reported, with a “straight” character named Jimmy Zoole (Mr. Guttenberg) trapping and imprisoning a gay repeat burglar over the kitchen sink. Lombardo Boyar plays the nervy burglar, Eddie Tesoro, with a mixture of saucy flirtatiousness and whiny self-pity. Jimmy is in a vengeful mood, having been victimized by his failures as an actor, abandoned by his screechy girlfriend Kate (Cynthia Watros), and humiliated by his financial dependence on derisive Aunt Claire (Shirley Knight). He then finds his completed novel used as toilet paper by the jittery burglar whom he’s discovered thieving from his house. To top (or bottom) everything off, his cat Tennessee has died on the operating table at the vet’s. Through a long New Year’s Eve night of cat-and-mouse games of power reversal, both the actor and his reluctant captive find redemption in a platonic friendship that gives hope for each to change his life.

Hope, not the despair of Boys in the Band , is what Mr. Guttenberg and Mr. Kirkwood provide in P.S. Your Cat Is Dead , though Mr. Crowley’s play is much wittier and funnier than the comparatively frantic and frenzied shouting matches devised by Messrs. Guttenberg, Korn and Kirkwood.

A Gifted Auteur

Mr. Conrad Joanilho wonders, more in sorrow than in anger, why I have not made mention of the recent death of the very gifted French auteur Maurice Pialat (1925-2003). Mr. Joanilho is right, of course. Attention must be paid to a career that generated enormous emotional power from the no-nonsense contemplation of standard domestic situations. A long-overdue Pialat retrospective should include such masterpieces as L’Enfance Nue (1968), We Will Not Grow Old Together (1972), La Guele Overte (1974), Passe Ton Bac d’Abord (1979), Loulou (1980), A Nos Amours (1983), Police (1985), Under Satan’s Sun (1987), Van Gogh (1991), Le Garcu (1995) and Les Auto-Stoppeuses (1997). I met Mr. Pialat only once, at a Sarasota French Film Festival, but it was enough to make me realize that his life and art had never been easy, and that all his films flowed from his blood. Thank you for reminding me, Mr. Joanilho.