The Art of War


Are you tough enough to take the naked truths that Neil LaBute dishes out? Having tried his hand at feel-good comedy and posh literary adaptation with Nurse Betty and Possession, the prolific LaBute returns to the he-man emotional cruelty of his first two movies and recent theater work. The Shape of Things—directed by LaBute from his 2001 play, with the same four actors re-creating their roles—may be considered a distaff version of In the Company of Men. It’s a calculated bit of sexual bait-and-switch in which predatory humans toy with each other to achieve their own carnivorous ends.

Boldly schematic, The Shape of Things opens in a college art museum with Adam (Paul Rudd) and Eve . . . lyn (Rachel Weisz) meeting in the shadow of a classically sculpted male divinity. He’s working as a guard; she’s an aesthetic terrorist who has hopped the barrier protecting the marble artwork in order to spray-paint a penis on its fig leaf. “I hate art that isn’t true,” she tells him. It may not be the Garden of Eden, but dorky undergrad Adam is fascinated by this wily, self-assured M.F.A. student; tempted by the promise of her phone number, he looks the other way.

Perhaps inspired by the British bad-girl installation artist Tracy Emin, Evelyn—so we soon discover—keeps a video camera trained on her bed, creates her own mini Warhol films, and speaks approvingly of a performance piece that involved the artist finger-painting with her own menstrual blood. (So why wasn’t this disruptive vixen called “Lilith”?) Evelyn is a cartoon menace who not only braids her hair in two charming little horns but also accessorizes her Che Guevara T-shirts with Mao buttons. Affecting a buzz-saw purr and squinchy smile, Weisz is nothing if not mannered, but then her part is all about acting.

Adam may be hopelessly devoted to the irritating Evelyn, but he’s not so blind that he doesn’t wonder what exactly she sees in him. “Why would you like me? I’m not anything,” he wails, much to her annoyance. Actually, Evelyn does make a few helpful sartorial suggestions, encourage a weight-loss regimen, treat her aw-shucks young protégé to a new haircut, and, somewhat incredibly, persuade him to undertake a bit of cosmetic surgery. When asked about the bandage affixed to his nose, Adam coyly attributes it to a tumble down some stairs. And, as The New England Primer opens, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

Fortunately for the viewer, Evelyn and Adam are not entirely alone in the world of Mercy College; Adam has two friends, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phil (Frederick Weller), graduating seniors who when first encountered are planning to stage their wedding underwater. They make for an amusingly awkward foursome, and, on-screen as onstage, glamour gal Mol unexpectedly gives the quartet’s strongest performance—prissy and sweet, masking her uncertainty with a tight, demure smile. (As Weisz says of her own character in a different context, Mol presents the most convincing “illusion of interest and desire.”) The entertaining Weller, broadly playing the film’s Aaron Eckhart role, is a self-satisfied male chauvinist who renders his smugness suspect with his sidelong glances, slow-dawning suspicions, and supercilious delivery.

LaBute adds a few stray background noises to the soundtrack but declines to open up his play—although the golden light and neoclassical edifices of the near empty California campus where the exteriors were shot accentuate the allegory. In its costumes, line readings, and structure, the movie faithfully preserves the stage production—a provocative, if meretricious, evening of theater that ends in a paroxysm of LaButality with a bear swipe to the spectator’s head. It is, however, more difficult to rattle a movie audience—at least with words—and, despite its streamlined presentation, The Shape of Things is not nearly as effective on-screen. Where the play ended with a form of direct address, the movie reaches its climax in a Mercy College auditorium (complete with stained-glass windows). Lurking in the background is a perhaps invented aphorism attributed to the author of Love Is a Many Splendored Thing: “Moralists have no place in an art gallery.” Expelled from Paradise at last.

Although much has been made of his conversion to Mormonism, LaBute seems more fundamentally a Puritan—and not simply in his taste for jeremiad and punitive disdain for sexual pleasure. The Shape of Things is itself shaped by a profound mistrust of art—or rather, a hatred of artifice. But who’s kidding whom? This scenario’s emphasis on objectification and mind control, its exaggerated horror of duplicity and role-playing, do not convincingly critique art-world solipsism. As Evelyn’s agenda folds into LaBute’s, The Shape of Things suggests a more personal issue—a self-devouring contempt for theater itself.

An antidote to (or, perhaps, a necessary appetizer for) LaBute’s neo-Cromwellian moralizing may be found this week at Film Forum, which has chosen to revive the most cloying of cult films, Philippe de Broca’s 1967 King of Hearts.

As World War I ends, the retreating German army abandons a picture-postcard French town but not before booby-trapping the place to blow sky high when British troops arrive. The locals flee and, left to their own devices, a gaggle of cheerful lunatics escape their bin and take over the doomed town—thoroughly confusing the British soldier (Alan Bates) who has been dispatched to defuse the bomb. “Theater is everywhere,” the wisest of the loonies informs him—and so are saccharine bromides. The LaBute Skinner box is here filled with bonbons.

As a movie, King of Hearts is more pageant than story. (To add to the enchantment, de Broca contrives to have circus animals wandering the streets; even the British soldiers are costumed in kilts.) As a cultural artifact, however, the movie is less a relic than a symptom. Set to a lilting score by Georges Delerue that shamelessly pastiches his music for Jules and Jim, King of Hearts managed to conflate a topical anti-militarism with the sentimental glorification of mental illness already percolating through mid-’60s popular culture in the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, movies like Morgan! and A Fine Madness, and even the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha. Indeed, given its notion of schizophrenia as a form of defensive role-playing, King of Hearts is nearly a pop exegesis of R.D. Laing’s anti-psychiatry. These adorable crazies are like children who never tire of play: Pierre Brasseur, the ripest piece of Camembert, impersonates a lunatic impersonating a general; Bates’s love interest is provided by a very pert and pretty Geneviève Bujold, zany enough to imagine herself a virginal hooker. (The importance of her fantasy brothel suggests a diluted version of Jean Genet’s The Balcony.)

This cutie-pie be-in opened in the U.S. during the full flowering of hippiedom in the very Summer of Love (“The arena of the spectacle might just as well be Central Park,” Andrew Sarris wrote in the Voice) and achieved bona fide cult status in the early ’70s, evidently running for five years at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, among other college towns. (In New York, King of Hearts succeeded the wildly successful Pink Flamingos as the Elgin’s midnight attraction in January 1974, lasting a mediocre 14 weeks before being yanked for the redoubtable Freaks.) The movie’s middlebrow destiny may be considered fulfilled by its own transformation into a Broadway musical that ran 48 performances in late 1978.

What’s most striking about King of Hearts today is the cost-free detachment of its specious whimsy: There’s a blithe Hitler joke, several farcical executions, and an exceedingly high body count. “Don’t you think these actors are a bit over-the-top?” one wacko remarks upon watching the British and German armies slaughter each other at close quarters. Not really. The new 35mm print, as customary with Film Forum revivals, is impeccable.

Elsewhere on the Viet-era nostalgia front is the latest D.A. Pennebaker-Chris Hegedus documentary, Only the Strong Survive. This sunny paean to the mainly Memphis- and Chicago-based soul luminaries of the ’60s and ’70s lacks the journalistic hook of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, but there are moments that will induce the susceptible to break into a big foolish grin. Carla Thomas still sounds like her 20-year-old self, Ann Peebles looks ageless, and Wilson Pickett’s personality has scarcely lost its gravelly effervescence. I’d have welcomed more archival footage (Pennebaker did, after all, document Otis Redding’s epochal performance at the Monterey Pop Festival), but that would be asking for another movie.