Scorsese Takes Boston, And Electrifies With Departed

Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, from a screenplay by William Monahan, based on Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s 2002 Hong Kong

Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, from a screenplay by William Monahan, based on Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, provides an electrifying entertainment for this fall moviegoing season in its police-mobster machinations and deep undercover penetration by both sides of the law. In this respect, The Departed strikes unexpectedly deep chords of tragic poignancy with the emotional fallout from an atmosphere of perpetual paranoia so characteristic of our post-9/11 world. No one can completely trust anyone else.

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Mr. Scorsese and his associates have assembled a remarkably charismatic cast to impart coherence and conviction to a narrative that could have easily dwindled into an affectless succession of gratuitous intrigues. Jack Nicholson makes his first appearance in a Scorsese project as the paternalistic but ruthless South Boston mob boss Frank Costello, who has become the prime target of the Massachusetts State Police. A young rookie cop from South Boston named Billy Costigan, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, has accepted an assignment to go deep undercover in the Costello mob, which requires that he literally change his identity by serving time in prison on a fake assault conviction. Billy already had mob connections in his family, and was motivated to undertake this dangerous mission by a desire to exorcize the demons of his tainted family.

Mr. Scorsese, who worked with Mr. DiCaprio in the generally underrated Gangs of New York (2002) and The Aviator (2004), thereby felt an unusual rapport with the actor over his difficulties in dissembling: “As an actor, I knew Leo would convey the conflict of a young man who has gotten himself into a bad situation and then wonders what the hell he is doing there. You can see it in his face; you can see it in his eyes. That’s one of the reasons I like working with Leo—he knows how to express emotional impact without saying a word. It emanates from him. He is quite extraordinary to watch.”

Mr. DiCaprio’s Billy is, however, only one side of the elaborate doppelgänger edifice that Mr. Scorsese and his Boston-savvy scenarist, Mr. Monahan, have constructed out of the two-way betrayal idea imported from the Hong Kong–based original, Infernal Affairs. Hence, while Billy is agonizing in his private hell of mob infiltration, Matt Damon’s Colin Sullivan is sailing through the ranks of the Massachusetts State Police Department to become a plainclothes detective in a Special Investigation Unit under Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his persistently and profanely suspicious second-in-command, Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). Here the chain of command becomes entangled in the inbred secretiveness of all police bureaucracies. Hence, though both Queenan and Dignam supposedly answer to the head of the Special Investigations Unit, Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin), they are the only members of the unit who know that Billy has infiltrated the Costello organization.

But what no one at the top—not Ellerby, not Queenan, not Dignam—knows is that Colin has been groomed from the time he was 12 by Costello himself to infiltrate the Massachusetts State Police Department. Like Hitchcock, Mr. Scorsese prefers suspense to surprise in his narrative, to the point that the audience is always one step ahead of the characters as they thrash about in search of the ever-elusive mole in the midst.

To add to the almost comical convulsions of paranoia on both sides, we are very casually informed that Costello himself has gained immunity from the F.B.I. as one of their paid informants. Thus, systematically botched sting operations and incomplete surveillance enable Costello to pursue his drug deals, to facilitate his extortion of merchants and shopkeepers and, finally, with post-9/11 flair, to traffic in instruments of terror with Chinese gangs.

The heart of the film, however, concerns the blighted lives and choices of the two co-protagonists played by Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Damon. These two action superstars would normally never be cast together in the same picture, especially since they look remarkably alike when they are surly or snarly. Police psychiatrist Madeleine, played by Vera Farmiga, hammers home the doppelgänger device by becoming involved with Colin and Billy, first as patients and then as lovers. Her scenes with the two men are very lucidly written and resourcefully acted, and thus relieve some of the relentless tensions of their impersonations. Rumor has it that Madeleine’s part was expanded to give the film some air in its almost suffocating progression to an inexorably nihilistic climax.

Just as there are two turncoats mirroring each other on either side of the legal divide, so there are two parallel organizations representing the conflicting interests of the cops and robbers. In line with this parallelism, Frank Costello mirrors his adversaries in the state police—Captain Ellerby and his underlings, Queenan and Dignam—with his own cold-blooded second-in-command, Mr. French, played by the brilliant British actor Ray Winstone, and French’s two blood-splattered henchmen, Fitzy and Delahunt (David O’Hara and Mark Rolston).

Mr. Scorsese pays fleeting tributes to two noir classics from the past, first in a cemetery scene reminiscent of Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s The Third Man (1949), and then with an almost subliminal invocation of Costello’s first name and his Irish-Catholic heritage from John Ford and Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer (1935). All in all, however, Mr. Scorsese has shown in The Departed, as he has never shown before, an ability to integrate his explosive acting set pieces with a seamlessly flowing narrative. It may be that the sheer intensity of Mr. Monahan’s identification with Irish-Americans has given Mr. Scorsese enough distance from his traditional Italian-American roots to enable him to be more detached and contemplative about the Irish-American milieu of The Departed. Whatever the reason, it is truly an occasion for rejoicing.

Law and Ardor

Xavier Beauvois’ Le Petit Lieutenant, from the screenplay by Mr. Beauvois, Guillaume Bréaud and Jean-Eric Troubat, with the collaboration of Cédric Anger, follows the title character as he graduates from the French police academy with all the pomp and ceremony of a quasi-military institution. Antoine is granted his request to be stationed in Paris, and this entails leaving his wife Julie (Bérangère Allaux) in the country while he finds a place in the city and begins work in the criminal section, which is headed by Inspector Caroline Vaudieu (Natalie Baye). Long ago, after the death of her 7-year-old son from meningitis, Inspector Vaudieu had fallen into a deep depression and, with it, a long struggle with alcoholism that led eventually to rehab and a diminished status in the force. As she confides to a friend, her dead son would have been Antoine’s age had he lived. Hence, the relationship between the much older Caroline and Antoine develops more along maternal lines than sexual ones.

Mr. Beauvois describes the genesis of his policier thusly: “I began thinking about ideas for a crime thriller while I was editing my previous film, To Mathieu. I didn’t have any precise framework for a plot in mind, but I knew I didn’t want to take a book or a film or any other fictional story as a starting point. I wanted my inspiration to come from real life.

“I met a captain working in the Criminal Investigation Division and spent several months following him out in the field and in the office, even passing myself off as a police lieutenant at times. That’s how I got access to crime scenes and to every stage of an investigation, even the more confidential parts, such as autopsies. I had an idea for a story about a young lieutenant confronted with the harsh reality of his chosen profession on his first posting. I built on a true story with the desire to be scrupulously faithful to the reality of a police investigation and to use all I had seen. In writing the character of the petit lieutenant, I took my inspiration from the passion and fervor that I felt when I was starting out in the movies as a trainee assistant director.”

Mr. Beauvois pays a price in his passion for authenticity: The movie progresses very slowly over long stretches that depict police procedures and dead-end investigations in exhaustive detail. (Autopsies, for example, have become old hat thanks to the three CSI and three Law and Order programs on television these days.) But when the action finally picks up in the pursuit of a ruthless Russian gang of killers, the relationship between Caroline and Antoine is delivered a devastating emotional wallop. Ms. Baye received the French equivalent of an Academy Award for her performance, and she deserved it. Once more, the French put us to shame with their deeper and more profound appreciation of their female stars of a certain age—in this instance, a still ferociously nubile 58.

Queen Sofia

Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, from her own screenplay, based on Antonia Fraser’s biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, has become one of the most talked-about and written-about movies of the year ever since it was introduced at the Cannes Film Festival to an indeterminate proportion of boos—long before I saw it at a New York Film Festival screening for journalists. The night before, I had attended a dinner party that included two very sophisticated and articulate French citizens who had seen Marie Antoinette in Paris, and made faces and gestures of dismissal without deigning to go into detail.

On this very flimsy evidence, I kept asking myself during the screening why the French hated it so much. Was it because Marie is shown denying that she ever said “Let them eat cake” when told that the people were suffering from a shortage of bread? Was it because Ms. Coppola spends two hours on the follies and fripperies of the character, and barely a few minutes on the outbreak of the revolution? Later I learned that both Cahiers du Cinema and Positif, two mutually hostile Parisian film journals, had given Ms. Coppola’s film very favorable reviews and even featured Kirsten Dunst’s Marie on their covers. Furthermore, the film reportedly did good business on its Parisian release.

I have been favorably disposed to Ms. Coppola ever since she was unfairly savaged by critics and audiences as Mary Corleone for her reading of one word—“Dad”—after being accidentally shot at the end of her own daddy’s Godfather: Part III (1990). I doubt that Winona Ryder, previously cast for the role, would have read that exclamation any more convincingly than poor Sofia did. Since this misadventure, and much to my delighted surprise, Ms. Coppola has more than vindicated herself with her perceptively sensitive direction of The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Lost in Translation (2003).

So I was prepared to give her a pass on what seemed in advance to be an impossible project. I will say this: Ms. Coppola has not been intimidated by the subject to the point of playing it safe. Still, the film’s attempts to render the story as a fashion extravaganza are only intermittently absorbing. Much of the film is so abstract in its sensuous contemplation of what amount to royal teenage shopping frenzies that historical time seems to stop in order to make way for a timeless essay on the temptations of materialism.

Ms. Coppola and her colleagues have also taken an anachronistic approach to her material with an anarchic pop-music score suggesting the complacent spirit of a contemporary spoiled teenager infatuated with the glistening surfaces of her generation’s creature comforts.

Curiously, the only other film version of Marie Antoinette’s life I can recall is W. S. Van Dyke’s 1938 Metro super-production with a badly miscast Norma Shearer in the title role, with Robert Morley as the painfully shy and clumsy Dauphin, later to ascend to the throne as the ill-fated Louis XVI, and John Barrymore as his grandfather, the far more sophisticated Louis XV. I never saw Michèle Morgan in Jean Delannoy’s 1956 French version, but both Shearer and Ms. Morgan were much older than the kittenish Ms. Dunst, and more time was spent on Marie’s adulterous love affair with Count Axel de Fersen (Tyrone Power in the Shearer movie and Richard Todd in the Morgan). Ms. Coppola is made of sterner stuff than that: Flaws and all, hers is undeniably the most serious treatment of the subject.

Special mention should be made of the performances of Ja­son Schwartzman as the Dauphin and Rip Torn as Louis XV, both of whom rose to the levels of Morley and Barrymore in the Metro version, despite being seemingly miscast.

Scorsese Takes Boston,  And Electrifies With Departed