e-mail us

At the Movies

Four for fall


Hollywood’s attempts to amuse audiences should encourage you to hurry to a well stocked video store. Most of the new movies that offer something more promising are not apt to make it to your local multiplex. One likely exception to that gloomy forecast is Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff’s offbeat picture of post-high school alienation, which is getting extra media attention for bringing Daniel Clowes’ comic book world to the screen. As Enid, Thora Birch, the sullen daughter of “American Beauty,” delivers lots of zingers at the expense of the conformity and consumerism of the surrounding culture as she spends her post-graduation summer in diners and record stores with best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johnannson). Zwigoff wants us to remain sympathetic with Enid, but it’s easy to tire of her four-letter invective and the occasional cruelty of her withering contempt.

Enid’s search for authenticity may suggest a latter-day Holden Caulfield as she shows impatience with her father, store clerks and even Rebecca when the latter settles into a routine job. She is forced to attend a remedial art class to qualify for her diploma, providing Ileana Douglas with wonderfully comic routines as a teacher with pretentious interpretations of everyone’s self-expression. Appropriately enough for a Clowes heroine, Enid shows a talent for cartooning but ruins her chance for an art school scholarship by including an old advertisement for “Coon’s Chicken” in the class exhibit. This plot device boomerangs: Though Enid is no racist and the movie’s intention is to mock the hypocrisy of political correctness, Zwigoff and Clowes might better have looked for a target where wounds have begun to heal.

Enid’s random encounters lead her to Seymour (Steve Buscemi), an eccentric middle-aged record collector with a specialist’s knowledge of popular culture and a deep sense of failure. His funny/sad declaration, “I can’t relate to 99 percent of humanity,” seems a recommendation to Edith, who befriends him and tries to find him dates, but there is little rapport between Seymour and the young women she locates. The complexities of the Seymour/Enid relationship are at the heart of “Ghost World”: It cannot provide a “solution” for either of them, but their interaction gives the movie its nearest approximation to human emotion.

“Ghost World” won’t please those looking for plot resolutions and clear endings, but it outlines a zigzag record of a growing-up process that is not without hope. Although Enid never comes to recognize her own spoiled, middle-class status, by the end of the movie we sense that she has grown up a little and can more easily recognize her underlying loneliness and insecurity.

The Closet, a French farce by François Weber, is also apt to get exposure in your neighborhood, since his earlier “La Cage aux Folles” (later remade in Hollywood as “The Birdcage”) was successful in the United States and could be promoted as mildly naughty. In fact, the film is mostly interested in exposing hypocrisy and homophobia and its well-paced story of a mousy accountant at a condom factory who saves his job by pretending to be gay has lots of legitimate laughs and first-rate comic performances.

François Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) is about to jump out the window after being told he has been fired when Belone (Michel Aumont), who has just moved into an adjoining apartment, successfully distracts him. Instead of melodrama, we get a subtle, well-played comic scene between the two men. Belone finds out François is upset about keeping up alimony payments for his ex-wife Christine (Alexandra Vandernoot) and the lack of any relationship with his teen-age son Franck (Stanislas Credillén). Instead of exaggerated sympathy, Belone offers an up-to-date strategy, getting his distraught neighbor to accept his offer to send doctored photos of François at a gay bar to the latter’s office. The sanctimonious company president, worried about a possible lawsuit based on sexual discrimination, recognizes that François’s services are indispensable and issues a directive against any form of homophobia.

The effect of the latter is observed principally in the ludicrously painful efforts of Félix Santini (Gérard Depardieu), a thuggish employee whose principal interest is soccer, to overcome his instinctive bigotry. Félix tries to change his reputation by taking François out to lunch (at which the two men have nothing to say to each other) and even buys him a pink sweater. Some of the developments -- like Félix’s wife worrying that her husband has acquired a mistress, and his son showing him respect after his “homosexuality” has been publicized -- seem strained rather than funny. However, François’ pained look as he rides a float in a gay pride parade, wearing a blown-up condom on his head and lifting his hand gingerly to acknowledge the crowd, is a wonderful moment because it is completely in character. His triumph helps him shed his excessive timidity, and even leads to a ridiculous sex scene between François and the head accountant, Mlle. Bertrand (Michèle Laroque), who are observed in flagrante delicto by a visiting Japanese delegation that is being shown around the condom factory.

“The Closet” compliments the audience by assuming it has transcended longtime prejudices. The fact that the strategy for saving François’s job was devised by Belone, an older gay man who had himself lost his job 20 years earlier when his homosexuality became known gives the movie an appropriately ironic flavor.

The Vertical Ray of the Sun, by Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, may be harder to find, but is well worth seeking out. It was the first time I’d seen Hanoi used in a movie, and Mark Lee Ping-Bin, who also photographed the recent “In the Mood for Love,” makes delicate use of contrasting colors in the lush foliage that frames the action. Those looking for political overtones will be disappointed, since the movie concentrates on the muted emotional disturbances in the lives of three sisters in a traditional middle-class family. Opening with the ritual meal honoring their mother, who has recently died, and closing a month later on the anniversary observance of their father’s death, it demonstrates the close relationships among the sisters and gives a strong sense of family continuity.

The two older sisters, Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh) and Khanh (Lê Khanh), are in marriages whose strains are slowly revealed during the film. Suong, who runs a restaurant where much of the action takes place, and her moody, photographer-husband, Quoc (Chu Ngoc Hung), have grown apart in recent years and both are strongly attracted to new partners. Khanh, who is anxious to have a child, discovers she is pregnant just before her novelist husband, Kien (Tran Manh Cuong) leaves on a mysterious trip to Saigon to overcome writer’s block. The youngest, graceful, spontaneous Liên (Tran Nu Yën-Khé), still lives with her brother Hai (Ngö Quang Hai), an aspiring actor, in a cozy, sunny apartment. Probably the movie’s most delightful visual images are of the improvisational Asian exercises with which they begin their day, making full use of the furniture in their limited quarters. Liên seems delighted to inform her brother that passers-by are apt to take them for a couple, and for a few minutes one worries that the film will develop an incest plot. Fortunately, Hai treats his sister’s remarks as an indication of growing-up pains and by the end of the movie the naive young woman seems headed toward a conventional marriage with an architect.

If plotting seems attenuated, emotional development in “The Vertical Ray of the Sun” is real and sustained. Its overall mood is enhanced by the way it draws on both Western pop music, heard in the morning in Liên and Hai’s apartment, and the haunting Vietnamese songs of Tringh Cong Son. Like the director, the characters themselves are so restrained that melodramatic possibilities are never allowed to explode. A number of reviewers have understandably invoked the name of Chekhov in trying to capture the film’s essential qualities. There is sadness in the lives of these Vietnamese sisters, but we like and respect them, impressed with their gentleness and capacity to survive.

Lumumba will probably not get the distribution it deserves, but Haitian director Raoul Peck has made an exciting and politically significant movie out of the short career of the Congolese independence leader who was brutally hacked to death, murdered by Belgian soldiers less than a year after he took office. Eric Ebouaney brings dignity and excitement to the title role; the stirring idealism of his oratory expresses his dream of a united country. Despite the director’s sympathies, the movie is far from a stiff propaganda piece, and Lumumba is allowed to appear naive in believing that the deep divisions among the former colony’s leaders could easily be bridged after independence was declared. The Belgians are the chief villains, eliminating Lumumba as a threat to the wealthy diamond companies in Katanga, but western collusion, including that of the United Nations and the United States, was virtually unanimous. The most sanctimoniously pertinent line for American viewers is that of the U.S. ambassador who intones, “It is not the habit of my government to interfere in the affairs of an independent nation.”

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is: SCUNN24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001