Third Lonely Hearts: This Time, It Collapses

040907 article sarris Third Lonely Hearts: This Time, It CollapsesTodd Robinson’s Lonely Hearts, from his own screenplay, is the third movie based on the murderous rampage of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez in the late 1940’s. That this latest version was made at all is probably due to the fact that Mr. Robinson happens to be the grandson of Nassau County Detective Elmer C. Robinson, who played a crucial role in the couple’s arrest, conviction and subsequent execution in 1951.

I have seen only one of the two previous cinematic treatments of this grisly case, Leonard Kastle’s 1970 The Honeymoon Killers, with Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco as the deadly duo, and I still remember their performances vividly after 37 years. In both the Kastle original and the 1996 Arturo Ripstein version, Deep Crimson (in which the events have been set in Mexico), Martha is an obese, unattractive nurse who becomes the passionate partner in crime of a handsome gigolo, Raymond Fernandez; posing as brother and sister, the two go on to murder a series of women who reply to their “lonely hearts” ads in the newspapers. This is apparently what Martha was like in real life—which made the Kastle flick, if nothing else, perversely interesting.

For some reason, though, Mr. Robinson and his producers have cast the very sexy (and decidedly non-obese) Salma Hayek in the role, which immediately makes the character less original and attention-grabbing. To tell the truth, I can’t remember the actors who played the detectives in the Kastle film (or even whether there were any detectives at all). In Mr. Robinson’s version, by contrast, the detectives—John Travolta as Eugene Robinson and James Gandolfini (of The Sopranos fame) as Detective Charles Hildebrandt—share top billing with Ms. Hayek and the able Jared Leto as Fernandez. The narrative follows suit, alternating scenes of the killers in action with scenes of the not-always-in-hot-pursuit lawmen.

In short, Mr. Robinson seems less concerned with the demented couple’s homicidal rampage than with the toll it takes on Detective Robinson’s private life. This has become the pattern of contemporary crime shows on television, like the Law & Order and CSI spin-offs, as well as in recent movies like Breach and Zodiac. In the good old days, crime-busters could always count on a happy and supportive home life; now they wind up divorced and deprived of their children—or worse. In Detective Robinson’s case, his wife has already had a nervous breakdown and killed herself before the movie begins. (No Simon and Garfunkel arias for her.)

The distinctive voice of Mr. Gandolfini as Detective Hildebrandt supplies the voiceover narration, often trying to fill in the gaps in our understanding of Detective Robinson: his relentlessly tortured expressions; his on-again/off-again romance with a stationhouse colleague, Rene Fodie (played by Laura Dern); and the mysteriously clownish role of Detective Reilly (Scott Caan), who provides spasms of kick-in-the-pants comedy relief.

Meanwhile, Beck and Fernandez go their merry way, becoming more carelessly casual in their violence against lonely women (and, in one case, even a bothersome child, whose off-screen murder eventually makes Detective Robinson sick to his stomach. Still, the body of the child is never shown, though such gruesome spectacles are commonplace on television).

But this is the strange thing about Lonely Hearts: When the time comes for the criminal couple’s period-style executions in Sing Sing’s outdated electric chair, the film goes into such repulsive detail that it ends as a tract against capital punishment, with Detective Robinson driven into early retirement by the whole horrid spectacle. Actually, I wholeheartedly agree with the film’s apparent position, but I still find it a bit strange in this context. And though the murders took place in Long Island and Michigan in the late 40’s, the film transplants the events to Jacksonville, Fla., with a joyless consistency.

One interesting footnote to the 1970 production: Martin Scorsese was the original director, replaced first by Donald Volkman and finally by Mr. Kastle, who had written the script. But I must say that, though I remember the movie after all these years, I’ve never had any desire to see it again. The subject is simply too unedifying.

Six Degrees, Little Separation

Alain Resnais’ Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs), from a screenplay by Jean-Michel Ribes, based on the play by Alan Ayckbourn, follows the tangled lives of six lovelorn people in a wintry, snowbound quarter of Paris. Charlotte (Sabine Azéma) works in a real-estate office with her shy, respectful older boss, Thierry (André Dussollier), who is busy much of the time showing apartments to an engaged couple, Nicole (Laura Morante) and Dan (Lambert Wilson). The destinies of these various characters begin intersecting in such public places as a ritzy hotel bar, frequented by Dan and tended by Lionel (Pierre Arditi), and the noisy, crowded tavern where Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré), the much younger sister of Thierry, goes almost every night with a rose in her lapel for yet another fruitless blind date arranged on the Internet (though Gaëlle always lies to her brother, telling him that she is going out with her girlfriends). The very pious Charlotte, meanwhile, meets Lionel the bartender when she chooses to moonlight as a night attendant for his bed-ridden, desperately ill but still rambunctious father, Arthur (Claude Rich).

At the outset, Thierry longs to begin a relationship with Charlotte, who gives him a videotape of her favorite religious-music program. When he plays the tape at home—while Gaëlle is out on another one of her endless dates—Thierry is bored to tears by the program itself, though his interest picks up considerably when the program ends and a bit of homemade porno shows up on the tape, though the face of the woman is hidden. Could it be Charlotte herself? Yet when Thierry tries to kiss her the next morning, Charlotte rebuffs him.

Meanwhile, Dan and Nicole break up over his failure to find work after being cashiered from the Army and disowned by his father—so, taking Lionel’s advice, he advertises on the Web for a blind date, and soon meets Gaëlle in a crowded tavern ….

From this point on, each character’s attempt to escape from his or her enforced solitude ends disastrously, and each is left more alone than ever. Mr. Resnais’ style of overhead shots and frustrating camera movements makes each character seem to be a prisoner of the architecture of the moment, and the victim of a malignant configuration of coincidences.

At 84, Mr. Resnais has lost none of the fatalistic cutting edge he first displayed almost 60 years ago with his Oscar-winning 1948 documentary, Van Gogh, the first of his 47 cinematically quasi-abstract meditations on time, place and memory. Along the way, he achieved what is still the most stirring contemplation of the Nazi Holocaust, Night and Fog (1955), as well as the signature cinematic memorial of the nuclear age, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), and the most felicitous rendering of the nouveau roman aesthetic, Last Year at Marienbad (1961). His films are never to be missed.

Closed Circuit

Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, from her own screenplay, is the director’s remarkable feature-film debut after three internationally well-received shorts, Milk (1998), Dog (2001) and Wasp (2003). Ms. Arnold developed the script for Red Road at the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab in 2005. It is the first film produced as part of the “Advance Party Concept,” in which three directors will create scripts dealing with the same group of characters. The directors following Ms. Arnold will have their work cut out for them, inasmuch as Red Road is as terminally self-contained and virtually sequel-proof as any movie I’ve ever seen.

Its main character is Jackie (Kate Dickie), a Scottish closed-circuit TV operator, who keeps watch on the lower depths of an urban neighborhood via a wall of television screens, which Jackie can manipulate as she sees fit. In the early part of the action, Ms. Dickie acts almost entirely with her eyes, having little occasion to speak. Once the narrative begins in earnest, however, I found the Scottish dialogue almost impenetrable. Fortunately, there are English subtitles to explain what transpires after Jackie spots a face on the screen that she knows too well and had hoped never to see again. Nonetheless, she feels an overpowering need to confront the person behind the face—and when she does so, she becomes just another figure on the surveillance screens she had no desire to enter.

Ms. Dickie ultimately gives an extraordinary, full-bodied performance of uncommon frankness and sensuality, coupled with a complex projection of emotional paralysis reflected in the glazed gaze of eyes that are always looking, but seldom seeing anything with feeling. It is one of the most revelatory performances I have ever been privileged to witness.

The other participants in Jackie’s past and present—Clyde (Tony Curran), her mystery nemesis; Stevie (Martin Compston), an engaging low-life; and April (Natalie Press), a concerned in-law—flash by on Jackie’s radar without rousing her from her passive reverie. The hidden depths of the film’s pervasive surveillance spectacle serve as an evocation of society’s ceaselessly voyeuristic impulses, in which we are all increasingly implicated. In the end, however, Ms. Dickie’s incredible performance alone is worth the price of admission.