There are so many cross-currents of identification and desire in A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries that the film is engrossing despite director James Ivory’s indistinct style. Adapted from Kaylie Jones’s autobiographical novel, it’s a family saga set largely in Paris during the early ’70s. As in the novel, the primary point of view is that of Channe Willis (Leelee Sobieski), the soldier’s daughter who is, just as importantly, a writer’s daughter (Kaylie Jones’s father was the novelist James Jones). The film is a series of portraits of the men who most influenced her life: her adopted brother, Billy (Jesse Bradford), her schoolmate, Francis (Anthony Roth Costanzo), and her father, Bill (Kris Kristofferson).
If Bill is a dream dad (he is, in fact, too good to be true, especially since he’s an alcoholic writer), his adoring, capricious wife Marcella (Barbara Hershey) is a less than perfect mother. Channe fares less well with women than with men. While her mother barely notices her existence, her childhood nursemaid (Dominique Blanc) is obsessed with her in a way that makes Channe increasingly uncomfortable. No wonder that she looks exclusively to boys for attention and affection. This is Channe’s story (and as the exceptionally poised 14-year-old Sobieski plays her, she has an intelligence far beyond her years), but the film as a whole is far more interested in and indulgent of the male characters than the female.
Kristofferson delivers the best performance of his career as the increasingly frail writer, and Hershey (combining her blowsy Mary Magdalene in Scorsese’s Last Temptation with her jaded, narcissistic Madame Merlein Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady) is equally impressive. But it’s Costanzo as Channe’s effeminate, theatrical friend Francis who has the film’s most startling moment (it goes beyond anything else in Ivory’s oeuvre).
Accompanied on the piano by his doting mother (Jane Birkin), Francis gets up in front of his high school class and sings Cherubino’s aria, “Voi che sapate,” from The Marriage of Figaro in a clear, infinitely expressive voice. (Costanzo, a trained countertenor, does his own singing on camera.) The aria, in which the 14-year-old Cherubino confesses his impossible love for a woman who’s out of his class, is almost always sung by a woman. It’s a revelation to see it performed by Costanzo, who lets his confused adolescent male sexual passion rip through Mozart’s perfectly balanced melody without any violation of musical taste or style. With only two or three brief cutaways to the snickering, embarrassed students, Ivory keeps the camera on Francis as he sings directly to Channe. Francis thinks he’s in love with her, but we know that what he really wants is to be her. The scene is a gender fuck that distills the sexual ambivalence running through the entire movie.
The attractive and accomplished cast also includes Isaac DeBankole (Claire Denis’s great star) as the unsuccessful suitor of the nursemaid. When Bill Willis, knowing he hasn’t long to live and not wanting his children to turn into “Eurotrash brats,” moves his family back to the U.S., the two people who are abandoned are a 40-year-old woman who probably will never admit her lesbian desires even to herself and a 15-year-old boy who may be only months away from understanding that he’s gay. The film abandons them as well. It’s a canny strategy that also reveals Ivory’s own points of identification. Leaving the theater, you may find yourself more troubled by the uncertain fate of these two relatively minor characters than by that of the Willis family.
While the acting ensemble is crucial, it’s not the only asset here. Jean-Marc Fabre, a favorite cinematographer of new French filmmakers like Pascale Ferran and Naomi Lvovsky, shoots the city of Paris with a familiar but still enamored eye. Fabre’s unstudied, seemingly improvisational style goes a long way in giving A Soldier’s Daughter a look that’s less kitschy than the usual Merchant Ivory. And the film has also been wonderfully costumed by Carol Ramsey–from the little dressmaker copies of Chanel suits on the lycée teachers, to the couturier version of ethnic clothing favored by Marcella, to the tatty Afghan vests and Indian scarves worn by the privileged adolescents of the 16th arrondisement. Of all the ’70s revival films flooding the market, A Soldier’s Daughter is the only one to get the clothes exactly right.
A swarthy man with hairy forearms and a blonde all-American beauty get to know each other in a nondescript California motel room. Between fucks, he tells her the story of his Hollywood career cut short by addiction and his descent into crack and heroin hell. They’re both clean and sober–he for five weeks, she for what seems to him a miraculous seven years. It’s Leaving Las Vegas in rehab with Ben Stiller in the Nicolas Cage role and E.R.‘s Maria Bello looking like a pale version of Elisabeth Shue. Written and directed by David Veloz, Permanent Midnight is based on the bestselling memoir of TV writer Jerry Stahl, and the film is much more of a hack job, and less amusing. Lurching in and out of flashback, it lacks coherence in plot and character. It looks to have been re-edited out of desperation, and more than once. First-time director Veloz is unable to set a tone for the actors (Elizabeth Hurley and Janeane Garafolo are particularly strained).
So why did Ben Stiller, a deft comic actor who also directed one of the most audacious studio pictures of the ’90s (The Cable Guy), get involved? He isn’t the first comedian to want to prove that he can play serious, angsty characters. Stiller shambles around looking like shit, losing his balance, slurring his speech, gnawing at the insides of his lips. He works very hard, and that’s the problem. He’s much too conscientious an actor to convince us that he’s out of control. He simply can’t blot out his superego and let it rip the way an actor like Cage can. The closest he comes here is in a scene with Peter Greene (playing a sleazy, two-bit dealer) where they go up in an L.A. high-rise and try to crash through a plate-glass window–banging up against it and falling to the floor over and over again. It’s the only remotely convincing scene in the movie, partly because Greene is one of the scariest actors around. You’ve got to admire Stiller for testing himself against a real madman–and be somehow happy for him that he can’t measure up.