Rules of Engagement


In honor of their anniversaries and in conjunction with their DVD release, classic films are being restored and showcased in theaters for limited runs—last week it was Gimme Shelter; this week it’s Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 adaptation of King Lear. This bonanza for film buffs probably makes economic sense as well. While many DVDs are carelessly struck from scratched and faded prints, distributors who really care about film try to round up original printing materials and give them new life. Once you’ve gone to the expense of restoring a negative, it’s not all that costly to strike a 35mm print along with the DVDs. And the critical attention given to the film in theaters boosts home-market distribution.

For aficionados of the war movie, the western, and the period action epic, Ran is necessary viewing. A film of brilliantly composed panoramas and intricately choreographed battles, it lacks, however, the psychological depth and dark poetry of Kurosawa’s greatest Shakespeare adaptation, the Macbeth-based Throne of Blood—a claustrophobic, nearly first-person film that plunges you into the roiling psyche of a power-hungry, guilt-ridden, paranoid warlord. Ran operates in exactly the opposite way. It deliberately keeps you at a distance, all the better to meditate on the horror of human relations.

As he did in Throne of Blood, Kurosawa adapted not only Shakespeare’s narrative but also one of his big themes—man’s lust for power and his alienation from the natural world and his fellow man. Ran cleaves in every respect to King Lear except that it’s about a father and his sons rather than his daughters. The aged feudal warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nadakai) decides to divide his spoils among his three sons on the assumption that three acting in consort are stronger than one. Saburo, his youngest son, disagrees, arguing that a father who has ruled by violence should not expect his sons to show loyalty to him or to one another. Saburo is banished for his honesty, but his words prove true. The exiled Hidetora, wandering the fields with his fool and one loyal retainer, descends into madness. “Man is born in tears, and when he has cried enough, he dies,” says the fool.

The Japanese word ran can be translated as “chaos,” but there is nothing chaotic about the film, however bleak and bloody it is. Kurosawa contains the violence in almost classical rhythms. More than the brilliant set pieces (the first big battle scene, an orgy of bloodletting played in almost total silence) or the stunning images (a single figure in a sea of grass and rock; a battalion on horseback galloping along the shore, their herky-jerky movement the effect of shooting with an ultra-long lens), it’s the shapeliness of the whole that impresses, as if Kurosawa had held the entire 160 minutes, like a painting, in his mind’s eye. Kurosawa was 75 when he made Ran. He had prepared the film for 10 years, drawing almost every shot. Ran was, at the time, the most expensive Japanese film ever, and Kurosawa made spectacular use of the $12 million budget, which even then would have been chump change in Hollywood.

What the film lacks, however, are characters of any complexity. Betrayed by his sons, Lord Hidetora turns instantly from a vigorous, stubborn tyrant into a broken old man. He’s incapable of the defiant rage of Lear’s “Blow winds” soliloquy or his inconsolable grief over Cordelia’s death. In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa found dozens of visual images as vivid and poetic as Shakespeare’s language; in Ran, there’s no equivalent for the moment when Lear confronts the absolute nullification of death by repeating the word “never” five times over. Ran is a magisterial film, but not quite a great one.

There’s a libidinal undertow in Place Vendôme that would be Hitchcockian if it weren’t so unmistakably female. Director Nicole Garcia and star Catherine Deneuve have created a character unique enough to compensate for the film’s narrative deficiencies. Deneuve plays Marianne, an alcoholic middle-aged woman married to the director of a Paris jewelry firm located in an elegant 18th-century building on the Place Vendôme. Behind the facades of houses erected during the Age of Reason, corruption and greed is rampant. When her husband, Vincent (Bernard Fresson), commits suicide, Marianne puts away the bottle and takes control of her life and his company. Once a gem trader herself, Marianne was left by her lover (Jacques Dutronc) to take the rap for a deal involving stolen diamonds. Vincent saved her from jail and later married her, but their relationship infantilized her. Now, with no one to rely on but herself, she rediscovers long-buried resources and desires.

Like the Place Vendôme, the smooth-surfaced, well-appointed Marianne is prey to dangerous impulses within herself. And unlike Hitchcock’s heroines, she has a palpable awareness of her lived-in body. Deneuve’s performance is remarkably physical—from the angry little shake she gives her head to clear away an alcoholic haze to the way she positions a bare arm so you notice the slight sag in the fullness. As she’s aged, Deneuve has lost some of her emotional inhibitions as an actress, but she’s never before spilled so much of herself on screen.

What makes Marianne so fascinating is the internal conflict between her self-destructive and her survival impulses. But the film’s thriller-styled narrative isn’t expansive enough to contain her. Given Marianne’s reckless behavior—she walks around Paris openly carrying a fortune in stolen diamonds—you’d think she would be murdered before the film is half over. Hitchcock knew how to camouflage flaws in logic, but Garcia isn’t as skillful. Inept as a thriller, Place Vendôme nevertheless intrigues.