Cross-Class Love Affair in Yorkshire Turns Ugly—Not Because of Money

article sarris Cross Class Love Affair in Yorkshire Turns Ugly—Not Because of MoneyPawel
Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love, from a screenplay by Mr. Pawlikowski and Michael Wynne, based on the novel by Helen Cross, turns out to be a triumph of unexpectedness in its slimmed-down story of two teenage girls, one middle-to-lower-class, and the other upper-class. The two equally lonely girls drift into a relationship that is first sisterly, eventually much more, but ultimately and violently much less. The film is told mostly from the point of view of the less-privileged girl, named Mona (Natalie Press), who lives with her ex-convict older brother Phil (Paddy Considine) in a converted pub in a picturesque but poverty-stricken Yorkshire village, the sort of place that trains pass by without ever stopping.

One
day as Mona is laboriously trudging up and then blithely riding down the hilly terrain on a motorless moped, she catches a seemingly magical glimpse of a beautiful dark-haired girl on a white horse. When this fabulous creature, named with exotic appropriateness Tamsin (Emily Blunt), finally materializes, Mona is immediately smitten. A romance blossoms in the midst of a satirically depicted scattering of unconcerned bystanders in the mansion on the hill, and among the God-seeking followers of born-again ex-convict Phil in the valley bellow.

This
is to say that Mona and Tamsin manage to live in a world of their own with little interference from their elders. Mona seems to have weathered the adversities in her life with more grace, wit and spunk than has Tamsin with her frequent crying jags over the death of her older sister, the adulteries of her father and the neglect by her mother. Still, Tamsin tactfully employs her wealth to make life easier for Mona, first by buying an engine for Mona’s moped, then by lending her expensive clothes, and finally by letting her sleep over in the mansion where their ever-growing passion is physically consummated.
At one point in their love-making, Mona exuberantly assumes the role of a male aggressor with the repeated downward thrusts and recoils upon the body of an amusedly titillated Tamsin.

When
Phil becomes suspicious of Mona’s relationship with Tamsin, he begins driving up to the mansion at night to let Mona know that he is watching her, but his main interest remains the scrap-iron cross he and his followers construct and then carry up the hill in emulation of Jesus Christ, planting it on the summit as a slightly comical constant reminder. Tamsin is amused by Phil’s concern, and unwisely chooses to have some fun with him by pretending to seduce him in the midst of his naïve attempt to convert her to Christ. When Tamsin breaks the spell by taunting him, he slaps her and drags Mona back home where he beats her and locks her in her room. It is at this point that the film could have gone in any number of wrong directions: toward cheap melodrama by escalating the violence to a homicidal level, or to feel-good fantasy with a facile resolution of the conflicts involved.

Instead,
the film ends as it should with a climactic confrontation between the two girls that leaves Mona spiritually battered, but unbowed, and even strengthened for the inevitable storms that lie ahead. The acting of all three principals is first-rate. But Ms. Press deserves special mention as a comparatively inexperienced newcomer who projects the kind of electricity on-screen that makes movie reviewing every now and then so rewardingly edifying and enchanting. At moments, Ms. Press reincarnates the impishly insouciant Sissy Spacek of Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). Yet, much of the credit for Ms. Press’ Mona can be shared with the director, Mr. Pawlikowski, and the screenwriter, Mr. Wynne, for draining the softness and delicacy out of a chick-flick subject to endow Mona with a tough-minded resilience. This is what makes My Summer of Love so much more appealing than the general run of summer movies.

Merchant’s
Heights

Chris
Terrio’s Heights, from a screenplay by Amy Fox, based on her one-act play, with additional screenplay material by Mr. Terrio, happens to be the next-to-last film co-produced by the late and genial Ismail Merchant (1936-2005), on this occasion with Richard Hawley.
Under
these very personal circumstances, I deeply regret that I cannot be more positive about the experience, not only because of my long acquaintance and friendship with Ismail, but also because I always felt that there was a widespread critical tendency to underestimate plays and other literary adaptations to the screen, like even the most felicitous works of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala triumvirate, as being insufficiently “cinematic.”
The
late, great Andre Bazin (1918-1958) had the last word on this critical shortsightedness in his classic essay on the subtly cinematic theatricality of Jean Cocteau’s (1889-1963) Les Parents Terribles (1948).

Yet,
I must confess that there were long stretches in Heights when I felt that the proceedings were a tad too “theatrical” for my taste. Not that I particularly minded Glenn Close’s demonstration near the outset—as the stage and screen legend Diana—on the properly passionate way to play Lady Macbeth for the benefit of a whole auditorium of awestruck drama students. Cured ham in such small doses can be moderately amusing. But the film is not essentially about Shakespeare or even the theater, but, rather, about the assorted angsts of an ill-matched couple made up of Diana’s pert and perky daughter, Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), and her strangely abstracted husband, Jonathan (James Marsden). It turns out that Jonathan has a lot to be abstracted about. For starters, he is about to be outed as gay by the impending publication of a book of Mapplethorpe-like male nude photographs, for one of which Jonathan once modeled when he was the photographer’s temporary boy-toy. He is also currently cheating on Isabel with Alec (Jesse Bradford), a gay actor who lives just two flights up in the same building. To make matters more complicated, the supposedly theater-wise Diana has made a play for Alec, never suspecting that his elective affinities lie elsewhere.

Eventually,
the only question is when and how Isabel is going to find out about Jonathan ’s bisexuality, and what she will decide to do about it. Oddly, the milieu on display in downtown New York is almost saturated with unapologetically effeminate caricatures who carry their predilections on their sleeves.

Nonetheless,
Isabel is shocked, shocked, when she catches Jonathan and Alec locking lips on the roof of their apartment building. Despite Jonathan’s desperate pleas that he needs her more than ever, she tearfully cancels their wedding plans. One wonders for what audience is this film intended—straight, gay, bi or all three?

Which
brings us to a more ridiculous problem with the film’s disabling theatricality.
Back in Hollywood’s old studio days, plays were made into movies all the time for the quality dialogue, with a few process shots of city traffic to “take the movie outdoors.” But back then, thanks to the censors, movies were all talk anyway even if they weren’t adapted from plays.

Nowadays,
there is more flesh bared in the theater than there ever was in these old movies, and yet in Heights, after an obligatory bathroom underwear morning scene, there are, except for some unisex kissing, no visual manifestations of erotic activity, only talk, talk, talk, coy photos and covert cell-phone conversations. Still, I am all for talk, talk in the cinema when it is witty and revelatory. Heights simply doesn’t make the grade, though Ms. Banks and Ms.
Close give it a valiant try, and Mr. Terrio and Ms. Fox can be credited with a contrived though admirably concise consolatory ending.

Male
Bondage

Pierre
Salvadori’s Après Vous (After You), from a screenplay by Benoît Graffin, David Léotard and Mr. Salvadori, belongs to a genre of French farce based on male bonding in unexpected situations. Après Vous takes the Good Samaritan theme to excruciating lengths, and then throws in a few betrayals and innumerable embarrassments to the mix, after which an expert cast stirs all the ingredients vigorously to create a frothy soufflé, which in my opinion, falls flat with a dull thud. From the beginning I found the plot contrivances more than a little forced, and the behavior of the various characters improbably extreme.

Antoine
(Daniel Auteuil) is a headwaiter at Chez Jean, an upscale French brasserie, in which he is shown struggling to cover the blunders of his fellow waiters and busboys until he is worn to a frazzle. One night while he is racing through the park to keep an appointment with his girlfriend Christine (Marilyne Canto), he comes upon a stranger about to hang himself from the branch of a tree. The diminutive Antoine manages to save the bigger and heavier would-be suicide with great difficulty and some pain. He learns that the inconsolable beneficiary of his intervention is named Louis (José Garcia), and that Louis has been driven to terminal despair by the loss of the great love of his life, a florist named Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain).

Antoine
soon discovers that in saving Louis’ life, he has become totally responsible for the day-to-day survival of an ego-damaged basket case too distraught and disorganized to function on even a minimal level. Antoine takes Louis home and lets him sleep over, much to the discomfort of Christine, to whom Antoine seems ominously less attached than he is to Louis. I say “ominously” because she will eventually be dumped without hesitation when Antoine falls in love with Blanche while kidding himself that he is trying to return her to Louis. Even then, he shows no guilt in having strung Christine along without ever really loving her.
Indeed, the only betrayal Antoine acknowledges is not of Christine, but of Louis.

Now,
I know what you’ll say. Sarris, you’re too sentimental. If you had your way, you’d have Louis and Christine fall in love with each other so that there would be no losers. I agree that most critics would jump all over this joyful symmetry of crisscrossing affinities. The way it is now, you have two losers instead of none. How “adult,” how “grown-up,” how “realistic.” That is why I am a reviewer rather than a director or screenwriter. I don’t know any better way to resolve the problems I find with the way this film ends. All I know is that it left a sour taste in my mouth—perhaps because this was one male-bonding film too many for me, perhaps because it was not so funny as it strained so hard to be, perhaps because Mr. Salvadori and his scenarist made Blanche too complex and perverse for the purposes of comic construction, perhaps because the deceptions Antoine practiced on people who trusted him, in order to help Louis restore his self-confidence, seemed to use up the moral capital acquired by being a Good Samaritan. Ultimately, Antoine begins by seeming guileless and innocent, and ends up seeming ruthless and cunning in satisfying his desires.
Mr. Auteuil is capable of much more poignancy than that.

La
Jeune Jeanne

Louis
Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour L’Echaufaud) (1958), from a screenplay by Mr. Malle and Roger Nimier, based on the novel by Noël Calef, with an improvised score by Miles Davis, is being revived (with new subtitles by Lenny Borger) by Rialto Pictures almost half a century after its explosive illumination of the lustrous presence and prodigious talents of an up-to-then-minor and not overly pretty French actress named Jeanne Moreau.
Malle (1932-1995) was later dismissed by Francois Truffaut (1932-1984) and his successors at Cahiers du Cinema for being too eclectic and opportunistic to satisfy the rigorous demands of La Politique des Auteurs. But as reflected in Elevator to the Gallows, his visual style was both accomplished and innovative. Indeed, Moreau herself is more a haunting apparition than a fully articulated character in this very gimmicky thriller in which three murders are committed, the solutions to which are revealed climactically in the developed photos in a stolen camera recovered by the police.

The
film begins with an ingenious murder plot that goes terribly wrong from the beginning of its execution. On a summer Saturday evening in Paris, the city is virtually deserted, which fits into the plan of businessman Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), the lover of Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau), to murder her husband, his boss, Simon Carala, an arms dealer and war profiteer.
Exploiting
the skills he has learned as a paratrooper and veteran of colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria, Tavernier uses a rope and grappling hook to reach Carala’s office from the floor below, where Tavernier’s office is located.
With
a gun he has taken from his own desk, Tavernier shoots Carala and makes it look like suicide. When Tavernier reaches his car parked on the street below, he notices that he has forgotten to remove the rope and hook from the side of the building. He returns to Carala’s office, removes and disposes of the rope and hook, but just as he is in the elevator going down, the building superintendent turns off all the power in the building for the weekend, and Tavernier is stranded in between floors.

Julien’s
convertible left in front of a florist shop still has its key in the ignition.
This arouses the interest of Louis (Georges Poujouly), the boyfriend of Veronique, the shop assistant in the florist shop. Louis decides to take the car for a joyride with Veronique. From this point on, the action is intercut between the criminal exploits of Louis and Veronique, and the desperate efforts of Florence to make contact with Tavernier. Louis represents for Malle a troubled new generation of young people bent only on having a good time regardless of the consequences.

In
the process of searching for her lover, Florence is caught up in a police raid on a shady watering hole. The sight of a deadpan Moreau slowly descending from the police wagon was the first time I ever laughed at her patented juxtaposition of an expression of magisterial indifference to a seemingly humiliating experience. Don’t miss this opportunity to see the movie that launched the legend of Jeanne Moreau.

Joy
of Walsh

The
Museum of the Moving Image (35th Avenue at 36th Street, Astoria,
718-784-4520)
is presenting a two-month retrospective of 23 of the most dynamic works of Raoul Walsh (1887-1980) over a period running from July 9 through Aug.
21.

The
late Pauline Kael once scolded me petulantly for finding “joy” in the films of Raoul Walsh. I never knew how to answer this strange charge, but I hate to think what she would say or write about this latest tribute to a director the French Cahierists, especially the MacMahon faction, scolded me for not appreciating enough. My crime in their eyes was relegating Walsh to “the Far Side of Paradise” instead of placing him in the “Pantheon” alongside John Ford and Howard Hawks. Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) was reportedly inspired by the Walsh series opener, The Man I Love (1947), with Ida Lupino, Robert Alda, Bruce Bennett, Andrea King, Dolores Moran, Martha Vickers and Alan Hale. Indeed, Mr.
Scorsese
himself is quoted in the press release: “Walsh’s explosive outcast characters were bigger than life … their lust for life was insatiable, even as their actions precipitated their tragic destiny. The world was too small for them and Walsh often gave them a cosmic battleground: Mount Whitney and High Sierra.”

Over
the next few weeks, such Walsh films of many genres and periods will include The Bowery (1933), The Big Trail (1930), Me and My Gal (1932), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Sadie Thompson (1928), Going Hollywood (1933), The Roaring Twenties (1939) and They Drive by Night (1940), with High Sierra (1941) and White Heat (1949) still to come.