Adapted from Oscar Wilde’s romantic comedy of manners about an ambitious politician with a scandalous secret hanging over his head and the morally upstanding wife who wrongly believes he is perfection itself, An Ideal Husband is set in end-of-the-19th-
century London, but it might as well be end-of-the-20th-century D.C. Director Oliver Parker doesn’t belabor the parallels, which in any case are not exact. But the implication that politics has always been a dirty business is one of the pleasures of the film.
Parker, who also wrote the script, keeps most of Wilde’s jokes, but he tightens the talk and adds a plot device of his own. His film is hardly memorable, but it’s amusing enough for two hours, and it never panders or cloys. That’s more than can be said for the ludicrously written Notting Hill, in which Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant seem to be engaged in a head-cocking, lip-biting, eyebrow-raising, teeth-
baring contest of their own devising. It’s as if their faces had become muscle-bound from the strain of delivering star power in every close-up.
No such burden is placed on Rupert Everett and Cate Blanchett; they still have the luxury of being actors rather than megastars. Everett plays Lord Arthur Goring, a 35-year-old bachelor who’s feeling the pressure to end his party-boy existence and get about the business of marrying and breeding. “Other people are quite dreadful. To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance,” said Wilde, using Lord Goring as a mouthpiece. It’s the mark of Everett’s excellent performance that for two hours he causes you to all but forget about Wilde and believe instead that Lord Goring issues such witticisms on the fly.
Everett also lets you understand that beneath Lord Goring’s dedicated superficiality is a serious person, capable of great loyalty to his friends, in this case Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) and his wife (Blanchett). Sir Robert is being blackmailed by a scheming femme fatale (Julianne Moore), who has proof that he once leaked a government secret and reaped sufficient funds for his indiscretion to jump-start his brilliant political career. If she goes public with this information, his career and his marriage are over. Lord Goring, who believes that no life is without some indiscretion and that those who would bring Sir Robert down are hypocrites with checkered pasts of their own, sets an elaborate scheme in motion to save his friend and in the process discovers that he values marriage more than he knew.
Of the three characters in this peculiar triangle, Sir Robert is the least developed (or perhaps Northam’s performance is a bit too stolid). Blanchett, however, continues to amaze. She suggests a strength of character reminiscent of the young Ingrid Bergman, and her precise comic timing never distracts from the seriousness of her character’s dilemma. A proto-feminist who tries to use her privilege for the common good, Lady Chiltern cannot make truly moral choices until she recognizes the contradictions in society and within human beings that make it impossible for anyone, including herself, to live up to her ideals. Some of the other actors fare less well. Julianne Moore as the heartless blackmailer and Minnie Driver as the willful young woman determined to marry Lord Goring simply work too hard.
Parker lacks any distinctive directorial style, although he does a credible job of opening the play up, as they say, for the screen. The first scene, with most of the major characters on horseback (women as well as men), crossing paths and exchanging small talk, sets the tone for everything that follows in this brisk and funny film.
Seul (Alone), a 30-minute film that
Erick Zonca made in 1996, is both a sketch for his lovely debut feature, The Dreamlife of Angels, and a fully realized work in its own right. Seul, which is screening just once (June 19) as part of the otherwise spotty “French Short Film Festival,” suggests that Zonca, who seemed to emerge out of nowhere as a fully mature filmmaker, is not just a one-trick pony, despite his consuming interest in fragile young women living on the edge.
Where Dreamlife of Angels is about the relationship between two such women, Seul focuses on just one. Played with great intensity by Florence Loiret, a look-alike for Dreamlife‘s Nathalie Regnier, she has a diffident manner that’s an inadequate cover for her explosive rage. This young woman (I don’t think she’s ever named) finds herself destitute and homeless when she loses, in rapid succession, her waitressing job, her apartment, and all her possessions except a nasty-looking gun that she has acquired by chance and that no one will buy because it’s a police revolver.
Zonca gets most of his narrative tension from that gun, which the young woman carries first in her handbag and then, after her handbag is stolen by an Elodie Bouchez type (but more callous and mean), in a tattered plastic bag that she keeps clutched to her chest. The gun is the secret she shares with us, though no one (she least of all) knows what she will do with it in the end. Meanwhile, we watch as desperation and hunger drive her into madness.
Elliptically structured, the film has an unhurried pace that adds to the tension and the pathos. Like Dreamlife of Angels, Seul has a vivid sense of place. Zonca’s Paris is a bustling, warm city filled with energetic people who think nothing of freezing out a 20-year-old incapable of fending for herself.
Even at his best, as in the elegant psychological-horror film See the Sea, François Ozon lacks the subtlety of Zonca. Sitcom, a macabre domestic comedy that’s getting a release after a year on the festival circuit, is something of a French surburban reworking of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. The totem animal is a large white laboratory rat that the father brings home and whose presence liberates the id of every person with whom it comes in contact—except the one with whom it’s most closely identified. Because the conceit is not convincing, the pileup of perversities—from incest to sadomasochism to cannibalism—seems like an exercise in épater le bourgeois. Ozon has a flamboyant sense of style, which he uses to mean-spirited ends.
Correction: Eric Rohmer’s short film Cambrure was transferred from DV to 35mm, not to 16mm as I wrote last week. I don’t know what I was thinking—they don’t even have 16mm
projectors at Cannes.