Ouch! The Secret Life of Dentists: Weird But Faithful Pros

Alan Rudolph’s The Secret Lives of Dentists , from a screenplay by Craig Lucas, based on Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief , is the most passionate defense of monogamy and marriage from a male perspective that I’ve ever seen in an American movie. Yet too many reviewers have undervalued the film, describing it as an unacceptably quirky fantasy about weird dentists-a profession whose on-screen reputation has been especially unappetizing ever since Laurence Olivier’s Nazi dental sadist wreaked havoc on Dustin Hoffman’s teeth in John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976), a movie everyone seems to have seen and no one seems to have forgotten. But the very idea of dentists as screen protagonists seems inevitably farcical and facetious, and Mr. Lucas’ brilliant script cleverly builds on these notes, externalizing Ms. Smiley’s more introspective novella.

Mr. Rudolph’s 30-year career has produced a score of personal films, but in my opinion Dentists is by far his most coherent and most convincing achievement yet. In the past, Mr. Rudolph has almost invariably loved his actors more than his characters, and his characters more than his audience-a fanatical worship of improvisation for its own sake. As he himself acknowledged in a recent interview with Dave Kehr in The New York Times , this was the first time he’d been handed a script that he didn’t need to embellish with improvisations. “I can’t quite articulate it,” he said, “but it was a very liberating experience for me. I stuck with the whole script. It’s 90 percent as it was written, if not more.”

David (Campbell Scott) and Dana Hurst (Hope Davis) are married dentists who also work in the same practice. From the outset, we see things through David’s point of view, as he philosophizes in voice-over about teeth and dentistry-much like Robin Williams pontificated on photography in Mark Romanek’s critically overlooked One Hour Photo (2002). As a character introduction, David’s opening soliloquy is misleading, suggesting that he’ll remain outside the narrative and comment knowingly as the occasion arises. What happens instead is an intense journey into the dark recesses of David’s tormented psyche over suspicions of his wife’s infidelity. David’s inner agony finds expression in the hallucinatory presence of Slater (Denis Leary), a particularly obnoxious dental patient. Slater’s unhappy with a botched filling and confronts the tormented dentist in a crowded auditorium. Even when David offers to replace it at no cost, Slater remains sullen and obstreperous. The mood in these exchanges is humorlessly malicious rather than satirically comic.

But much more is to come. Slater enters David’s cuckolded subconscious as a visible and audible presence (as well as to us, the audience), but he remains invisible to David’s wife, Dana, and their three little rambunctious girls, Lizzie (Gianna Beleno), Stephanie (Lydia Jordan) and Leah (Cassidy Hinkle).

All the while, David is reluctant to confront Dana about her alleged affair, for fear that she’ll decide to leave him. No matter what the humiliation, David wants to keep his marriage intact, technically at least. This degree of timorousness in a male protagonist is rare-if not unheard of-in an American movie.

As David dithers, his evil subconscious taunts him with siren calls of the free and easy life-Slater is already living the bachelor existence after his own wife left him. David contributes to his own suffering by vividly imagining Dana behaving with ecstatic lasciviousness in orgies involving multiple partners recruited from among all the men that David and Dana know.

In the midst of this domestic turmoil, the whole family comes down with the stomach flu, and the floors are awash with vomit, which seemed to irritate some reviewers. Still, David soldiers on, with the censorious Slater on his back. Leah, the youngest, who is going through a crush-on-Daddy phase, adds to the chaos by screaming that she wants David whenever Dana tries to pick her up. For her part, Dana becomes increasingly despondent as she senses that the passage of time is killing her hopes of some transcendent happiness. Though she’s tried to lose herself in an off-hours musical group that puts on a one-night production of Verdi’s Nabucco , once the performance is over, she sinks into a deep depression with which the already conflicted David is unable to cope. Nonetheless, he comes to realize that a troubled childhood has left him frozen, making him unable to communicate with Dana except through mock-seductive foreplay that never lapses into raw, unguarded sincerity.

Mr. Rudolph struck casting gold with such experienced specialists in offbeat, off-the-wall cinema as Mr. Scott, Ms. Davis, Mr. Leary and Robin Tunney as Laura, a very proper dental assistant who’s transformed by David’s lecherous subconscious into a hallucinatory musical temptress in trumpeter Slater’s ghostly jazz band, organized to tempt David into debauchery. Add the disruptive talents of three banshee child actresses, and you have the makings a titanic moral contest between the eternal husband and the eternal bachelor in every man.

If David, the husband, finally prevails over David, the bachelor, it’s not because his marriage offers the path of least resistance. Rather, it’s because he realizes that the partner he’s with offers him the best chance of liberation from his emotional blockages. An epiphany of sorts is achieved in the Hurst family when Dana follows David up the stairs in response to Leah’s plaintive cries and is rewarded by Leah allowing herself, at long last, to be picked up and hugged by her mother. It may not seem like much in cold print, but on the screen it reverberates with a climactic crescendo.

It strikes me suddenly that what I have reported so far does not begin to do justice to the wit, charm, tact and fluid grace of this exhilarating and yet also edifying entertainment. The Secret Lives of Dentists suggests once more that the gap between good movies and bad movies is growing ever wider conceptually. In any event, Mr. Rudolph’s opus is already guaranteed a place on my year’s 10-best list.

Seaside Stasis

Julie Lopes-Curval’s Seaside (Bord de Mer) , written by Ms. Lopes-Curval with François Favrat, received the 2002 Cannes Festival’s Camera d’Or for best first film. And I can understand the award in terms of the writer-director’s ambitious, semi-abstract conception of 12 dreary months in the lives of year-round inhabitants and summer visitors in a small resort town on the Bay of Somme in northern France. The sun never seems to shine (literally and figuratively), and no one ever seems to spend much time in the water. It may be my own quirk, but beaches have always struck me as grim venues without a trace of erotic excitement. Even so, movies generally put on a brave front of merriment when people parade their bodies on the sand. But not Ms. Lopes-Curval in Seaside : Her characters seem perpetually drifting away from the coastline that presumably lured them there in the first place. Indeed, the early part of the film is a criss-crossing maze of long shots in which major and minor characters are not differentiated sufficiently in the various grids devised by the camera.

This air of aimlessness ultimately becomes the point of the story, and the adjective “Chekhovian” has been invoked by more than one reviewer. Maybe this is exactly what theatergoers made of the seemingly joyless stasis in Chekhov’s plays. Only later did audiences come to appreciate the playwright’s gusto and full-bodied exasperation at the soul-destroying routines of existence.

Seaside , by comparison, is drab and anemic. Everyone seems either resigned or utterly defeated, and the way the movie is shot they seem fixed in place, with every brief movement leading nowhere. The only big “name” in the cast from an American art-house perspective is Bulle Ogier as Rose, an older woman who’s feisty enough to scandalize her family with her compulsive gambling habit at the slot machines in the town’s dingy casino. She practices her William Bennett–like vice day and night until her money runs out. Curiously, her improvidence makes her the closest thing in the film to a free spirit.

The only industry in this seaside town outside of tourism is a pebble factory with an unusually picturesque assembly line of various rocks, which the workers either select or reject, though I am not sure how or why. Nor could I determine whether the factory itself is real or metaphorical. We eventually learn that the local owners have sold the factory to “outsiders,” which leads to many townspeople losing their jobs. This increasingly familiar story of industrial callousness in the so-called free market is treated as more of a side issue in Seaside . There’s a token ex-employee who sits on a pile of rocks to register his displeasure with the new bosses. Indeed, most of the male characters tend to be pathetically self-pitying victims, suffering a malaise that engulfs and enfeebles them, leaving them powerless.

By contrast, the four major female characters drift along with the men for a long time, but eventually buckle down to take charge of their own destinies. Marie (Hélène Fillières) is the prettiest girl in town and seems content to look inscrutable without saying anything, but in the end, she manages to escape to Paris with Albert, the boss’ son (Patrick Lizana). Anne (Ludmila Mïkaël) stops smiling at everyone and begins to stand up for her own rights. Odette (Liliane Rovère) is a matriarch who learns to live without maternal feelings for her two sons. Along with Ms. Ogier, these four actresses are the best reasons to see Seaside .

Death-Defying Escapades

Vladimír Michálek’s Autumn Spring , from a screenplay by Jirí Hubac, tells the story of a cantankerous and death-denying Czech oldster with enough unsentimental nuances and character reversals to make the film an instant classic in a genre that is seldom high on the list of commercially viable projects-even for the most independent-minded filmmakers. On the honor roll of fatalistic flicks: Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), with Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi, stays in the mind for its gutsy emotional heroics, while Julien Duvivier’s La Fin du Jour (1939) bears more than a passing resemblance to Autumn Spring in its affection for retired theater people who can never escape the spell of the footlights.

The gallant hero of Autumn Spring is 80-year-old Frantisek Hána (Vlastimil Brodsky), known as Fanda, who is the bane of his wife’s more ordered existence as he goes from one impudent escapade to another with his old theater buddy, Eda (Stanislav Zindulka). For her part, Emílie (Stella Zázvorková), Fanda’s wife, tries to save money any way she can so as to afford a first-class funeral and death notice for when the time comes. Fanda couldn’t care less about what happens after he dies, and he doesn’t hesitate to squander his wife’s savings on the few remaining pleasures available to him. I have mixed feelings about this sort of cavalier behavior, and I was beginning to lose patience with Fanda until he “reformed”-ironically, much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife. It’s at this point that the film takes off on its emotional ascent. Brodsky died very soon after Autumn Spring opened to great acclaim. I am reminded of the very ill, old woman in Carl Dreyer’s The Parson’s Widow (1920), who, according to Dreyer, finished playing her title role before proceeding to die peacefully.

In both cases, Death be not proud.