Partial Refractions


Beginning three times with a funeral, Lawless Heart is the latest in the long procession of movies to borrow Rashomon‘s prismatic structure. British writer-directors Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter aim to refract the experiences of a trio of men variously linked to the deceased, a restaurant owner in Essex named Stuart: his deceptively composed lover, Nick (Tom Hollander); his stiff-collared brother-in-law Dan (Bill Nighy); and his prodigal cousin Tim (Douglas Henshall). The film’s rotary engine impels cross-purposes and contradictions that are matters more of emotion and psyche than narrative. In a long conversation at the wake with a perfect stranger, Dan appears a wistful, self-interrogatory gentleman of the world, but sit him in a pub with Nick and he crumbles into a mealy-mouthed homophobe. Blowsy Charlie (Sukie Smith) seems a buzzing fruit fly whom pushover Nick can’t bring himself to flick away, but then again, she’s just about the only person to bother asking him about Stuart.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who also shot Michael Winterbottom’s wistful London paean Wonderland, eschews English-seaside postcard gloss for autumnal melancholy, while the script gently infers the ways that Nick’s circle uncomfortably brush away his sorrow. But Hunsinger and Hunter’s film may be too reticent for its own good. Though a Brit cousin to the bereaved French ensembles of Olivier Assayas’s Late August, Early September and especially Patrice Chéreau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, Lawless Heart largely elides the mourning process, and steers so clear of exposition that a reel or two goes by before the weave of identities and relationships untangles. Of course, viewers made queasy by cinematic spoon-feeding will welcome the assumption of their deducing skills, if not the telefilm tropes: a “having fun” montage, home movies of the dead, a general aversion to long takes. If Lawless Heart does stumble uncertainly toward closure in the end, it’s perhaps more sympathetic for it—like grieving itself, the film is awkward, messily honest, and sometimes darkly funny.

Only funny inadvertently, the trio of short films composing Erotic Tales amount to a celluloid transfiguration of a brutal Valentine’s Day hangover. The first and last installments wander in a Holland daze. In Susan Seidelman’s laborious The Dutch Master, mute dental hygienist Mira Sorvino becomes obsessed by a Pieter de Hooch painting to the exclusion of all other activity, including attendance at her own wedding. Jos Stelling’s tiresome The Waiting Room focuses on an equal-opportunity lech at a Netherlands train station whose leering overtures are unexpectedly returned by a mysterious woman in (delft) blue. The lumpen center is another exercise in wish fulfillment, Amos Kollek’s preposterous Angela, wherein geriatric sad sack Bob (Abel Ferrara perennial Victor Argo) enters into a May-December arrangement with the titular sex worker. (Among other things, the unlikely pair share a gift for gab. Angela: “Do you want to lick my toes, Bob?” Bob: “Maybe in a couple of minutes.”) Whittled down from a series of 36 short films commissioned by a German television network between 1996 and 2000, Erotic Tales leaves you only to ponder the horror of the 33 that didn’t make the cut.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 18, 2003

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