Six Degrees of Separation

Countless American films have essentialized corporate culture as an arid, perspective-warping biodome, a glass-and-chrome petri dish of comeuppance and sportive mindfuck. The Business of Strangers shares an interchangeable title with (and gender-flips the premise of) Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men, but since it doesn't succumb to internalizing its characters' misanthropy, Patrick Stettner's debut feature is less Darwinian object lesson than coolly observed character study—at least until its revenge plot starts working up a frantic sweat.

Owing a sizable compositional debt to Todd Haynes's Safe, the early scenes shuttle exec Julie Styron (Stockard Channing) through a series of gleaming, climate-controlled chambers, isolating her inside boardrooms, hired luxury cars, and anonymous airport lounges, en route toward her anticlimatic anointment as CEO of her unspecified company. Marching in hazardous stiletto heels and helmeted in a frosted shag, Julie is dressed for ladder-climbing battle, but she's utterly flummoxed to find she's won the war. ("This is supposed to be good news," the departing big cheese gently reminds her.) Bemused, magnanimous, and stuck on a flight layover, Julie seeks out the company minion she fired earlier in the day to drink up and restore the youngster's job, but stone-eyed, tattooed Paula (Julia Stiles) is no pushover. Comically combative (first words: "Fuck you" to a skycap), Paula wriggles her way into Julie's hotel room, liquor rack, pharmaceutical stash, and gym shorts, all the while dusting salt on the older woman's insecurities—for starters, Julie's single, childless, menopausal, and her best friend is her secretary.

A thick, crypto-erotic tension forms between the two women over the course of an alcohol-soaked evening; then slimy headhunter Nick (Frederick Weller), who doesn't seem to remember meeting Paula on an earlier occasion, joins their party. At this point, the film narrows into a series of Rorschach tests. Why does wry, sensible Julie let this little maenad hang around—is it guilt, loneliness, boredom, curiosity, lust, or latent maternal instincts? Has a terrible coincidence, catastrophic mistake, or calculated random act occurred? Is Paula a feminist vigilante, traumatized rape victim, or agnostic sociopath? And why is Julie so willing to jump on her kamikaze bandwagon?

Esprit de corporate: Channing in The Business of Strangers
photo: Jojo Whilden
Esprit de corporate: Channing in The Business of Strangers

Details

The Business of Strangers
Written and directed by Patrick Stettner
IFC
Opens December 7

Final
Directed by Campbell Scott
Written by Bruce McIntosh
Lions Gate/Cowboy
Opens December 7

Code Unknown
Written and directed by Michael Haneke
Leisure Time/kimstim
Quad

Stettner, to his credit, offers no ready answers to these questions, and Stiles, Weller, and the endlessly sympathetic Channing are nimble and cagey enough to accommodate all of them. As the film's perspective keeps shifting by sudden degrees, so their characters continue to move tantalizingly out of firm grasp. But The Business of Strangers goes too far in dramatizing Julie's primal, Paula-fied surge of female fury, and the script finally mistakes respectful ambiguity for vaporous drift. The dreamlike morning after, Julie arrives at a revelatory conclusion about the previous 24 hours of her life, but the film offers only the faintest clues about what it might be.


The Business of Strangers bears significant resemblance to Richard Linklater's Tape, another claustrophobic three-hander in which rape is an inflammatory device for mapping the detours and dead ends of memory. Like Tape, Campbell Scott's Final is part of InDigEnt's series of sub-$100,000 DV features, but its fundamental stumbling block isn't the usual dingy, bleeding colors or squiggle-line distractions, but a story that splits at the seams with plot holes and bloat. Bill (Denis Leary) wakes up in what appears to be a present-day Connecticut psych ward, cold and confused but sure of several facts: It's the year 2399, he's just been defrosted after 400 years in a cryogenic chamber, and he's about to be lethally injected. He pleads with his impassive nurse (Hope Davis) to help him escape; she refuses, but an empathic attraction builds between them. Bruce McIntosh's script holds its cards far too long before the Orwellian inversions and apocalyptic intrigue kick in—a sketchy blueprint for a sci-fi short story is distended into a languid day-ward romance. The movie turns itself inside out halfway through, yet maintains the same bland, listless tone, as if all concerned had dipped into the hospital's lithium supply. Excepted is perpetually zooming star Leary, whose addled overcompensation is welcome amid the analgesic fog.


Austrian director Michael Haneke is a ruthless anthropologist of domestic nihilism, but his first French-language feature, Code Unknown, is also his most humane. It's less eager to implicate the audience in its exhibitions of motiveless savagery—as with the amiable psychopath's to-camera asides in Funny Games—and more inclined to arrange ordinary people not as isolated terrorist cells but as a frail, knotty web held together by selfish interdependence and clashing grievances. A bravura tracking shot establishes the fragile latticework of Code Unknown's universe: A sullen white youth (Alexandre Hamidi) tosses a crumpled bakery bag into a beggar woman's lap, setting off a volatile chain reaction—a streetside scuffle, the arrest of well-meaning African French teacher of deaf children (Ona Lu Yenke), and the deportation of the woman, a Romanian refugee (Luminita Gheorghiu).

The film then branches off into the multiform narrative of its subtitle, Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, centering on yet another miserable Hanekean couple named Anne and Georges (Juliette Binoche and Thierry Neuvic). They work as actress and war photographer—fitting on-screen vocations for a director so endlessly fixated on questions of representation and translation. This obsession arguably becomes self-interrogatory in Code Unknown, since Anne is glimpsed shooting scenes that could be outtakes from several of Haneke's earlier, crueller outings. Here it's Binoche's naked, disbelieving face staring into the camera as an unseen actor intones, "I have nothing against you . . . I merely want to watch you die." Then the screen goes black, and another world within the world takes hold: a bittersweet homecoming to Romania, a crying mother in a Parisian apartment, a ghastly series of stills from the Kosovo war. Code Unknown is Haneke's most expansive and, oddly, hopeful work—not a gaze into the void, but a fierce attempt to scramble out of it.

 
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