An Ideal Husband
directed by Oliver Parker
Riding a bus to the Hamptons, a friend recently watched An Ideal Husband, on video. So did I—but in a theater. An oddly appropriate experience, since Oliver Parker conducts this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s love roundelay just as a tv director would: mostly closeups and perfunctory medium shots for group compositions. But the pretense that this is cinema (which I’m willing to accept for the pleasures of language and skilled acting that filmed theater used to promise) was ruined. Right now An Ideal Husband‘s digital projection at Chelsea’s Clearview Cinema looks horrid, and the gall to pass it off as an adequate alternative to film projection is as philistine as the recent Miramaxing of British literature. Film lovers beware. If this succeeds, the culture fails.
Glancing back at the three-eyed monster of primary color lenses in the projection booth, I followed the beams of light to the large screen where red, yellow and blue rays rearranged themselves into ersatz splendor. It was like watching the best tv reception you ever saw, but it lacked sharpness. What’s gained in image density means a loss of film’s transfixing illusory surface. In a shameless New York Times “Arts and Leisure” article promoting George Lucas’ digital projection project (The Phantom Menace is the only other film currently being presented this way), the celebrated huckster Walter Murch disingenuously pronounced that film and digital projection are “comparable.” His term was misleading and evasive. Cinema is not merely lifelike reproduction (as is video); the look of images gliding materially across a surface has an imaginative advantage—akin to why the impressionist school is still more captivating than photorealism.
An Ideal Husband makes a bizarre test case for digital projection, since its basic point is to provide postcard cinema. Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play and the contemporary actors speaking it have been filmed less for artistic meaning than for cultural tone—an escape into the Victorian era and BBC-style sophistication. Upholstered libraries, bustled, flowing gowns, stately mansions and—always—men in formal tuxes. These get more attention than Wilde’s dialogue. The play’s story (something between drama and comedy), concerning worldly Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore) blackmailing Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), the husband of her schoolgirl rival (Cate Blanchett), may deal with fidelity, trust and amorous composure, but the film itself is about ready-made erudition, the ersatz art of Anglophile comportment. Merchant-Ivory really did do this kind of thing better; they may not be great filmmakers but they are men of taste. Ivory’s direction has gotten more competent,
more felicitous in recent years (and their choice of subjects—Henry James, E.M. Forster, Picasso, James Jones—has been admirably risky).
With An Ideal Husband Miramax continues its world-conquering deflation of literacy—playing down the lit and emphasizing the racy. In the lamentable case of Shakespeare in Love this has won plaudits from people who would never seriously read or visit a Shakespeare production, and so the media has treated Shakespeare in Love, a crude, obvious pastiche, as if it were tantamount to Twelfth Night or Love’s Labour Lost. That fake sophistication—by which Academy members congratulated
themselves for feeling highbrow simply because the word “thou” was thrown in between tits and yocks—has something to do with the commercially engineered degrading of cultural standards. But even if you’re not William Bennett, An Ideal Husband‘s prosaic adaptation—and the collapse of visual standards apparent in its video projection—make this slump unignorable.
Watching this film is indeed the cultural equivalent of riding a bus to the Hamptons; moviegoers think they’re doing something classy. Or getting something modern—Parker’s adapted screenplay structures the play’s combined threat to a Parliament member’s marriage and career in order to parallel affairs that beset the Clintons (who are such Miramax boosters that Gwyneth Paltrow even jokes on tv about the President sleeping during Emma—his smartest act yet). There’s even a cannily placed speech about “commerce without conscience” that springs too easily from the filmmakers’ middlebrow conceit. You know immediately the film’s gentility is not a matter of taste but of cowardice and irrelevance. Even more than David Mamet’s dull The Winslow Boy, this is a safe political parable.
Parker’s cast, portraying upper-crust conspirators, play hollow intrigue rather than socially specific intelligence. Even the best of them—Minnie Driver gurgling and pouting more than an ingenue in a French sex comedy; a visibly pregnant Julianne Moore in her ample bodices; Cate Blanchett in her blank-faced virtue—are facetious in a crowd-pleasing manner. They bring no inflection to Wilde’s writing. Moore was much more effective when Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street permitted her to translate Chekhov into modern temperament—a fact signaling a lost performance tradition and literary efficacy that filmed theater used to preserve. One word—Ealing—sinks this whole enterprise. (In college, an English professor could recommend unreservedly the 1952 film of The Importance of Being Earnest for the adhered text “and Michael Redgrave’s blue eyes.”)
An Ideal Husband half-steps to drama, mostly by Parker’s attempt to refashion the elegant comedy of Wilde’s Earnest (briefly seen in a staged production). Rupert Everett, misused and miscast, is part of this error. In the otherwise forgettable A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Everett’s Oberon matched armpits with Stanley Tucci’s Puck, the slyest homo come-on since the hat compliments in Mark Rappaport’s Impostors. He never quite gets that frisson going with Jeremy Northam because Everett’s casting as the bachelor Lord Goring undercuts a truly modern interpretation of Wilde and Victorian custom—and the very point of half of Miramax’s ad campaign. Surrounded by Moore, Blanchett and Driver, Everett, looking sly, is meant to evoke the straight-woman’s-soulmate role he played in the Julia Roberts vehicle My Best Friend’s Wedding. But the Lord Goring role, slightly dissolute yet bearing bright, ostentatious boutonnieres—including the infamous green carnation—never becomes an Oscar Wilde surrogate, but is a letdown. (It reminded me of when Joan Rivers, startled by Everett’s no-tie, open-shirted appearance at the Golden Globe Awards, shrieked, “He looks like a closet heterosexual!”) The film’s other ads feature Northam in the center, but he lacks Everett’s openly gay insouciance. Northam’s fleshy chin and fuzzy mustache recall Robert Donat’s charm wanly matched to Everett’s fey imperiousness, but no radical reading of Wilde emerges. In this movie, Everett—an actor with serious ambition—isn’t insouciant enough. He respects the somber essence of Wilde’s morality tale, so the entire film comes off as misguidedly decorous and only slightly camp, like a badly dressed star during award season.
Wilde himself might even be offended by this film’s trite sensibility. But in truth, a romantic potboiler like Message in a Bottle with its all-film look was a greater esthetic experience (as was its interest in the spiritual difficulty of romantic sacrifice). When digitally projected, An Ideal Husband‘s look is as soft and dull-witted as Parker’s interpretation (although the ladies boast sumptuous neckwear). Wilde’s genius even has this new development in pop art covered: Driver tells Lord Goring, “To look at a thing is quite different from seeing a thing. One has not seen it until one has seen its beauty.”
An Ideal Husband is a harbinger of the insensibility dominating today’s film culture and that technicians will exploit in the now-unstoppable changeover to new exhibition methods and bigger profits (commerce without conscience). It could be that people
have watched movies on videotape for so long that they no longer care about the crucial distinctions between formats. Seeing a digitally projected film denies its beauty as surely as a postcard reproduction degrades Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte. The textured richness of Message in a Bottle will be lost; so will the phantasmic gloss of Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment and the limpid evocations of Von Sternberg that make movies worth looking at and contemplating. I have now seen cinema future and it is blurry.
Late August, Early September
directed by Olivier Assayas
Taking charm out of French cinema is not an advance. In Late August, Early September, Olivier Assayas follows a group of 90s malcontents in a fuck-and-sneer contest. Froggy-faced Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), a literary editor, volleys between two women—clinging, giraffe-like Jenny (Jeanne Balibar), whose smile is a nervous reflex, and the voluptuous masochist Anne (Virginie Ledoyen). Gabriel also babysits a dying writer friend, Adrien (François Cluzet), whose uncertain talent seems instinctively prescient (Adrien staves off mortality—and ensures his literary immortality—by dating a 16-year-old jeune fille).
Credit Assayas for realistically perceived assholes—everyone’s complication is recognizable (even if only from The Big Chill and Woody Allen’s Manhattan). But Assayas gets no credit for indulging them in the affected style of Barry Levinson tv. Without shaky cam and quick cutting we’d see how banal the situations truly are. His dour visual style—blue/green plus washed-out flesh tones—is the filmic equivalent of wearing black in the East Village. So Late August, Early September
will probably be praised the same way Assayas’ unpleasant Irma Vep was cheered by critics who forgot how buoyant and revealing French cinema used to be (even as recently as Techine’s resplendent Wild Reeds and Les Voleurs).
If we take 60s effervescence for granted, it means we’ve forgotten how the New Wave artists celebrated the complexity of living: sex, art, philosophy—the excitement of new perception. Patrice Chereau works in that tradition; his upcoming Big Chill movie, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, gets to the point of modern stress and finds the drama. Assayas enervates the modern condition by turning what once was deep, gorgeous art into grunge. (And he cheats, simulating a slick magazine layout—during Anne’s debasement—when it’s commercially suited.) Movies that look this bad might as well be shot and shown in video.