Life Sentences

Dentists in Domestic Prison, Nuns Behind Bars, Jewel Thieves on Holiday

This pious workhouse, wherein the inmates save their souls by taking in laundry, is run by the wizened old horror Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), seemingly modeled on the sadistic guard played by Hume Cronyn in Jules Dassin's yada-yada warden classic Brute Force. Indeed The Magdalene Sisters is basically a women-in-prison movie—in which the innocent prisoners (generally referred to as "hoors") are isolated from the world and subjected to a hideous, spirit-crushing regime of constant work, continual browbeating, and total degradation. That this system, which effectively enslaved thousands of Irish women into the 1990s, is founded on a mix of gender discrimination and class oppression is made clear by the nature of the other protagonists, an unwed mother (Dorothy Duffy) imprisoned at her father's behest, and a pretty orphan (Nora-Jane Noone), apparently arrested for being too attractive. The inmates of this particular spiritual gulag include more than a few lifers, as well as several long since driven mad.

Mullan is himself an actor, and The Magdalene Sisters is performed by a dedicated ensemble, although Eileen Walsh's performance as the all-purpose gibbering crazy is overwrought even by the movie's neo-Gothic standards. The unrelenting situation is rendered all the more claustrophobic by the many close-ups. The women are physically humiliated by fascistic nuns and abused by predatory priests, but what's worst is the suffocating atmosphere of hypocritical piety. Late in the movie, the fanatical Sister Bridget confesses her love of the cinema and treats her charges to a screening of The Bells of St. Mary's. Mullan pans over the assembled Sisters of Mercy raptly watching Ingrid Bergman, with tears streaming down their faces, and then to their charges glaring at the screen with hatred.

The Magdalene Sisters proposes itself as a corrective. Soon after, there's a scene powerful enough to induce a revolutionary conversion: One of the inmates is unexpectedly set free. This shocker is often shameless, not least in the climactic confrontation with Sister Bridget, but it's impossible not to be moved by the ending—if only because the torture is finally over.

That sinking filling: Scott in the Secret Lives of Dentists
photo: François Duhamel
That sinking filling: Scott in the Secret Lives of Dentists

Details

The Secret Lives of Dentists
Directed by Alan Rudolph
Written by Craig Lucas, from the novella The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley
Manhattan
Opens August 1

The Magdalene Sisters
Written and directed by Peter Mullan
Miramax
Opens August 1, at Lincoln Plaza and Loews Village VII

And Now Ladies & Gentlemen
Written and directed by Claude Lelouch
Paramount Classics
Opens August 1, at the Quad and UA 64th & 2nd


The most remarkable thing about Claude Lelouch's And Now Ladies & Gentlemen is its inane self-confidence. The leads in this hokey romantic thriller are Jeremy Irons—as M. Valentin Valentin, gentleman jewel thief and master of disguise—and French chanteuse Patricia Kaas as Jane Lester, French chanteuse of melancholy.

Not as funny as it should be, the movie sets its dramatic table by leisurely juxtaposing Valentin's brazenly lame modus operandi with Jane's fey stage act. Bruised by life, the two principals finally meet in a smoky piano bar in Fez, Morocco. She's singing "What Now My Love," he's wondering why, and after that, it's just one color-cued memory blackout after another. And Now Ladies & Gentlemen also features Claudia Cardinale as an auxiliary dame of mystery, a sample of Moroccan voodoo, and some tasteless racial banter: "I offered him a bright future, he preferred darkness," Jane says of the trumpet player who ditched her in favor of her African-French best friend. In the course of his escapades Irons gets to dress in drag, wear a hippie wig, and speak French.

I haven't seen a movie this ridiculous since Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried—but lacking the austere brilliance of Potter's mise-en-scène, Ladies & Gents has little to offer beyond muzzy kismet and generalized amnesia, a bit of National Geographic and a lot of cocktail jazz (not forgetting a snatch of the dwabadda-da-da-da-da-da theme from Lelouch's A Man and a Woman). A pleasant vacation for the cast, no doubt—but not the audience.


Related Story:
"Tooth and Nail: Hope Davis's Ordinary Magic" by Dennis Lim

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