The Widow of Saint-Pierre and In the Mood for Love: Two Good Romantic Movies

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Two current
romantic movies–Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love and Patrice
Leconte’s The Widow of Saint-Pierre–are marked by restraint.
Wong’s film is about amatory attraction between a man and woman who are
married to other people, while Leconte’s concerns a couple’s obsessive
caretaking of a prisoner condemned to death–love as the highest state of
humanism. Since neither film goes all the way to consummation of the romantic
impulse, leaving both couples’ ideals unfulfilled, these may seem to be
strange interpretations of "romance." But Wong and Leconte create
an unusual tension between characters’ restrained behavior and their own
extravagant visual styles. They reimagine romantic temperament as something
sensuous, almost tactile, definitively cinematic.


It’s said
that pop esthete Wong Kar-Wai took his inspiration for In the Mood for Love
from Bryan Ferry’s 1999 As Time Goes By. Anyone who has really heard
that album understands Wong’s enchantment–and his rush to immediately
capture its mood on film. (The album came out in the fall of ’99; the film
premiered at Cannes, still wet from the lab, in the spring of 2000.) Ferry interpreted
standard love songs as if recorded in 1930s nightclubs and radio stations, adding
his own modernist aura. An otherwordly version of Rodgers and Hart’s "Where
or When" employed an ondes martenot (according to critic Edward Crouse,
a theremin-like string instrument named after its inventor). Wong’s elliptically
paced 1960s-set love story replicates Ferry’s eerie romanticism down to
its dulcet score, the heart-stopping effect of repeated camera movements and
softly percussive editing.


For people
who need movies to tell a linear story, In the Mood for Love has just
enough of one. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) is a journalist recently moved into
a bustling Hong Kong apartment building. On the same day a secretary, Su Li-zhen
(Maggie Cheung), moves next door. With their spouses constantly away, Mo-wan
and Li-zhen are drawn together. When it’s discovered that their spouses
are having an affair, their closeness is doubly complicated by their own compulsion
to repeat infidelity. Wong welcomes the charm of this hackneyed plot, but it’s
just a premise. In the manner of David Lean’s Brief Encounter–even
the candidness of Sydney Pollack’s very similar Random Hearts, where
the cheating spouses were also unseenWong accentuates romanticism.
He takes sensuality as far as it can go short of pornography.


As in his previous
love movies Chungking Express and Happy Together, Wong is interested
in the modern experience of romantic longing. That explains his moody, atmospheric
emphasis. The score by Michael Galasso and Umebayashi Shigeru uses cello for
melancholy emotional texture a la Ferry’s album, but Wong’s modern
interest is also in the suite of Spanish songs by Nat King Cole. These phonetic
curios illustrate the global relevance of the couple’s emotions. In
the Mood for Love
essays restive feelings that are universally recognizable.
("California Dreaming" served the same purpose in Chungking Express.)
When critics praise In the Mood for Love for its exoticism (i.e., chinoiserie),
the joke’s on them. Wong’s romantic antennae pick up and send signals
everywhere.


All this is
cool–supremely chic–but there’s a larger pop truth. When Mo-wan
says, "I want to write a martial arts serial," and Li-zhen agrees
to this chaste form of collaboration, Wong poignantly dramatizes these proper
persons’ need to fantasize and break out of thwarted lives. Their "cheating"
happens only by sharing melancholy. This may seem morally old-fashioned and
puritanical, but it works a strong romantic spell. Movie and pop music history
have confirmed the effectiveness of sustained, frustrated desire–from Brief
Encounter
with its tidal Rachmaninoff score to Jacques Demy’s Lola.
And Wong knows such incessant seductiveness (as in Godard’s Masculine
Feminine
) is timeless.


What’s
fascinatingly contemporary about Wong’s style is his facility for the pop
language of desire: fashion. Mo-Wan, the sad little man in gray silk suits,
and Li-zhen, prudent yet glamorous in her upswept pageboy and hot wardrobe,
become eternal embodiments of yearning. The most profound filmmakers never portrayed
passion with lusty thrashing, but with sublimation. That was the secret of Josef
von Sternberg’s mastery of style and behavior, whether in Morocco
or The Shanghai Gesture. So while Wong records Mo-wan’s and
Li-zhen’s reticent demeanors, they’re also his peacocks flaunting
sensual colors. Li-zhen’s dresses match the balanced tones by cinematographers
Mark Li Ping-bin and Christopher Doyle. In a scene of Minnelli-like delirium,
Li-zhen is seen pacing a room, ignoring the ladies playing mah-jongg. A yellow
flower display matches floral drapes, and when she leans out a window, Wong
cuts to an exterior view where the vines and bushes synch with her patterned
dress! Sternberg orchestrated no finer display of absolute rapture. Her wardrobe,
like her character, is startling: Li-zhen’s high-collared mandarin dresses
have saucy, shoulder-cupping sleeves; even Mo-wan’s green sharkskin suits
show a red iridescent sheen. The effect isn’t strictly symbolic; it’s
expressive of their quiet, radiant passion.


In the Mood
for Love
is best appreciated as proving Wong to be one of the great self-conscious
romantics of pop culture–at last, a movie equivalent to Ferry. When Mo-wan
corrects Li-zhen’s emotional outburst ("It’s a rehearsal!"),
the moment is a jest by Wong. He’s aware that music and color–and
time paused for what feels like eternity as lovers stand in the rain–are
just approaches to human longing. He saves passionate intensity–intimate
secrets–for a final, mysterious sequence summoning humankind’s accumulated
longings. The tableau coordinates faith, music and cinema. Behold it in awe.


 




The Widow
of Saint-Pierre

must be the most visually striking movie ever made about capital punishment,
but Leconte’s real subject is the stubborn idealism of a military Captain
(Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Madame La (Juliette Binoche). Their guardianship
over Neel (Emir Kusturica), a man convicted of wantonly killing a fisherman,
reveals an unexpected fidelity to the principle of forgiveness. They let Neel
out of the guardhouse to tend flowers, do handiwork, fall in love with a local
woman and eventually become a hero in the community. Although Neel’s rehabilitation
justifies the Captain and his wife’s trust, it is the 19th century, and
French justice is still tumultuous. ("The Republic is sensitive,"
the Mayor says of the latest news from Paris.) Both Neel and the Captain are
subject to the hypocritical needs of bureaucracy. The townspeople of Saint-Pierre
may not want Neel executed (they promise to boycott the arrival of a used guillotine
and the hiring of an executioner) but the men who keep the rule of law insist
upon its unwavering, if brutal, practice.


Saint-Pierre
is a desolate town, the seacoast and horizon visible from any point as if life
there were godforsaken–or always cruelly spied upon. Like Claire Denis
in Beau Travail, Leconte plays up the irony of ludicrous social order
in the midst of breathtaking nature. With cinematographer Eduardo Serra, Leconte
features dynamic, tilted sky-and-land shots. His volatile cinemascope frame
turns everyone into an unmoored, haphazard figure. A startling shot of a black
stallion being hoisted into the air and onto a ship is harmonized with succeeding
images of the Captain’s swirling blue cape, picking up on the cerulean
sky and the blue-green water. This torrent of sensual imagery contrasts dark,
still interiors with Madame La, conveying the couple’s complementary sensibilities.


The Captain
and his wife’s fidelity surprise the town–and maybe some viewers–who
expect a typical temptation once they invite the swarthy prisoner into their
home. They care for Neel out of private virtue. For Leconte, the Captain and
his wife are not just human-rights paragons but a romanticized ideal. From the
opening shot of Madame La (posed like one of the Bronte sisters) at a window
viewing an execution, Leconte works out of a storehouse of classically mournful
images to support his tale of inhumanity and valiant principle. He slightly
alters the conventions of the Gustave Courbet setting.


If not for
its tony atmosphere and superb lead actors, The Widow of Saint-Pierre
would seem crackpot. With their perfectly composed, dark-eyed responsiveness,
both Auteuil and Binoche have the gift of quiet, subtle expression–watching
them is like reading a page of a novel. The Captain and Madame La seem a Balzacian
odd couple, so righteous, proud and potent the town should probably resent them.
There isn’t enough explanation of their high moral standing; they’re
like the last leftists in a town of craven capitalists. Leconte simply offers
images of them gamboling in a field, resting in each other’s arms in the
huge shadow of a cross. (He never exactly admits the romance of political commitment–always
Godard and Wong’s specialty.) Mostly, Leconte uses Auteuil and Binoche’s
faces to idealize the stand their characters take, to make us feel romantically
ambivalent about Neel’s crime and rehabilitation.


In Lasse Hallstrom’s
meretricious Chocolat, Binoche was reduced to playing an all-smiling
life force–an endorphins-dealing camp-counselor-psychotherapist-new-age-guru-and-sexual-liberator.
That film is a sanctimonious, message-mongering mess. Leconte just does it with
more class. It’s unignorable that Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica’s
casting as the sympathetic, misunderstood outsider is intended to have political
resonance. The way the Captain and his wife sacrifice their social standing
and future to exonerate Neel has a wild, romantic defensiveness intended to
override political complications–or such ethical considerations as "After
all, he is guilty!" (A point never raised by the dead fisherman’s
friends or family.) Instead, Auteuil’s stern, misted profile is photographed
like an oxidized coin of the realm, and Binoche is always the image of gentle
compassion. Kusturica, meanwhile, symbolizes contemporary Europe’s
guilt. That’s a politically loaded notion, touching on controversies of
punishment, complicity and judgment. But Leconte’s romance distances it.
Attempting a Balzac tone poem, he disguises the story’s modern relevance
while dazzling the senses.


 

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