Have Weaponry, Will Travel

Departing under duress, Berlin Film Festival director Moritz de Hadeln chose for his final opening night a film guaranteed to offend his mostly German audience. Jean-Jacques Annaud's Enemy at the Gates has nothing to say about the yearlong siege of Stalingrad (1942–43), when close to a million Germans and even more Russians died. But it does offer Annaud the opportunity to show his directorial muscle in elaborate battle scenes, where many bodies are torn apart and blood flows freely. In the first of these, Russian reinforcements, attempting to land on the shores of the Volga, are mowed down by German troops firing from the ruined city where they are already entrenched. Those who try to flee are shot by their own officers, who have to be the ugliest bunch of men ever to hit the screen. When their Nazi counterparts show up, they're only marginally less hideous.

Against a background of piled bodies and bombed-out buildings, a romantic triangle develops involving three young Russians who are so voluptuously beautiful they seem to belong to another order of human being. Vassili (Jude Law), an innocent from the Urals, and Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a propaganda officer who makes Vassili into a Soviet hero (celebrating his courage and marksmanship on the front page of the army newspaper), both fall in love with Tania (Rachel Weisz), a young soldier. Like Danilov, Tania is a Jewish intellectual, which makes it inevitable that her object of desire is Vassili, the people's hero. Vassili has his hands full, trying to set a trap for Konig (Ed Harris), the aristocratic German major sent to kill him, but he finds time for some passionate trysts with Tania, fueling Danilov's jealousy.

The four stars apply themselves arduously to this hackneyed material. In supporting roles, Bob Hoskins huffs and puffs too much as Khrushchev, but Eva Mattes (the star of Fassbinder's Wild Game) seems to realize that in a film as hyperbolic as this one, less is always more.


Profiles in courage: Law and Weisz in Enemy at the Gates
photo: Alex Bailey
Profiles in courage: Law and Weisz in Enemy at the Gates

Details

Enemy at the Gates
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
Written by Annaud and Alain Godard
A Paramount release

No Sex Last Night (Double Blind)
Directed by Sophie Calle
Anthology Film Archives
March 22 through 25

Too Much Sleep
Written and directed by David Maquiling
A Shooting Gallery release
Opens March 23

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The French visual artist Sophie Calle specializes in invading other people's space. In conjunction with her mini-retro at the Paula Cooper Gallery (which includes the photographic record of the snooping she did while working as a chambermaid in a Venice hotel), Anthology is showcasing No Sex Last Night (Double Blind), a feature-length video blown up to 35mm, which she codirected with Greg Shephard in 1992.

Both road movie and diary of a hopelessly neurotic romance between two passive-aggressives, No Sex Last Night is compelling viewing, even if there's nothing pretty (pictorially or emotionally) about it. Calle became intrigued with Shephard, a downtown art scene hanger-on, and proposed that they drive cross-country together, documenting the trip from their respective points of view with separate video cameras. (They also thought they might get married in Las Vegas on the way, if they felt like it.)

From the beginning, it's clear that this is a relationship from hell. Calle is intrusive and controlling. Shephard is secretive and withholding. To make matters worse, she has almost all the power. The trip is her idea and so is the destination (she's going to California for an art school residency), she's the famous artist, she wields the camera with more authority, and she's got more money. Shephard takes the only route available to get even: He refuses to have sex with her and lavishes his affection on his car. (He also hits her up for change to phone his old girlfriend.) The narrative is punctuated with shots of rumpled motel beds and Calle's plaintive refrain: "No sex last night." Humiliation, however, is crucial to Calle's work, and if Shephard weren't such a self-justifying jerk, you'd have to feel sorry for him. Calle gets to make the movie she wants, she gets driven to California, and she even gets her name on a marriage license. He gets to look bad, and that's about all. I wonder if he'll show up at the opening.


When Too Much Sleep failed to find a distributor, its very talented director, David Maquiling, seriously thought of giving up filmmaking. Then the film was showcased at Anthology, winning excellent reviews (including one from this critic), and it's now receiving a commercial release.

Set in a small New Jersey suburb, Too Much Sleep is a deftly timed deadpan comedy about a guy and a gun. Jack Crawford (Thurston Moore look-alike Marc Palmieri) is en route to his security-guard job when his gun is stolen, maybe by an attractive young woman. Since Jack, a shy guy who still lives at home with his mother, inherited the gun from his father and never bothered to register it, he can't go to the police. Instead, he enlists the assistance of Eddie (Pasquale Gaeta), a retired local official and small-time mobster. As Jack and Eddie follow the roundabout trail that leads to the gun, a rich picture of working-class suburbia emerges. Jack finds himself in unfamiliar living rooms, parking lots, and restaurants, making small talk with strangers who tell him their life stories just because he seems so interested. Like Slacker, Too Much Sleep has a narrative that, endearingly, seems to just follow its nose when in fact it's intricately structured. In that sense, it's like jazz, and Maquiling's direction is most fun when it plays off the beat.

 
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