Welcome to Blood-Soaked Sin City, Frank Miller’s Morbid Fantasia

Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, based on Mr. Miller’s series of graphic novels, makes it look like we’re at the end of Western civilization as we know it. One has only to itemize its simulated atrocities-cannibalism, mutilation, beheadings, torrential bloodbaths, even a comically inefficient electrocution-to realize that Sin City is a dark and dangerous place, not for the tender-hearted.

Labeling Sin City pornographic, as some of my colleagues have, is technically impossible in view of its R rating and the fact that there are no erotic situations to be found-no doubt disappointing for the constituency of the deeply depraved sent on a wild-goose chase thanks to the film’s title. I prefer to think of Sin City as a bizarre cinematic experiment, one in which a live-action film looks and plays out like a graphic novel. Whereas the much-heralded Japanese art of anime is credited with bringing animation closer to live-action cinematography, Mr. Miller and Mr. Rodriguez’s Sin City moves in the opposite direction.

As for the controversial “content” of the film, there are no decent, ordinary-much less common-people in Sin City. One cannot imagine what hard-core humanists like George Orwell or James Agee, who idealized the common folk during the global fight against fascism, would have made of this lot. In 1944, Orwell inveighed against James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish (a poor imitation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary) as American-influenced fascist pulp, while the anti-noirish Agee described Billy Wilder’s classic Double Indemnity as “tellable trash.”

And so all the women in Sin City are appropriately clad (or unclad) prostitutes-except for the lesbian parole officer, Lucille (Carla Gugino, in thong panties), and the waitress (Britanny Murphy). Several have been beheaded, mounted as trophies or otherwise devoured by a cannibalistic murderer named Kevin (Elijah Wood). The only male inhabitants of Sin City we’re allowed to see are barroom regulars, crooked cops and a corrupt U.S. Senator (Powers Boothe) whose sheltered son is a loathsome child molester (Nick Stahl). We’re a long way from the mostly law-abiding domains of Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, places where there are honest folks who can be saved from evildoers.

The extreme stylization and sociological improbability of Miller and Rodriguez’s enterprise makes Sin City play much less horrifically than its catalogue of cruelties makes it sound. As it happens, I saw Sin City at an early-afternoon screening at the Loews Orpheum on Third Avenue, and I was surprised by the size and make-up of the audience-large for an-early-in-the-day screening, with more than a few couples, a few solitary women, a few little boys with their fathers, and the rest mostly youngish and oldish male adults. No more than one or two people left before the end of the film. The rest sat there, as silently absorbed as I was, never laughing at the parodies of the Mickey Spillane ethos in the tortured, self-pitying monologues of the three crucial male protagonists: Bruce Willis’ William Hartigan, an aging detective with a bum ticker (fittingly, an oversized heart); Mickey Rourke’s almost unrecognizable Marv, a Hulk-like vehicle of vengeance searching for the unknown murderer of his hooker sweetheart, Goldie (Jamie King); and Clive Owen’s Dwight, a freelance-vigilante type who ends up trying to protect Rosario Dawson’s Gail and her small army of heavily armed prostitutes against the unholy alliance of the Mob and its bought-and-paid-for police force.

The practiced talents of these three charismatic action experts keep Sin City afloat despite all the minefields of sheer ridiculousness strewn in their path. There was no applause at the end of the picture, but neither was there any sign of a hostile reaction. Nor should there be, if only because of the curiously chivalric spirit of self-sacrifice at work in the narrative. Now I know that many feminists scoff at any updating of the ancient sagas of knights in shining armor and their ladies fair waving their handkerchiefs out of the palace window, but there is a deeply chivalric code at work in Sin City. Through a visual reference to the La Brea Tar Pits and their submerged prehistoric monsters, there’s a semblance of symbolic dragon-slaying by a collective of fearless prostitutes, but there are no individual heroines embarked on a knightly journey of self-discovery.

Three separate stories are told in Sin City, finally merging after a fashion without actually bringing the three knights face to face. The Detective Hartigan story begins and ends the film in an interrupted time stretch of eight years. During this time, Hartigan rescues an 11-year-old girl named Nancy (Makenzie Vega) from the aforementioned fiend child molester, but not before emasculating him in gruesome fashion. That this menace to small children is the son of an unscrupulously vengeful and power-mad Senator did not much strike me as palpably pulpish in this teeth-gnashing period of political chicanery, which seems to be encouraging a dark cynicism in many current movies.

For example, the recent headlines alleging complicity between two police detectives and the Mafia make it plausible that Hartigan would seek to protect Nancy’s identity by taking the fall for the crime and serving a prison term in order to keep the police away from her. Of course, in Sin City the only job the now 19-year-old Nancy can get is that of a stripper with a nifty lasso routine. Many of my colleagues were deeply amused by this ironic turn of events, but what I find strangely (if admittedly grotesquely) moving is that her love for Hartigan has remained constant, and his protective feelings for her have remained pure and untarnished, even though his final demolition of the monstrous molester makes Hartigan something of a monster himself.

Mr. Rourke’s Marv is the most fully articulated of the three avengers, and it’s almost a miracle that his character manages to be so subtle and humorous under what looks like tons of make-up. This performance has been billed as a comeback for Mr. Rourke, and I hope so, for his distinctive blend of intelligence and virility has been sorely missed. His Marv is at his best when he ruefully acknowledges his frequent failures to anticipate obstacles to his ultimate goals. But once he’s disposed of the smiling wretch Kevin in a manner gruesomely consistent with Kevin’s aforementioned horrors, Marv then becomes comically stoic as he pays the penalty imposed by a befouled justice system.

Clive Owen deserves a special award for keeping a straight face during some of the awkward quick-change gyrations that his character Dwight has to perform as he tries to keep Sin City from blowing up in his face via an all-out war between its various disreputable factions. Quentin Tarantino reportedly directed one especially surreal scene in which Mr. Owen’s Dwight fantasizes that he’s conversing in a car with the severed head of a slain detective named Jackie Boy (played by an almost unrecognizable Benicio Del Toro).

I don’t know whether the anti-clerical message in Sin City appeared in Miller’s original graphic novel, or whether he added it through the film’s unrepentantly manipulative evildoer, Rutger Hauer’s Cardinal Roark. Mr. Miller himself plays the bad priest who is murdered by Marv, so I guess the anti-clericalism in the film originated with him. I can’t say that any of the subtexts are brilliantly illuminated, but then neither is the film itself, with its digitally contorted black and gray look and occasional splashes of color (including one dazzling display of a car’s hood).

In the end, Sin City is all about death, not sex (sorry, boys)-that and the infinite rottenness and corruption of the world. (A mud-splattered sign late in the film reveals that Sin City’s name is actually Basin City.) I should add a word of praise for the vividness of Devon Aoki as a kind of samurai prostitute named Miho; Alexis Bledel as Becky, a turncoat always calling her mom on the phone; Michael Madsen as Hartigan’s duplicitous partner; and, finally, Mr. Rodriguez for being an unselfish Renaissance man in insisting on full directorial credit for Mr. Miller, while assuming the additional roles of cinematographer and editor for himself. In the end, I have to say I liked Sin City almost in spite of myself.

Watching Lolita

Agnès Jaoui’s Look at Me ( Comme une Image) from a screenplay by Ms. Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, is finally getting its long-delayed theatrical release uptown at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and downtown at the Angelika Film Center, six months after it opened the 42nd Annual Film Festival at Lincoln Center. Time hasn’t dulled its flair and panache, such as we’ve come to expect from the Jaoui-Bacri writing and acting team responsible for such sparkling comedies of good and bad manners as La Goût des Autres ( The Taste of Others, 2000), On Connât la Chanson ( Same Old Song, 1997) and Un Air de Famille (Family Resemblance, 1996). Their detractors in France tend to dismiss them as heavy-handed boulevard farceurs, but American audiences seem to enjoy their satirical thrusts at the French bourgeoisie-who are, after all, not that far removed from their American counterparts.

Look at Me begins with a somewhat plump young girl-ironically named Lolita (Marilou Berry)-in the back of a stationary Paris taxicab. She’s trying to placate the surly driver, who is complaining about losing money while waiting for two additional passengers: Lolita’s middle-aged father, a literary lion named Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri), and his pretty and much younger second wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts). The first big laugh of the movie erupts when the bad-tempered Etienne arrives and snarls back at the cab driver, as if Parisians were trying to mimic the fabled incivility of New Yorkers. (No wonder we Manhattanites respond to the Jaoui-Bacri team: They’re closer to George S. Kaufman than anyone working in currently infantilized Hollywood.)

Having subdued the now-cowering cabdriver, Etienne and his two female companions take the cab to a bustling celebrity event that’s drawn a line of invited guests and wannabe attendees, with a muscular bouncer at the entrance meticulously inspecting everyone’s credentials. Etienne and Karine majestically sweep their way in, while the hapless Lolita lingers on the sidewalk to take a cell-phone call from her boyfriend, Mathieu (Julien Baumgarther). The call unsatisfactorily concluded, Lolita tries to join her father and stepmother inside, but the burly guard bars her from entering. Lolita is suddenly distracted by a young man-we learn much later that he’s named Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza)-who drunkenly passes out by the curb.

Lolita impulsively takes off her jacket to cover the lightly clad Sébastien, whom she doesn’t know from Adam. This and her earlier attempt to reason with the rude cabdriver are our first clues as to the character of the main protagonist. Once Karine comes outside to fetch Lolita, the focus shifts to four new characters waiting near the back of the line. Only much later are these four apparent nobodies identified as Pierre (Laurent Grévill), a still-obscure novelist; Sylvia (Ms. Jaoui), his wife, a singing instructor, Edith (Michèle Moretti), Pierre’s elderly editor; and Félix (Serge Riaboukine), his photographer friend and a prospective collaborator on his book. As the four move slowly toward the front of the line, Sylvia and Edith start to argue about which one was supposed to have brought the tickets. At this point, the already impatient Pierre breaks away from the group and heads for home; realizing that they don’t have tickets, the others reluctantly follow.

Inside the club, Etienne displays more bad manners towards lesser colleagues, cruel condescension toward his culturally insecure wife, and cold indifference to his ugly duckling young daughter. In record time, he reveals himself to be a monster of mean-spirited snobbery and self-absorption right out of Molière. Eventually, these two separate groups are going to merge to form the narrative nucleus-a scathing satire of the rat race in the power-and-celebrity-addled milieu of Parisian writing and publishing.

For a time, Etienne’s relentless rudeness is funny, but as more and more characters spin into his orbit, his cruelty toward others, and their masochistic submission to such abuse, become institutionally sinister. We see that Etienne is the way he is at least partly because too many people allow him to be. He is simply a literary variant of Donald Trump, wallowing in his own arrogance and self-adoration. Etienne even has a full-time stooge, Vincent (Grégoire Oestermann), formerly an “assistant,” whom Etienne insults incessantly without fear of reprisal.

For her part, Lolita has long ago realized that Etienne doesn’t love anybody besides himself. Her mother, Etienne’s first wife, abandoned him to go live in the Antilles. Worse still, Lolita has come to expect that the few men in her life will only pretend to be attracted to her in hopes of currying favor with her powerful father. Her current boyfriend Mathieu, for example, is preparing to dump her after getting what he wants from Etienne. Ms. Berry, the daughter in real life of the celebrated French character actress Josiane Balasko, plays Lolita with an interesting mixture of vulnerability and defiance.

When we return to the second circle formed by Pierre and Sylvia, we discover that Lolita is a pupil of Sylvia’s, who has been resisting her entreaties for more singing lessons-until she discovers who Lolita’s father is. Lolita grins (or groans?) inwardly as she realizes that even a woman she admires is dazzled by Etienne’s eminence as both a writer and a publisher. In her own mind, Sylvia is thinking only of the help that Pierre will get in promoting his new novel once he’s seen in the company of Etienne.

All these proceedings would be harsh or sordid if they were not softened by the sublime music of Mozart, Schubert, Handel and Beethoven, sung by the choral group to which Lolita belongs, and in which she finds a spiritual salve to the persistent pain in her heart. Music-the art to which all the other arts aspire-celebrates the final romantic redemption of a fat girl brutalized by the universal conspiracy of brainwashed-by-the-media anorexia worshippers. Mozart has never served a nobler purpose.