André Téchiné’s Strayed , from a screenplay by Mr. Téchiné and Gilles Taurand, deals with the demoralizing civilian exodus from Paris in 1940 ahead of the occupation by the victorious German Army. The film deals with this historical moment in an arduous and yet more lyrical manner than Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s well-received but comparatively painless Bon Voyage a few months ago.
Mr. Téchiné and his co-scenarist have narrowed their focus on a widowed Parisian schoolteacher, Odile (Emmanuelle Béart), and her two children: 13-year-old Philipe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and 7-year-old Cathy (Clémence Meyer). In the catastrophic confusion during a German air attack on the refugee-clogged main road, they’re joined by a feral and resourceful youth named Yvan (Gaspard Lilliel), who leads them into the woods away from the carnage that’s consuming France. For a short but eventful time, they find sanctuary in an abandoned mansion, though Odile remains somewhat distrustful of the stranger, despite his impressive knack for scavenger-like survival that keeps putting food on the table for his adopted family.
Though Odile hates the Germans, her Parisian petit-bourgeois faith is kept in order. Her first thought as they approach the mansion is to call the police to come take charge of her children and protect them from harm. Yvan tries to persuade her that the police have too many worries with the widespread panic to concern themselves with the safety of one family, but Odile refuses to listen to a mysterious, shaven-headed stranger who may even be a fugitive from the police. Her suspicions prove not to be entirely unfounded, but her insistence on proper behavior in this cataclysmic atmosphere comes close to being delusional.
When Yvan breaks into the house alone by climbing up to a top-floor window and smashing it open, he takes the opportunity of being alone in the house to cut the telephone wires. He then lets Odile and her children in through the front door. In this very delicately balanced situation, Yvan tacitly accepts Odile’s quasi-maternal authority while keeping the father-figure-seeking Philippe at arm’s length, while affectionately allowing 7-year-old Cathy to run lovingly roughshod over him.
The film, however, is psychologically subtler than its idyllic setting would seem to suggest. Philippe shows many signs of having matured far beyond his 13 years. Cathy at first refuses to accept the fact that her father has died in the war, but eventually she displays a passion for every little creature she encounters as a life-substitute. When Odile discovers that Yvan cannot read after he is unable to pick out the right wine bottle from its label, she sets out to teach him to read and write. Having observed that he was left-handed, she remarks that left-handed children are generally handicapped in school because of its orientation to right-handedness. Yvan responds that he never went to school; he’s an orphan and a fugitive from a reformatory.
Of course, when one casts Ms. Béart, one of the most erotically charged actresses in the history of cinema, one probably doesn’t intend to waste the opportunity to show her in action. It’s not a question of “if” but “when.” Yet the essential innocence of Yvan-clouded as it is by a history of illegitimacy and delinquency-is movingly expressed when he states humbly and hopelessly that he would like to marry Odile.
At this point, two retreating French soldiers appear on the scene-not as melodramatic contrivances, but as allegorical reminders of the shame of defeat spreading over France as a shroud. The soldiers arrive and depart on horseback after a night of food, sleep and civilized conversation about the horrors of the war, and their hope is that they can rejoin their families. It’s during this same night that Odile decides to give herself to Yvan.
What happens next is bitterly realistic, as the French police finally arrive with their dispiriting aroma of oncoming collaboration with the Nazi conquerors. There is no happy ending here as there is in Bon Voyage , but there is something more important. In Bon Voyage , all the major characters were basically the same at the end of the movie as they were in the beginning. Only their locations changed. In Strayed , Odile and Yvan change and grow as we watch them-and without any whimpering or whining, they break our hearts.
Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World must be seen and heard to be believed, though not necessarily enjoyed. It depends on how desperate you are to see something “different” on the screen. The screenplay by Mr. Maddin and George Toles, based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, is certainly different. I must confess that it kept reminding me of the old aphorism “Everything changes except the avant-garde.” From time to time during the 99-minute running time, I kept thinking of those old Off Off Broadway impositions on wriggly audiences-or was it just me who was the transplanted Village square trapped among all the hipsters? With this in mind, I’m not sure that I’m the right person to review this film.
Mr. Maddin seems to be admired by most of my colleagues, and I don’t mind, on this occasion, if you take their word over mine. I suspect you’ll find that this helter-skelter merry-go-round is not nearly as funny as it comes across in print descriptions. And neither is it nearly as ghastly as some have described.
Isabella Rossellini plays Lady Port Huntly, a legless beer baroness who lives in Winnipeg during “the depths of the Depression” in 1933. As a means of promoting her beer, Lady Huntly stages a worldwide contest for “the saddest music in the world.” During the contest, the baroness is fitted with two glass legs full of beer. About all that held this chaotic conceit together for me, if only intermittently, were the many different arrangements of the Oscar Hammerstein–Jerome Kern classic “The Song Is You,” which one of my esteemed colleagues unwisely dismissed as a “chestnut.” But then I never made it a secret that I’m forever caught in a Jerome Kern time warp.
There are several singularly uninteresting back stories brought forward for the riotous climax, during which the beer baroness’s legs are first pierced and then smashed, leaving her legless once more. This sort of thing could be gruesome or offensive, but it’s neither because it verges so close to sheer silliness. Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), a bankrupt Broadway producer representing America in the World Series of sad music, was also the beer baroness’ lover before she became legless. Chester’s current mistress, coyly named Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), is also the former wife of Chester’s older brother, Roderick, who has never recovered emotionally from the death of the little boy he had with Narcissa.
Ms. Rossellini is always pleasantly genial, except for that hideous moment when she realizes that both her legs have been amputated by Chester’s drunken surgeon father, Fyodor (David Foster)-and a happy Dostoyevsky to you. The other players are afflicted with such flat dialogue that it’s difficult to discern if any of them have any talent. Ms. Mediros does shine fitfully with a sparrowesque rendition of the Kern song; Chester gets some circusy mileage out of a weirdly choreographed extravaganza to the tune of “California, Here I Come.”
Ah, but the faded archaeological look of the film is the real avant-garde selling point. Mr. Maddin simply ignores most of the rules of mainstream moviemaking, even shifting into incongruous color on occasion, though most of the time the movie resembles some lost footage from the German UFA Company, or the golden age of silent Soviet cinema. The result is that the movie looks more cultivated than it sounds and plays.
Inés París and Daniela Fejerman’s My Mother Likes Women ( A Mi Madre Le Gustan Las Mujeres ) is the kind of carefree comedy of confused sexual identities that would never be green-lighted by today’s breed of bottom-line Hollywood mogul. Let’s just say that post-Franco Madrid is much more receptive to gays and lesbians on-screen than contemporary Hollywood. Of course, there’s a very active and prolific independent-film industry in this country that deals with all sorts of gay and lesbian themes. But how many marquee names have been involved with these touchy subjects? Oh, yes-there’s Tom Hanks winning an Oscar for his Callas-loving queen in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1994), but that was more about the AIDS than the workaday gay existence. There’s also Kevin Kline’s witty gay poltergeist in Frank Oz’s In and Out (1994) and, upcoming, Mr. Kline’s portrayal of bisexual songwriter Cole Porter in De-Lovely , produced on the fringes of the industry. But at least Messrs. Hanks and Kline haven’t been penalized for their role choices, which is more than can be said for the self-outed Ellen Degeneres and Anne Heche, who were virtually burned at the stake by the industry, the press and the public for flaunting the love that dare not speak its name.
All this is not meant to set up the reader for a review claiming that My Mother Likes Women is some sort of masterpiece. It’s nothing of the sort. Its sentimental contrivances and excessively celebratory ending marks this film as a shrewdly feel-good entertainment that puts today’s Hollywood to shame.
The fun begins with a birthday party for Sofia (Rosa María Sarda), a world-renowned pianist long separated from her husband. In attendance are her three loving daughters, Elvira (Leonor Watling), Sol (Silvia Abascal) and Gimena (Maria Pujalte). Elvira is the most neurotic of the three, and regularly consults a psychiatrist to determine why her prickly personality drives away potential suitors; Sol is the leader of a rock band, and has trouble focusing on any situation for very long; and Jimena, the only one of the sisters who’s married, chafes at her burdensome life with her dull, conformist husband.
As if the three sisters didn’t have problems enough of their own, their mother delivers a piece of disturbing news-she has fallen in love with a much younger fellow pianist. Before the mother gets more specific, the doorbell rings and in walks … another woman! The three sisters are dumbfounded. Though they are polite to their mother’s lesbian lover, once they’re alone together, they begin plotting to break up the relationship. The flighty Sol, however, takes advantage of this bit of news to write and sing in public a song celebrating her “cool” mother for choosing to like women rather than men. Sofia, her lover and the remaining sisters are outraged by Sol’s scandalously rash number.
But suddenly the plot becomes focused mostly on the neurotic Elvira, her misadventures at her publishing job, her struggles with her unpublished novel, being molested by her analyst and as a failed seductress of both men and women. Ms. Watling proceeds to run away with the film by delivering an unexpected screwball-comedy characterization. My Mother Likes Women will make you smile and feel generously enlightened at the same time. If only all our social problems could be solved so easily.