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The title Full Frontal promises a daring disclosure, but what Steven Soderbergh's unshapely new movie delivers is a familiar, if elaborately self-reflexive, exposé of a brutally superficial, soul-killing world: Hollywood.

Art struggles against commerce in this sodden ensemble experiment—but to what end? Maker of a once archetypal indie (sex, lies, and videotape), Soderbergh achieved bankability with a succession of hip policiers (Out of Sight, Traffic), stylish neo-noirs (The Limey), and retooled capers (Ocean's Eleven), plus one mondo star vehicle (Erin Brockovich). Full Frontal, which the director shot pseudonymously, mainly on digital video and in single takes, belies the larkiness of Soderbergh's crime films—it's a petulant slap in the face of public taste.

Written by performance artist Coleman Hough and largely improvised by its cast, this is the shortcut to Short Cuts. Over the course of a single L.A. day (and a bit of the morning after), Full Frontal tracks eight characters—two of whom, movie queen Francesca (Julia Roberts) and TV star Calvin (Blair Underwood), double as actors appearing in Rendezvous, the pretend movie within the larger DV reality. Everyone is involved with (or involved with someone who is involved with or someone who is involved with someone involved with) the upcoming 40th birthday party for Rendezvous's big-shot producer, Gus (David Duchovny). High-powered career witch Lee (Catherine Keener) has gotten herself invited, along with her magazine-writer husband, Carl (David Hyde Pierce), and her massage-therapist sister, Linda (Mary McCormack), who is having a cyber-relationship with an avant-garde stage director (Enrico Colantoni) about to open an awful something called The Sound and the Führer. So far as I could tell, the actor playing Hitler (Nicky Katt) doesn't meet anyone else in the movie, although his rancidly egocentric showbiz hipster is the most exaggerated version of them all. The similarly isolated Gus, meanwhile, turns out to be a sensitive cousin to J.D. Salinger's Seymour Glass.

Improv run amok: Underwood and Roberts in Full Frontal
photo: Miramax
Improv run amok: Underwood and Roberts in Full Frontal

Details

Full Frontal
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Coleman Hough
Miramax
Opens August 2

Merci Pour le Chocolat
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Written by Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff, from the novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong
Through August 13 at Film Forum

Gaza Strip
Directed by James Longley
August 1 through 7 at Anthology Film Archives

Soderbergh mechanically cuts between his civilians—mostly Lee, who is having an affair with Calvin and preparing to leave Carl, so ineffectual that he is dumped and fired on the same day—and a "finished" print of Rendezvous. (Finished, that is, in one time-space continuum; there's another where Soderbergh decides to dramatically break the film's fourth wall.) Glossy Rendezvous, itself a movie about the movie industry, which specifically travesties the chaste romantic relationship between Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief, is meant to satirize Hollywood mores. Its most daring (and self-congratulatory) bit is a story conference at Full Frontal's actual studio, Miramax, which is presided over by a heavy-set honcho (Jeff Garlin) resembling Full Frontal's actual distributor and identified in the credits as "Harvey, probably."

Replete with moments of false intimacy and redolent of acting-class exercises, Full Frontal is largely a succession of one-on-one confrontations. Like last year's The Anniversary Party, it evokes improv run amok, or perhaps untrammeled psychodrama—the performers are regularly heard in voice-over commenting on their characters. Soderbergh came up with his version of the Dogme rules: Actors were requested to drive themselves to the set, pick their wardrobes, and "maintain" their own hair. Did the filmmaker also choose the movie's sell line, "Everybody needs a release"?

Full Frontal aspires to Hollywood art film. But unlike Magnolia or Mulholland Drive, it doesn't offer an audience much incentive to tease out its ambiguities. Soderbergh is as conceptually sloppy as his camera is pitiless. The stories bleed into each other. The real cameos get confused with the fake ones. The movie is pure inside baseball—so pure it turns inside out and vanishes up its own orifice. "Every work of art is an uncommitted crime," Theodor Adorno once wrote. This one is more of a botched misdemeanor.


Claude Chabrol's Merci Pour le Chocolat is a light confection with a tasty Isabelle Huppert performance at its center. Working from a 1948 recipe by a sometime scriptwriter for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Chabrol knocks off a witty psychological thriller—more gothic than noir.

Set by the placid shores of Lake Lausanne, the movie opens with Swiss chocolate factory heiress Mika Muller (Huppert) marrying celebrated concert pianist André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc) for the second time, in a ceremony where family business blends with gossipy intrigue. Without pausing to clarify, Chabrol introduces a second domestic unit whose daughter, Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis), herself an aspiring pianist, learns that she was almost switched at birth with Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), André's highly unmusical son by his first (or rather, his second) wife, dead some years ago in car accident. The tangled genealogy has intimations of Elizabethan comedy—as does the spirited Jeanne, who, intrigued with the possibility that she might be the biological daughter of the great Polonski, presents herself at his wife's hilltop chateau.

Jeanne is soon examining photos of the late Madame Polonski and striking similar long-necked poses. Although not too distracted to observe the strange household to which she's been welcomed, she returns the following weekend—in an atmosphere made heady by a few more uncorked family secrets—to practice Liszt's most unfunereal "Funeral March" with her new mentor. Merci is filled with peculiar characters and sharply drawn physical types. Dutronc's Polonski would be suspicious for his mop of dyed black hair alone. The ever smiling, bizarrely solicitous Mika is also a philanthropist who subsidizes "anti-pain" centers. "I just want everyone to be happy," she explains, inadvertently spilling a pot of boiling water on hapless Guillaume's foot. Self-contained, enigmatic, illuminated from within, Huppert banks a performance that pays dividends throughout the film.

Chabrol has always enjoyed puncturing the balloon of bourgeois complacency, and as his creatures jump to ever quicker conclusions, the movie's edge of campy self-reflection grows increasingly pronounced. The more one suspects, the funnier Merci becomes. Mika brings her injured stepson a pair of videos—Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond the Door and Jean Renoir's Nuit de Carrefour—which would alert any habitué of the Paris Cinématheque to where Chabrol is going.


Gaza Strip, a feature-length video by American filmmaker James Longley, is a documentary to make the stones weep—as shameful as it is scary. Longley spent three months during the spring of 2001 in Gaza. Ariel Sharon had just won the Israeli election and the second intifada was now a fact of life.

The location is a chunk of misery: 1.2 million Palestinians penned up in a 28-by-four-mile slice of nowhere, further diminished by Israeli security installations and six fortified Jewish settlements. Longley's principal subject is a 13-year-old newsboy, Mohammed Hejazi, who is the main support of his family and whose main recreation is playing chicken with Israeli tanks—a game at which a number of his friends have already been killed. More than once, Longley shows hospital ERs filled with horribly wounded children.

No future here: Gaza Strip is even more painful in the knowledge that current conditions are worse. (Indeed, the tape was press-screened the morning after Israel liquidated Hamas terrorist Sheik Salah Shehada by dropping a bomb on his Gaza City apartment, killing another 14 people—mostly children—in an operation that Sharon moronically boasted was "one of our major successes.") Necessarily up on current events, Mohammed and his fellow newsboys are familiar with Sharon's particular brutishness. They naturally mock and hate Israeli politicians, albeit with scarcely more respect for the Palestinian Authority. "Arafat is a spy—he's taking it up the ass!"

Longley keeps his camera close to his subjects, backing off only to document quotidian atrocities ranging from tanks shelling helpless civilians to the bulldozing of Arab homes to the Israeli army's sickening use of an unidentified form of convulsion-causing gas. Made from the perspective of the Arab on the street, Gaza Strip includes no footage of Jewish settlers or Israeli soldiers or even Palestinian security forces. (Nor is there any sort of historical context explaining the Arab responsibility for how Gaza got to be what it is.) It would be convenient to dismiss this as propaganda. But does it really matter if someone coached young Mohammed's claim that he wants to be a martyr or his dispassionate anticipation of his own death? "It would be easier," the kid says, and after seeing the wretched conditions that the movie documents, who will argue with him?

Anthology Film Archives, which is screening Gaza Strip for a week, could evoke the full cycle of hatred, futility, and despair by flanking this nearly unbearable movie with monitors showing the atrocious aftermath of contemporary Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. To watch Gaza Strip is to watch a ticking time bomb.

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