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At the Movies

Failed women's film, a tired Woody, late thoughts on "English Patient"


Once upon a time, a joyously innocent young woman lived in a Scottish village by the sea. As her sensible sister-in-law announced with a mixture of admiration and exasperation, Bess instinctively gave away anything she had. This passionately large-hearted young woman is at the center of Breaking the Waves (October Films), an award-winning English-language movie by Danish director Lars von Trier that combines melodramatic excess with aspirations to religious meaning.

Emily Watson's captivating performance as the heroine deserves an Academy Award and has prompted comparison to that of Giulietta Massina in "La Strada." Her elfishly mobile face shifts from delight to humility as she cleans the local church, which is controlled by incredibly wicked elders who casually assign the dead to hell and whose views of women's roles make those of John Paul II seem wildly permissive.

Bess, however, has a stubborn streak and marries her handsome oil rig worker, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), against the elders' advice. The couple have a brief, rapturous time together as the naive young wife -- in scenes that are both passionate and delicate, never prurient -- discovers the delights of the male body.

Then Jan has to go away to work on the rig and the film turns dark. Bess's need for her husband betrays an emotional imbalance. As she prays for his return, she simultaneously gives voice to the relentless God of the village elders.

The catastrophe is clearly foreshadowed yet powerfully rendered: Robby Miller's hand-held camera makes the oil machinery seem threatening before shifting to the horseplay among the workers on the rig. There is a horrible accident, and a totally paralyzed Jan returns to the village, a cruel twist that Bess understands as due to her prayers.

The distraught wife is understandably ready to devote herself to her injured husband. The director abuses our suspension of disbelief by having Jan insist that only by having sex with other men and telling him about it can they again achieve genuine intimacy. Despite her instinctive resistance, Bess acts out this scenario of degradation, desperately holding on to her belief that her sacrifice is keeping her husband alive.

Although Von Trier, a Catholic convert, has obviously studied the great films of Carl Dreyer -- like "The Passion of Joan of Arc" and "Ordet," famous for their identification with feminine suffering -- "Breaking the Waves" becomes a sick male fantasy of womanly devotion. The problem is lack of aesthetic discipline, not bad intentions.

What is surprising is not that the movie won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and has gotten comparable critical support here, but that even sophisticated women of different ages have fallen under its spell. One highly intelligent European Catholic woman critic even invoked St. Paul's encomium of love at the conclusion of her review. No one should mock the selflessness of the film's unbalanced heroine, but anger at the elder's final outburst, "We allow no woman to speak at this service," shouldn't make us naively believe that this movie is on the side of women.

After so much over-the-top emotionalism, Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You (Miramax) is a pleasant relief. We know we're in the hands of a professional. All we need to do is relax, enjoy the old-time romantic ballads and Carlo DiPalma's gorgeous shots of New York's Central Park, the canals of Venice and Paris' Champs Elysees. Even more delightful is Goldie Hawn as Steffi, ex-wife of writer Joe Berlin (Woody Allen). Long married to Bob (Alan Alda), she combines motherhood with a zany pseudo-liberalism. There is a nice bit as she tells a stunned audience of policemen that prisoners should explore their creative potential by decorating their own cells.

Extending the use made of the Greek chorus in "Mighty Aphrodite," "Everyone" lets its characters burst into song from the beginning. The singers don't take themselves very seriously -- and Woody hardly makes an effort -- but the production numbers are boisterous fun. There's no real plot, but when Holden (Edward Norton) goes to buy an engagement ring for Skylar (Drew Barrymore), the debutante daughter of the family, it's an excuse to set dancing diamond salesmen in motion at an expensive jewelry store. And when Skylar swallows the ring at a fancy restaurant -- Holden has arranged with the waiter to set it on top of a fabulous dessert -- we're off to the hospital, where "Making Whoopee" becomes a song-and-dance sensation up and down the aisles.

This kind of movie escapism recalls the screwball comedies with which Hollywood distracted audiences during the Depression. It's a world where no one has to work and everyone has too much money. The only problem, which is becoming harder to get interested in, is to find the right woman for Woody. Much of the movie's wit is in the bright lines given its narrator, DJ (Natasha Lyonne), a younger daughter, who passes on to Woody some secrets blurted out by Von (Julia Roberts) to her analyst. This inside information gives him perfect lines to make him seem to be the embodiment of Von's dreams.

It's no accident that so many actors and actresses are glad to work for Woody, even in small parts. He brings out the best in them, provides them with bright dialogue and makes them a seamless part of the whole. Alan Alda, for example, is comically indignant at the idea of having a conservative son who reads The National Review, and Tim Roth, one of Goldie Hawn's deserving ex-convicts, not only drops in on her but gets to sing "If I Had You" to the temporarily intrigued Skylar.

It's a shame, however, that Woody doesn't have someone to direct him these days. Of course, he doesn't need coaching to deliver his cynical one-liners, but the character seems tired and stands a little apart from the fun. Nevertheless, the finale provides a golden moment as Woody and Goldie dance by the Seine. It's not a "happy ending" but nostalgic and bittersweet, as Woody holds himself back and lets Goldie soar in the air.

Finally, let me add a late dissenting note to the chorus of praise that has saluted The English Patient (Miramax) as the best movie of the year. Reactions probably depend on how you respond to the idea of Ralph Fiennes or Kristin Scott Thomas being blown into your tent during a sandstorm in the Arabian desert -- not my idea of ecstasy.

To be fair, Michael Ondaatje's prizewinning novel seemed an impossible film project but the author advised director Anthony Minghella on the screenplay, and the finished product is a genuine tour de force. It may not always be easy to see how the intricate pieces of narrative fit together, but this is an ambitious, carefully wrought film with fine performances and a host of memorable images: rock and sky, cave paintings of swimmers in the desert, pre-World War II Cairo, North Africa during that war and Tuscany at its conclusion. My problem was that the relationship at its center seemed false and unconvincing.

Minghella's basic decision was to make the past of the "English patient" (Ralph Fiennes) -- who is really the Hungarian Count Almasy -- the center of the action. It is October 1944, and a French-Canadian nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), hoping to recover from the emotional devastation war has brought her, takes her badly burned patient to a ruined monastery to care for him during his last days. Almasy looks like a mummy and has lost his memory. We follow his past in dreamlike flashbacks to earlier times.

It is a lushly romantic story, steeped in exotic backgrounds, espionage and an all-consuming, adulterous relationship. Almasy had been the leader of a party of pre-World War II European explorers that included Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his glamorous wife, Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas). There is an immediate attraction between the aristocratic adventurer and the flirtatious beauty as the group moves from a desert outpost to a posh hotel in Cairo. Geoffrey, secretly involved in British intelligence, imprudently leaves Katharine behind during one of his missions. A sudden sandstorm brings the lovers together. Fiennes conveys an overwhelming intensity, Scott Thomas is a provocative tease, and their love scenes have a genuine erotic charge. It's all attractively inevitable and doomed.

Minghella switches scenes too quickly for us to ask whether this isn't just an old movie cliche in more glamorous (and pretentious) guise. I was more interested in the ongoing action in Italy, which was not as fully developed. Juliette Binoche's Hana seemed to offer a more credible image as a vulnerable, dedicated nurse who plays Bach on a half-wrecked piano and falls in love with Kip (Naveen Andrews), a handsome Indian officer whose point of view should have been explored. The most successful romantic moment in the movie for me was when Kip, using an elaborate system of pulleys, manages to lift Hana high up beside the walls of the local church to get a close-up of the magnificent look-alike Piero della Francesca frescoes on all sides.

Somehow, "The English Patient" seemed pretentiously arty. My basic problem was that I couldn't get emotionally involved with the central couple, as I could in, say, "Casablanca."

The photography by John Seale, however, has an almost surreal beauty. The movie seems to be succeeding because of the all-enveloping character of its passionate sensibility.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997