The Triumph of Love; Changing Lanes

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



Was Marivaux
kitschy? That’s not a pressing question in the Britney Spears age, but
Clare Peploe’s vivid film version of Marivaux’s 18th-century play
The Triumph of Love feels contemporary enough to make you wonder: How
did Marivaux’s 1732 audience react to his sexual interrogation and gender
self-consciousness? Were they as amused by his toying with illusion and seduction
as, say, Spears’ audience is by hers? Or did he probe so deeply, so complexly,
that while his plays entered the soul of French romantic discourse, they became
less comforting, less well known than the works of Moliere, Racine, Beaumarchais?


Peploe adapted
The Triumph of Love after seeing a performance of this obscure play at
the experimental Almeida Theatre in London. In something of a cultural recovery
act, she brings Marivaux into the popular light, but her play-within-a-movie
conceit also recovers for the contemporary screen the heady and stirring romantic
contemplation that lately has only been the province of Eric Rohmer. Peploe
assumes Marivaux’s particular style of argument and wit (called Marivaudage
by French theater scholars) with the aplomb and insouciance we normally associate
with pop music. It’s a farce with sweep and rhythm. Unlike such genteel
kitsch as Shakespeare in Love or the recent, stodgy Jane Austen adaptations,
Triumph of Love’s artifices come across with billowy, naturalistic
ease and erotic intimacy. Using a sun-drenched Italian villa (the kind of setting
Kenneth Branagh made insufferable in Much Ado About Nothing), Peploe
transcends the longstanding pretenses that turn classical adaptations into kitsch.
She pays homage to watching theater, but her almost subliminal shots of a contemporary
theater audience remind us we’re also watching life. We could be eavesdropping
on an enchanted world, but the marvel of this picture–and it is the most
marvel-filled movie this season–is that this world is an encapsulation
of romantic psychology.


I can’t
lie about the film’s complexity; that’s part of its fun. A big term–emotional
dialectic–describes the interplay when a Princess-in-disguise (Mira Sorvino)
enters the hideaway of skeptical, loveless philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley)
and his maiden, scientist sister Leontine (Fiona Shaw). The Princess has fallen
in love with their handsome young protege, Agis (Jay Rodan), but her sexual
pursuit also has a political impetus; knowing the intellectuals are opposed
to her sovereignty, she secretly plots to foil them all–through flirtation.
Taking on further guises (as Phocion, a questing male student, and Aspasie,
an ardent young lady), the Princess boldly romances each member of the estate.
Like As You Like It’s Rosalind, her strategies dissect every person’s
vanity as well as their political and social isolation. Forcing others into
awareness of their suppressed feelings, she gets surprised by the depth of her
own.


During a sly
embrace, Agis teaches the Princess archery. The target is an effigy of herself
with a big red heart; when pierced, the effigy opens its mouth. That’s
the play’s organizing principle–the expression of wounded feelings
provoked by deep-set longings. ("He’s a combination of everything
that makes grace worthy of love." "You have a heart in which reason
is tempered by emotion." "A pure soul illuminates the body with the
light of its intelligence.") Marivaux exposes/analyzes both high-flown
and sentimental assumptions about love, friendship, trust. In his day he was
commissioned by the Comedie Française, writing popularly, yet avoiding
sentimentality. But if you’ve seen any serious French film this past century
you can see its source in Marivaux. Peploe sees Marivaux’s universality.
She treats the play as a right-now daydream of how people act on their desires.
Modern feelings are only dressed up in the swank and splendor of fable and farce.
Timeless passions are heightened, thus made clearer, more buoyant, more painful.


At her most
vulnerable and exposed, old maid Leontine gasps, "I’m trapped!"
That’s when Peploe’s cut to the modern-day audience startles. Leontine’s
Blanche DuBois moment shows us the harshness of the Princess’ jest, but
that audience shot also provides proper distance on cruelty–the kind that
never occurs in Les Liasons Dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos’ tainted
satire of human nature. Peploe latches onto Marivaux’s greater insight.
("All is positive and negative at the same time.") Her co-screenwriters
Bernardo Bertolucci and Marilyn Goldin reveal the play’s pain while reveling
in its artifices. Goldin was co-screenwriter of Andre Techine’s French
Provincial
, another act of juggling form and emotion. Jason Osborn’s
score is a fitting pastiche of Mozart, Vivaldi, Respighi and Delerue with Dave
Gilmour’s guitar giving rock-era immediacy to the Princess’ trysts
with Agis. (Baz Luhrmann, the word is subtlety.)


The cast is
in good repertory humor. Kingsley makes Hermocrates a perfect joke on pompous
sexual philosophizing; Ignazio Oliva’s Arlequin is a tribute to fun. As
the maid, Rachel Stirling smiles with catlike amusement, and Shaw finally proves
her reputation; Leontine’s openhearted foolishness (evoking both Vanessa
Redgrave in Agatha and Zasu Pitts in Greed) mixes comedy with
genuine pathos. Sorvino’s slightly goofy benevolence makes her an ideal
comedienne. Her "classical repertory" voice blends Audrey Hepburn’s
moue with Joan Greenwood’s purr; she’s required to stress affectation
yet still maintains the film’s androgynous balance. This role’s intricacy
(as when the Princess asks forgiveness) recalls Magnani’s tour de force
in Renoir’s similarly multilayered The Golden Coach.


Triumph
of Love
deserves such lofty comparisons (unlike the recent dreadful film
of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which looked like its director
had never seen a movie before, having actors walk across the screen like ducks
in a shooting gallery). Peploe explores Marivaux to show how the idea of loving
motivates politics and ethics. You can’t be more modern than that, and
the astringency in this romp is what keeps it from being kitschy. Peploe first
showed her farcical leanings in the gentle 1988 film High Season, but
Triumph of Love is a full-blown romantic expression. Its ethics are apparent
in Peploe’s sexy entrancement. When couples talk–whether woman to
man, woman to woman, man to man–their eyes and flesh overwhelm. Sparkle
and texture fill the screen. In concert with Marivaux’s speeches, these
luminous duets bring to mind Scritti Politti’s structuralist pop lyric,
"How your flesh and blood became the word." No director has done romantic
closeups this captivating since George Stevens. Peploe turns Marivaux’s
moral treatise into an erotic reverie. It may happen that the banal Shakespeare
in Love
attracts many more moviegoers. That will leave just a few of us
to enjoy Peploe’s breathless sophistication–but we’re a lucky
few.



Changing
Lanes


Directed by Roger
Michell



Forget about
a level playing field. Changing Lanes can’t even balance its dramatic
scales when weighing Wall Street lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) against insurance
salesman Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), let alone keep the two New Yorkers’
harried emotions on a parallel track. Intending social compassion, screenwriters
Michael Tolkin, Chap Taylor and director Roger Michell wind up promoting the
very inequities they set out to resolve. They fail by charging up their critique
with meretricious action-movie ploys, cheapening their own misguided, liberal
guilt.


The stars’
roles are not remotely equal (were they even paid the same?). Affleck gets the
moral crisis and the majority of screen time while Jackson, significantly, is
like an evil djinn, popping up as an emanation of the white elite’s worst
fears: a threatening, inconsolable black. It’s laughable to think that
the filmmakers probably intended the opposite, bringing these two men together
in a fender-bender on the FDR Dr. where the hasty white guy ruins the life of
the righteous black guy. Trouble is, these filmmakers don’t know how an
average man has a bad day–or what made Doyle an alcoholic struggling to
put his life in order. All we get is Affleck’s white contrition and Jackson’s
black rage.


What’s
in the filmmakers’ subconscious comes out in lines referring to Jackson:
"Don’t kill the dog, I just want the dog to settle down." "He’s
a spirit without a body" (when his bank credit is canceled). And Doyle’s
wife’s definitive summary, "You went crazy like you always do, crazy
like you always will go crazy and that’s you!" No doubt Jackson was
drawn to this familiar role because he feels justified playing bitterness–whether
as Shaft, Jules or whomever. He’s waging a lonely, deluded battle, as his
frown at the recent Academy Awards suggested. But Affleck has industry favor
on his side. Though he’s just as inadequate an actor as Jackson, Changing
Lanes
’ script gives Affleck a nearly full human portrait.


Better than
I expected, Affleck faces an ethical quandary. Banek’s trophy wife (Amanda
Peet) challenges him, "What do you think the law is at this level? It is
a big, vicious game. They understand how the world works. When a man comes to
the edge of things, he has to commit to staying there." Affleck’s
tears are supposed to make Peet’s proposal seem acceptable, but the dilemma
actually looks like Hollywood self-justification (Peet could be a producer’s
wife rooting for the mansion, car and pool). "I came here for some meaning,"Affleck
says in a confessional. "Sometimes God just likes to put two guys in a
paper bag and just let ’em rip." This is sub-Paddy Chayefsky moralizing.
Tolkin’s always partial to it (Deep Cover, The New Age) but
it took Altman’s humanity on The Player to correct his cynicism.
Pomposity vitiates Tolkin’s "seriousness." As a result, Changing
Lanes
’ audience suffers his sadistic tendentiousness. He’s a hip
ironist: "I believe in law, order, justice. I believe that people are by
nature good," a naive lawyer quotes Anne Frank. And when put-upon Doyle
rushes to save his schoolkids during a hoax, there’s a frustrated father/child
reunion scene–more stomach-turning than heart-wrenching.


Changing
Lanes
is based on too many simple fallacies about modern male stress. That’s
why Jackson goes into unaccountable racist rampages defending Tiger Woods or
describes Affleck as having "some kind of computer voodoo." (The switch
of villainy reflects the filmmakers’ basic racist assumption.) When Jackson
admits, "I was a horribly unstable father," it seems like what white
filmmakers have been waiting to hear blacks say, because we never see how
he was an unstable (or perhaps overly self-critical) father.


Cross-class
interaction with William Hurt (as an AA mentor) supposedly proves brotherly
commiseration–changing lanes–is possible, yet even he condemns Doyle
with a speech that coincidentally sums up Jackson’s career: "Your
drug of choice is chaos. For some it’s bourbon, coke. You got hooked on
disaster." As long as filmmakers think black chaos is marketable, they
might as well give up the insulting pretense of liberalism.


..