It will soon be 20 years since the untimely death of R.W. Fassbinder dealt populist art cinema a stunning blow. Moving throughout the ’70s from political noir and stylized melodrama to mordant studies in psychosexual sociology, Fassbinder anticipated the entire trajectory of American independent film. The loss is not just the films he might have made but the persistent erasure of those 40-plus features he did complete.
This week, however, Fassbinder rises from the dead—at least after a fashion. In Water Drops on Burning Rocks, a hit at the last Berlin Film Festival, French enfant terrible François Ozon (in high school when Fassbinder died) attempts a risky stunt in dusting off and filming a play that Fassbinder wrote at 19 and that was never produced in his lifetime. Like much Fassbinder, Water Drops on Burning Rocks is tragic farce. It’s a love story that’s not only unhappy but unblinking in its lack of sentimentality.
The confidently domineering Leopold (Bernard Giraudeau) has picked up and brought home a guy less than half his age. When Franz (Malick Zidi) estimates that fastidious Leo is 50, the older man is hilariously taken aback: “No one’s ever said that before.” The two chat briefly about the women in their lives and even more briefly play a board game before Leo cuts to the chase: “Have you ever slept with a man?” Now it is Franz’s turn to act surprised. What prompted this question? He’s never even thought about the possibility, although he has had this recurring dream. . . . Thus begins the relationship on which the movie spins.
Water Drops on Burning Rocks is at once a tribute and an appropriation. The French dialogue serves to put Fassbinder in quotation marks even as the action recalls the real thing, and Ozon has further Fassbinderized the original by adding a plot twist from In a Year of 13 Moons. Water Drops not only traffics in Fassbinder’s themes but uses the mise-en-scène of early middle-period Fassbinder films like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and The Merchant of Four Seasons. The lighting is flat, the perspective is head-on. There’s a fondness for posing actors and organizing mirror shots; a tinkling music-box refrain is used for punctuation, and to add to the theatricality, the movie does not include a single exterior shot.
Indeed, Water Drops never leaves Leopold’s apartment—it jumps ahead six months from the first scene to the spectacle of Leopold and Franz’s domestic life. Franz grooms himself in preparation for Leopold’s return from the business world, scurrying to greet him in cutely suspendered short-shorts. But Leopold, an insurance salesman, is an insufferable grouch and petty tyrant. He browbeats the seemingly compliant Franz (who then exacts revenge by blasting the stereo). This crabby non-idyll is further complicated when their respective former girlfriends arrive. Taking a leaf from Leopold, who’s away on business, Franz orders around his lovelorn Anna (Ludivine Sagnier) while posing questions like “What is happiness?”
If Franz (whose name is a favorite Fassbinder alter ego) has certain aspects of the artist as a young man (the teenage Fassbinder was a sometime prostitute), Leopold’s character looks forward to the seductive scene-maker and master manipulator that was the mature Fassbinder. The insurance man (embodied by Giraudeau in the film’s most authoritative performance) returns to take charge—Anna never manages to get back into her clothes—and orchestrate the antics, which, with the arrival of his own ex-“wife,” Vera (Anna Thompson), grow increasingly convoluted and ultimately fatal.
A movie of cutting humor, near-constant talk, and one show-stopping dance routine, Water Drops is more a diagram of human relations than a portrait of human beings, a movie fascinated less by sex than the power with which sex is invested. If the Coens can rerelease Blood Simple, perhaps Fassbinder’s distributors will reissue Ali: Fear Eats the Soul or Fox and His Friends or Lola. These movies have scarcely dated. To judge from the response to Water Drops, the audience is more than ready.
Another script-driven tale of tormented love, Chuck & Buck is a low-budget indie that manages to be not only consistently droll but cumulatively poignant and even scary.
Buck (Mike White) is 27 and still living in the suburban bedroom where he first played Star Wars. When his mother dies, Buck’s first thought is that her funeral might serve as bait to lure back his long-moved-away boyhood best friend, Chuck (American Pie coproducer Chris Weitz). Chuck’s magical reappearance—he’s now grown into an L.A. music executive with a fiancée named Carlyn (Beth Colt)—leaves Buck with an unquenchable desire to resume their friendship at the point where it ended, on the confused cusp of adolescence. He relocates to L.A., along with his toy collection, and, re-creating his room in a motel, begins his pursuit.
Chuck & Buck was directed by Miguel Arteta and written by TV producer White (among the perpetrators of Dawson’s Creek), whose comic performance is the movie’s central creation. Sucking on lollipops and drawling his lines with a hopeful little smile, Buck is a fascinating doppelgänger for a Hollywood success like White—precisely the sort of mush-mouthed village idiot Taylor Mead used to play in the underground movies of the early ’60s. His scenes with Chuck’s smooth and insincere Tom Cruise type have the quality of a protracted phony phone call. “It’s weird you have this office,” Buck remarks, having inserted himself into Chuck’s workday afternoon. Ignoring the fact that this nudnick lacks the social skills of even a backward 10-year-old, Carlyn invites him to Chuck’s promotion party. “I notice there are no pictures of me” is Buck’s first observation of Chuck’s “old person-y” dream pad.
Shot on digital video, Chuck & Buck has an engagingly slapdash quality—there’s some occasional scan-line wiggle and the lighting is uneven. Surprisingly, though, the filmmakers know where to take this nightmare. Chuck & Buck compounds White’s psychodrama as Buck writes his own autobiographical play, Hank and Frank, which he manages to get staged (once) at a community theater rented for the occasion. “It’s like a homoerotic misogynistic love story,” the practical house manager Buck’s hired to direct tells him—not unkindly. Lupe Ontiveros’s down-to-earth, smoky-voiced performance adds another dimension of humor, especially since the playwright doesn’t know what she means. The proceedings begin to darken as Buck gets involved with his actors—one of them 10 years old, the other an adult with a mental age of perhaps even less.
Chuck & Buck has the same sense of mounting hysteria as Arteta’s Star Maps, although the narrative is better held in check. The deadpan attitude, if not the filmmaking, has some resemblance to Rushmore and Happiness. (The main theme is a perky pop madrigal with an idiotic refrain: “Ooodly ooodly ooodly—fun fun fun!”) A knowing little movie about the end of innocence and its dogged persistence, Chuck & Buck has one joke but the riff is sustained.
The week’s worst love is that purveyed by silky bloodsucker Jude Law in the British vampire-cum-serial killer thriller The Wisdom of Crocodiles. His name a string of consonants, Law’s character calls himself a species of one. The normal Dracula regulations no longer apply. Law ventures boldly by day and fondles a crucifix. He’s an artist who can draw simultaneously with both hands, cloud men’s minds, and find pretty victims virtually at will.
As directed by the veteran Hong Kong all-rounder Po Chih Leong on a more modest scale than his historical epics, The Wisdom of Crocodiles is inoffensively glib and innocuously arty. It’s set in a posh chrome-and-glass London where the cops interrogate suspects in what looks like the Tate, the street gangs come regulation multiculti, and everyone has a good haircut—even Timothy Spall, as the Catholic police inspector with whom Law enjoys toying. Spall can’t hope to compete, although Law does meet his match in Nadja star Elina Lowensöhn, a structural engineer with a ready store of Chinese proverbs and the capacity to perform instant surgery with a pocketknife.
Lowensöhn’s brooding, delicately sculpted features—her lips aren’t curvy so much as italicized—give her one of the most eloquent faces in the movies. Her mysterious Central European accent insures that, so long as there are vampire flicks, she’ll never lack roles. (If Hammer Studios still existed she’d be the new Barbara Steele.) The cast also includes an actor named Hitler Wong. The story behind that moniker might be weirder than the movie.