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September 20, 2007

Of Devils and Gauls

Lumet and Rohmer square off in NYFF's octogenarian auteur duel

Devil dogs: Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Sidney Lumet's NYFF selection, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Photo: ThinkFilm)

Wednesday was octogenarian master director face-off day at the New York Film Festival press screenings: In the morning slot, 87-year-old Eric Rohmer delivered with The Romance of Astree and Celadon, but advance word said that the real heavyweight was 83-year-old Sidney Lumet's return to form Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. Arriving at NYFF with distribution from ThinkFilm and positive buzz from Toronto -- and Lumet in attendance and notorious recluse Rohmer absent -- it won out as the screening of the day.

And for an hour, at least, it's as strong as anything Lumet's done. The reasons have as much to do with the cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney) as with Lumet's typically low-key approach, a reliance on non-flashy shots and unobtrusive edits that become compellingly bravura the more angles Lumet finds to shoot in claustrophobic situations. No surprise here; innovative approaches to closed spaces have been a hallmark of Lumet's work, from his feature debut -- 1957's theater adaptation 12 Angry Men -- to 2005's underrated Find Me Guilty, which was at least, in part, an exercise in figuring out how to set almost the entirety of a film in one courtroom. This crime drama comes with an intricate flashback/flash-forward structure, but it's still basically an interior piece with a few locations.

"We go over some of the same ground each time," Lumet said in the press conference following the screening. "Having someone else's point of view allowed me the legitimacy to shoot it differently. None of those shots are ever the same shot." He seemed properly proud, just as he was of his lead actor. "Philip Seymour Hoffman is about as good an actor as there is working in America today, as far as I'm concerned," Lumet said. Indeed, Hoffman's performance is topped in his own career maybe only by Magnolia. Using every inch of his athlete's body gone to seed, he's alternately deceptively calm and incredibly threatening, redeeming all of the script's clichés.

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"Brilliantly plotted," said Lumet of his reaction upon receiving a script by Kelly Masterson (who, it turned out, he's never met and didn't even know if Kelly designated a man or a woman). He's right, insofar as the script's twisty complications avoid the most obvious of plants and use the tired scrambled chronology trick to good effect. But if the first hour is a masterful rehabilitation of the hoary perfect-crime-gone-wrong genre, the second is increasingly diminishing returns. When asked who rewrote the script to fix some problems Lumet had, he flatly replied "I did." Not enough -- in its second half, Dead goes beyond the simply implausible to the psychologically improbable. "In my view, it's a first-rate melodrama," Lumet said. "In a good drama, the characters are going to determine the story. In a good melodrama, the story is going to determine the characters. The improbability of a melodrama has to do only with the restraints we put on ourselves. Without those restraints, that would be simple reality." A nice genre definition, but Dead's feverish clarity can't outlast increasingly on-the-nose dialogue or fatalistic plot contortions.

The wonder film of the day turned out to be Rohmer's The Romance of Astree and Celadon, though not everyone agrees -- one colleague said he'd seen more walk-outs at the Toronto International Film Festival for this film than any other (this in a year including Bela Tarr), and walk-outs were in evidence at Wednesday's screening too. Rohmer is best known for his leisurely bourgeois examinations of romantic mores, but there are some odd exceptions in his canon, and Astree most resembles one of those, 1976's The Marquise Of O.

Stéphanie de Crayencour Andy Gillet in The Romance of Astree and Celadon (Photo: Rezo Productions)

Here, as there, Rohmer takes an old story seemingly at face value; in Marquise, it's the increasingly ludicrous protestations of a woman that her pregnancy must be the result of immaculate conception (rather than rape). Again, Rohmer constructs an entire story around the kind of outdated conflict that would never occur to a modern person. Shepherdess Astree (Stéphanie de Crayencour) loves shepherd Celadon (Andy Gillet), but the mores of fifth-century Gaul -- as reimagined by a 17th-century source text by Honoré d'Urfé -- are so insane that a trifling misunderstanding leads to mutually masochistic misapprehensions and self-denials for both parties.

It'd be unfair to spoil anything -- let it suffice to say that the "dilemma" here would never occur to anyone in the 21st century. Rohmer's greatest joke is to present it with a straight face, then force the audience to try to take the story's weirder elements -- which eventually expand to include seemingly unconscious lesbianism and a cross-dressing fetish -- as normative values of the past. It's an impossible task, and Rohmer seems to know it. Like his near-contemporary Chaude Chabrol, Rohmer is cagy about frustrating audience expectations -- he breaks up the already odd narrative with title cards, voice-over narration and anachronistic paintings (Manet et al.) on the wall.

Yet Astree isn't just a mindfuck -- it's a delightful movie that manages to make hanging out in sheep-littered fields and forests look like the most fun you could possibly have. The toga and tunic-clad cast look at least as appealing and plausible as anything happening in Williamsburg, and Hylas (Rodolphe Pauly) is to this film what Matthew McConaughey is to Dazed And Confused: an unlikely and welcome dose of lewdness. Astree deserves much more explication and analysis (gender studies students will have a field day with it), but until it gets distribution, it's unlikely to do so. A shame, and all the more reason to make sure to catch it at the festival; it's one of the best films I've seen all year.



Comments (1)

Count me as another "Astree and Celadon" walkout. On a intellectual level, I can see some of what you're talking about here - particularly as I'm an enthusiast of the literature of chivalric romance, along with its attendant absurd sexual and personal mores that few, if any, real human beings ever adhered to. This aesthetic/intellectual game was enough to keep me mildly interested for a short while, even while I was never quite sure if it was intentional on Rohmer's part, or something I was reading into a bad film in an effort to redeem it. By the one-hour point, I was too bored to care. The joke of the outdated mores and the anachronistic costumes and settings would sustain a clever short, but wears thin quickly.

The actors are blanks, which might be intentional, but doesn't work. The one who isn't, Rodolphe Pauly, was so preeningly awful I welcomed his exit from his first scene like the ceasing of a car alarm. I'm amazed to read your praise of him - he reminded me of the hideous Mozart in a community theater production of "Amadeus" that I still haven't wiped from my brain. The competent postcard prettiness of the settings is no compensation for actual lyricism or style.

I kept pining for those directors whose work I've seen at the NYFF who can make rambling along at a snail's pace through alien societies, with people you don't quite understand, a mesmerizing pleasure. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, etc.

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