Alexander Sokurov’s Mother and Son , from a screenplay by Yuri Arabov, turns out to be the kind of production I am almost afraid to review for fear of being labeled a philistine without a soul. After all, Kathleen Murphy, Jim Hoberman, Paul Schrader, Lawrence Van Gelder, Susan Sontag and Amy Taubin, among other perceptive commentators on the motion picture medium, have hailed Mother and Son with superlatives that would have made D.W. Griffith, F.W. Murnau and Sergei Eisenstein blush in unison. But then they were mere filmmakers. Mr. Sokurov has set out, in his own words in an interview with Mr. Schrader, to abolish the “lie” of the third dimension in the cinema: “I didn’t want a three-dimensional space, but rather a surface, a picture. I finally wanted to be honest and say the art of film is a lie, if it maintains that it can produce a three-dimensional space, or spatiality. A three-dimensional space on the screen is simply unattainable.”
Strong words, but Mr. Sokurov fully delivers on them in Mother and Son , the most deliberately painterly film I have ever seen. What is it about? Well, it is about a dying mother (Gudrun Geyer) and her devoted son (Alexei Ananishnov), not as particularized characters, but as cosmic manifestations of Motherhood and Sonhood. The minimal dialogue exchanged between these two figures in a landscape reveals that she was once a teacher, and he a beloved child she always feared losing. They live in a house literally in the middle of nowhere or, rather, everywhere. There is not another human being to be seen except for the presence of people implied by the sounds and images of far-off trains. There is no intimation of nuclear devastation à la Chernobyl to explain the eerie isolation of the two characters in a seemingly lush countryside. The “action” moves at a glacial pace as one startling composition after another unfolds on the screen, as if each had been painted on some Russian Sistine ceiling. I say startling rather than stunning, because “stunning” requires some dramatic or psychological context within which a visual image can provide a stylistic short cut to a profound thought or a powerful feeling.
Unfortunately, there are no short cuts to anything in Mother and Son . The director prefers to go the long way around even if he diminishes his human figures to the tiniest details in his compositions. Don’t get me wrong. Mere slowness has never bothered me in the works of Eric Rohmer, Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, Josef von Sternberg, or the aptly named Michelangelo Antonioni. What bothers me in Mother and Son is what I choose to regard as an arbitrary rather than an intuitive sequencing of compositions. The director’s admirers have cited the influences of German and Russian painters on his work. Thus, instead of advancing into the 21st century as a supposedly avant-garde artist would profess to be doing, Mr. Sokurov chooses to return the cinema to the 19th century or that part of it which preceded the invention of the motion picture.
But don’t take my word for it. See Mother and Son if you are looking for something completely antiformulaic. There is a prodigious effort involved in the degree of control the director exerts on the human face, voice and body, and all the God-given manifestations of the natural world. Indeed, Mr. Sokurov goes so far as to distort his images with the equivalents of brushstrokes and mirrored reflections. The two actors are not lacking in screen charisma, but they are held in check to the point of forced immobility, as if posing for a lifelike picture. I recently lost my own beloved mother, and I should be the ideal spectator for Mother and Son , guilt, grief and all. But I was never moved, possibly because the son’s sorrows were rendered with such rhetorical excessiveness that I felt he was suffering enough for the both of us.
Memories of Renée Zellweger
Jonas and Josh Pate’s Deceiver , from their own screenplay, generates some of the excitement, and much of the exasperation, one encounters these days in so-called “Sundance cinema.” Indeed, it was at a bus stop in the snows of Sundance that the exquisitely talented Renée Zellweger reportedly first met the Pate brothers and Peter Glazer, the producer of their first film, The Grave (1996). Dan Ireland’s The Whole Wide World (1996), with Vincent D’Onofrio and Ms. Zellweger in the leads, had already been screened at Sundance, and Ms. Zellweger was en route to near-stardom in Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire opposite Tom Cruise.
As a charter member of the Renée Zellweger fan club, I am happy to report that Ms. Zellweger has not gone Hollywood on us by turning her back on her humble beginnings in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993). Unfortunately, the part the Pate brothers reportedly wrote especially for Ms. Zellweger is not really as challenging and as satisfying as the roles imposed upon her in The Whole Wide World and Jerry Maguire. Not that she is wasted, humiliated or degraded here in the kind of unsettlingly pivotal femme fatale incarnation performed previously by Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho . The fact remains that the character Ms. Zellweger plays, Elizabeth, has been murdered as the picture begins, and Tim Roth’s Wayland, a rich socialite, is being strapped to a lie-detector machine by Charleston police detectives Braxton (Chris Penn) and Kennesaw (Michael Rooker) as part of the murder investigation.
Most of the narrative consists of an extraordinarily convoluted cat-and-mouse game in which the detectives and their suspect take turns manipulating each other. Elizabeth keeps popping up in memory flashbacks and home videos in shifting guises of stripper, prostitute, phone-sex performer and high-society escort. It’s a showy part, but ultimately that of a female pawn in a chess game for three guys interacting around a lie-detector machine.
Mr. Roth has the meatiest part as Wayland, a parent-hating plutocrat so wealthy he can afford to hire private detectives to uncover dirt on his inquisitors, Braxton and Kennesaw. Braxton turns out to be a dumb cop with a gambling problem, Kennesaw a violently jealous married man with a socially superior cheating wife he cannot bear to divorce. To make matters even more complicated, Wayland is self-diagnosed as a paranoid epileptic who is subject to frequent blackouts, memory losses and compulsively violent reactions. There are enough low-angle and overhead shots to give the goings-on a Wellesian aura. Deceiver is directed with a vengeance but with no clear destination in mind. There is a sense of its being impressed with its own cleverness, somewhat like Brian Singer’s The Usual Suspects , even if its ending adds up to modishly postmodern zero.
The acting of Ms. Zellweger, Mr. Roth, Mr. Rooker and Mr. Penn is nimble enough to twist and turn with all the crazy shifts between reality and hallucination. Ellen Burstyn as Mook, a fancifully devious gambling queen, and Rosanna Arquette as Kennesaw’s sex-starved wife add their own brands of spice to the melodramatic menu. But Mr. Roth clearly takes top honors with the sheer fun he creates out of a sociopath with a more complex personality than that of Edward Norton’s psychotic trickster in Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear . Whether or not the Pate brothers can become as fashionably eccentric as the Coen brothers remains to be seen, but, win or lose, they have added another sibling dimension to the auteur theory.
Bring My Head to Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder: The Human Comedy , an American Masters special of PBS, will air on WNET-TV on Wednesday, Feb. 4, at 9 P.M. I recommend it strongly to all my readers. Produced by Mel Stuart and David Yarnell, directed by Mr. Stuart, written by Robert Mundy and narrated by Walter Matthau, this tribute to Mr. Wilder is long overdue. One can argue whether or not Mr. Wilder is the world’s greatest living director-I think he is. Certainly, he is the greatest American director who was not included in the pantheon I proposed back in 1968 in The American Cinema , and I have been apologizing to Mr. Wilder ever since.
While channel surfing between the current media feeding-frenzy around the President and a cable screening of Kenneth Branagh’s production of Hamlet , it suddenly occurred to me that if technology had been more advanced in Shakespeare’s time, Polonius could have wired Ophelia for her meetings with Hamlet, and Claudius could have done the same with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.