A Black Dog Named Fred Cries for Doomed Bull in Carnage

Delphine Gleize, the writer-director of Carnage , is 30 years old and in full command of her medium. She has already made five short films to growing acclaim at international film festivals and in her native France; this is her first full-length feature film. And I must admit, I’ve never seen a film quite like this one. It’s a mixture of philosophical contemplations and cosmic connections that pays microscopic attention to the tiniest of domestic details. A large portion of Carnage is in long-shot, filmed from such a lofty angle that it makes otherwise uneventful occasions curiously grandiose.

The story is built around a bullfight and its aftermath-the slaughtered bull, the gored toreador. The various body parts of said bull are transported across Europe, from Madrid to Brussels to France, entering the otherwise unrelated lives of, among others, an epileptic little girl on Valium and her large black dog named Fred. In one extraordinary shot, Fred jumps onto the couch where the girl is watching (by sheer coincidence) a bullfight on television. It seems as if the black bull itself is jumping out of the television set to menace this strangely imperturbable little girl. Shortly thereafter, Fred is seen in close-up, peering at the spectacle of a kindred creature meeting its inevitable fate.

I recommend Carnage only to serious-minded moviegoers, but with the proviso that it might not be easy to follow. This isn’t because it sets out to mystify its audience by shifting zones of reality and fantasy, as was the case in this year’s conversation piece, François Ozon’s Swimming Pool . The characters in Carnage never dream or fantasize, no matter how grotesquely they behave or how outlandishly they adorn themselves. Every incident transpires on the same level of reality, though nothing about the narrative is conventionally linear. A single gunshot is heard off-screen, but no one is injured. The action leading up to the gunshot is closer to Samuel Beckett than Anton Chekhov. There are three deaths, but no pattern of violence. There is nudity without eroticism, a bit of stalking but minus the malicious intent, and a series of regenerative endings without undue sentimentality.

Still, for all its originality-perhaps because of it- Carnage never generates the frisson of a fully realized emotional experience. It seems too proudly theoretical, too relentlessly fatalistic, too safely suspended between comedy and melodrama without paying the price for either. Indeed, it plays like a Buddhist parable, with its characters often captured compassionately at their most awkward, ungainly moments without ever becoming objects of ridicule, either on-screen or off. There is also a touch of the Buddhist in the film’s spiritual focus on the two animal characters: Fred, the black dog, and the foredoomed black bull, Romero, which in Spanish means “rosemary,” the herb of healing.

All in all, Carnage is an intellectually disciplined French film with an overlay of Spanish exuberance. (If my review seems vague, it’s because I’m not sure that this is the way the cinema-even the French cinema-should be going.)

Poor Little Rich Girls

Uptown Girls , directed by Boaz Yakin, from a screenplay by Julia Dahl, Mo Ogrodnik and Lina Davidowitz (based on a story by Allison Jacobs, Ms. Ogrodnik and Ms. Davidowitz), reverses the once-upon-a-time tradition of the Cinderella story by imagining the plight of Molly Gunn (Brittany Murphy), the orphaned daughter of a late rock legend who goes from riches to ragtag when her business adviser absconds with all her millions. Poor Molly is expelled from her penthouse palace with her pet pig and forced to take a job as a nanny for Ray Schleine (Dakota Fanning). This neglected but bossy little 9-year-old terrorizes the household help during the frequent absences of her mother, Roma Schleine (Heather Locklear), a music-industry executive. I had a strange reaction to all this seemingly predictable nonsense. Though I found Mr. Yakin’s direction unexpectedly imaginative, and the script often incongruously subtle, I couldn’t get into the spirit of all the whimsy, the reason being the surprising lack of charm in the two leads. Ms. Murphy was well cast as the good-time girl in Eminem’s 8 Mile (2002), but in this vehicle, she looks like she’s too worn out from one too many late nights clubbing to pull off even a reverse-Cinderella fantasy. As for Ms. Fanning, she’s one of the rare contemporary child actresses whom I find eminently resistible. With most mainstream movies, it’s usually the other way around-there’s nothing to talk about besides the charm and talent of the performers.

So there I was, watching a trivial entertainment with a growing respect for the people who made it and an abiding aversion for the two leads. As often happens, I began paying more attention to the unsympathetically programmed but more capable performances of Marley Shelton as Ingrid, Molly’s false friend, and Heather Locklear as Ray’s shamelessly neglectful mother. Perhaps Ms. Murphy’s disenchantingly decadent eye makeup is part of the film’s strategy of making this reverse-Cinderella cater to contemporary PG-13 audience tastes.

I also found an eerie echoing of Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (2002), when Molly advises her young charge to talk to her comatose father in the chance that he might hear her and recover. When this hope is dashed by the father’s sudden death, a crisis erupts in the relationship between Ray and Molly, one that is more strongly motivated and more realistically resolved than is usual with movies in this too often coy genre.

The idea of a pig as a pet was something I liked. Was it Winston Churchill who observed that pigs make the ideal pets, because though dogs look up to us and cats look down on us, it is only pigs who treat us as equals? George Orwell understood this when he made pigs his human equivalents in his immortal political fable, Animal Farm . I should add something about Molly’s tepid romance with an Aussie rock musician, who betrays her with Ray’s mother to get ahead in the music business and still winds up as a good guy. But I shall resist the temptation to fulminate any further. After all, there’s a limit to how mean I can allow myself to be before I begin frothing at the mouth in public and endanger my own reputation as a nice guy.

Celestial Temptresses

Agustín Díaz Yanes’ Don’t Tempt Me , from his own screenplay, turns a comic fantasy about the age-old contest between the forces of Heaven and Hell into a series of prescient metaphors. The globalization of capitalism, the chaos of sexual identities and the cheap melodrama of low-grade Parisian crime noir are all embodied in Victoria Abril and Penélope Cruz as Lola Nevado and Carmen Ramos, two luscious emissaries sent from Heaven and Hell to save the life and soul of a somewhat dimwitted boxer named Manny (Demián Bichir). After all the blows he’s sustained in the course of his punishing career, Manny has been warned by doctors that if he fights again, he risks death. To answer his mother’s prayer to Heaven-that her son doesn’t commit suicide after being banned from the ring-God’s minions send Lola, an angel who is supposedly Manny’s estranged wife. The boxer is too edgy to suspect otherwise and accepts Lola without question, particularly when she gives him the “ride” of his life. Still, the problem in Heaven seems to be that God is depressed and apparently doesn’t realize what’s at stake in saving Manny’s soul. Marina D’Angelo (Fanny Ardant) is director of operations for Heaven, and has recruited Lola, a sexy nightclub singer in Paris-but literally an angel in disguise-for her assignment to save Manny for Heaven.

Marina’s counterpart in Hell-its C.E.O., no less-is Jack Davenport (Gael García Bernal), who might have worked for Enron if he were on Earth. Jack challenges Lola’s mission with a delectable denizen of Hell, Carmen, to counter Lola’s attempted coup with Manny. How all this is resolved is of less import than the opportunity this light-headed plot provides for Ms. Abril and Ms. Cruz to demonstrate how much chemistry they can generate from their inevitable collaboration on hold-ups, money scams and, ultimately, a sex-change in Hell for Carmen, who was originally a male gangster and would make a desirable partner for Lola. It’s all harmless fun, I suppose, and mercifully free of all the cant usually associated with fantasies of Heaven and Hell. Mr. Yanes and his collaborators are obviously more attuned to the hellish than the heavenly in our lives and thoughts.

Film Notes

Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au Grisbi (1953), from a serie noire novel by Albert Simonin, is being revived at the Film Forum. It gives audiences a chance to catch Jean Gabin in a kind of comeback late in his career, as well as newcomers (at the time) Jeanne Moreau as the double-crossing moll and Lino Ventura (whom Gabin “discovered” in the wrestling ring) as the drug-trafficking villain who shoots it out in the end with Gabin’s Max le Menteur. Along with his buddy Riton (René Dary), Max hopes to retire on their loot, or grisbi , until the troublemakers Moreau and Ventura intervene.

I remember Moreau when she first appeared in French noir films as an inscrutable temptress, and I thought she was fascinating, but I never dreamed that she would become the icon of fully bodied sensuality and womanly wisdom that she did. She was, in the beginning, more a young Bette Davis type with a potentially dark side to her nature. Gabin, young or old, was nonpareil as l’homme dur , but it’s interesting to remember that he started out, in the early 1930′s, as a song-and-dance man opposite Josephine Baker, much as our own great l’homme dur , Jimmy Cagney.

John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) is the subject of a three-week retrospective with new 35-millimeter prints of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seconds (1966) and The Train (1964) at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110) from Sept. 19 through Oct. 9. I was very hard and a little overly technical about Frankenheimer in my book The American Cinema back in 1968, when I dumped him into the category of “Strained Seriousness.” I can’t really recant any of my reservations about his stylistic hysterics, but the fact remains that many of his films look much better today than they did back then. This is largely because today’s mainstream film industry has abdicated its responsibility to make intelligent movies for grown-up audiences in their frantic pursuit of opening-week killings in multiplexes across the country.

In this context, several Frankenheimer films deserve a second look (and, in many instances, a first look)-not so much for being ahead of their time, but for being so seriously and so humanely of their time. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) breathtakingly anticipated a decade of political assassinations that were the 9/11′s of the 60′s. Black Sunday (1977) was even more uncanny in anticipating an age of terrorists. Seven Days in May (1964) is even more daring as political paranoia than Oliver Stone. And I Walk the Line (1970) is a treasure-not because of any political subtext, but because of the rueful tenderness of its May-December romance between Tuesday Weld and Gregory Peck.