Film Comment Selects Poorly

One good choice: Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's final collaboration

The eighth edition of Film Commentmagazine's showcase of previews and rediscoveries, largely picked from the international festival circuit, includes a number of New York premieres, not all of which you should rush out to see. One of the best, These Encounters of Theirs, marks the final collaboration of the great husband-and-wife team Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, who for over 30 years wrote and directed a series of spare, often difficult, usually political, and often extremely beautiful films. Huillet died last year.

Encounters, based on a text by the 20th-century Communist philosopher Cesare Pavese, consists of five dialogues between pairs of Greek gods, sonorously recited by a group of non-professional Italian actors. It's a haunting film, visually striking, and caps their career-long preoccupation with landscape. The dialogues concern humankind's relationship to the deities, and shot through with themes of frailty and mortality, give the work the feel of a last film—a testament.

Several movies in the show feature filmmakers as leading characters. The opening-night film, Jean-Claude Brisseau's Exterminating Angels, concerns a middle-aged director at work on a project about taboos. This moderately amusing simulated-sex comedy's protagonist sets out to depict how women can heighten their sex lives through transgressive means. And in Marco Bellocchio's odd black comedy The Wedding Director, Sergio Castellitto is a well-known helmer invited by a proud but penniless Sicilian prince to film his daughter's arranged marriage to a wealthy lawyer. When he falls madly in love with the lady, Castellitto sets about sabotaging the ceremony. Most of the story takes place in a dreamlike Sicily, enriched by views of the bizarre Villa Palagonia, and veteran French actor Sami Frey does a juicy turn as the haughty prince. Director may not be Bellocchio's boldest move, but it'll do until his next film comes along.

What won't do: Was there a crying need for a revival of Play It as It Lays, Frank Perry's 1972 adaptation of Joan Didion's novel about alienation in the land of the Beautiful People? This downer hasn't improved with age. Tuesday Weld stars as a disintegrating ex-actress, first glimpsed catatonically moping about a fashionable asylum where she fills us in on her life as a professional victim—her marriage to an exploitative movie director, her retarded child, her traumatic abortion, her aimless drives along the freeway endlessly seeking the Meaning of It All. Weld, having graduated from Lolita typecasting, does what she can with the role of the passive heroine. Even better is craggy, long-haired Tony Perkins as her companion in misery, an "understanding" gay producer who commits suicide and dies in her arms. But Perry's picture contains more than its quota of piffle dressed up as profundity, and a good deal of it plays like bargain-basement Bergman.

Then there's Marwan Hamed's rambling three-hour debut feature, The Yacoubian Building. Said to be the most expensive Egyptian film ever made and based on a bestselling novel, it's an account of the intersecting lives of the inhabitants of a large building constructed in the 1930s to house Cairo's elite. One resident, a stereotyped homosexual, coerces a straight young soldier into an affair. This simpering queen is later robbed and murdered by a pickup, and the movie seems to be telling us the fag got what he deserved. Performances by the large cast are uniformly excellent, but much of Hamed's exhausting epic registers as a soap-opera marathon. And how many doomed gays do we need in one program?

 
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