If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
TORONTO--One of the best films at this year's Toronto Film Festival is "too slow," another is a "chick flick," a third is "too weird," and a fourth is "too talky." People told me these things as they were leaving the theater.
1. "Too slow": That would be Eric Rohmer's "L'Anglaise et le Duc" ("The Lady and the Duke"), the story of an aristocratic Scottish lady (Lucy Russell) who lives in Paris during the French Revolution. Once the mistress of the future King George IV, now under the protection of the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), she holds fiercely monarchist views and disdains the mob.
The film, which uses digital effects to re-create the period, shows her concealing a wounded nobleman in her bed while a citizens' committee searches her house, standing up to the duke when he thinks hypocrisy will save his skin and proudly facing a revolutionary tribunal. There is a scene in which her life depends on the contents of a letter in English that she possesses but has not opened, and when a translator is lacking, she reads it herself.
This movie, made in Rohmer's 81st year, is one of his most magnificent, an ambitious historical drama from a director better known for intensely observed moral tales of everyday life. Lucy Russell plays Grace Elliott as a woman who has not slept her way to the top so much as imposed herself there by sheer force of character. Unintimidated, unafraid, she is a fascination to Orleans, who is played by Dreyfuss as a man who opposes free speech in the republic but admires it in his mistress.
Like all of Rohmer's films, this one observes a moral dilemma in which some people act well and others badly; it has the visual beauty of an engraving, a pace that echoes the inexorable progress of the revolution, and the belief that it is less important whether you are Left or Right than whether you behave bravely in accord with your principles. Far from being too slow, it tells its story at a preordained pace; perhaps modern Hollywood product has trained some moviegoers to view too fast.
2. "The chick flick": I saw Nicole Holofcener's "Lovely and Amazing" last week at Telluride, where it was just about my favorite film.
It stars Brenda Blethyn as the mother of three daughters. Michelle (Catherine Keener) is trapped in a loveless marriage and trapped, too, by her self-deception; she makes little chairs out of twigs, calls them her "art" and believes her husband steps on them deliberately. Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is a would-be actress who fills the house with stray dogs. And Annie (Raven Goodwin) is an adopted 8-year-old African American, who in this emotional minefield of egos has the pluck to define her own space and defend it.
The movie sidesteps obvious climaxes and aims instead at the way the emotional mix shifts in the family. A lesser movie would have been preoccupied by the audition, the missing child, the health crisis, the unexpected injury. This one is about the way these women look for continuity and reconciliation, and try to find the emotional through-line in a crisis.
Does that make it a "chick flick"? What an insult to women, and men. It doesn't condescend to women, or close out men; it's too good for that.
One of its treasures is the oblique way it handles the subject of the 8-year-old's race; the movie lives in a time when we have more or less gotten over the fact that someone else is of a different color, and can move on to more interesting differences.
3. "Too weird": Not a useful observation, since it refers only to the values of the person speaking. The film is "From Hell," an uncommonly creepy horror picture from the Hughes Brothers, who star Johnny Depp as an opium-smoking, possibly psychic London detective on the trail of Jack the Ripper. I was expecting a Hammer horror film crossed with post-modern irony. What I got was an atmospheric reconstruction of the historical period, and a solution that is not a gimmick but a plausible hypothesis, based on clues that are in plain view.
Yes, the movie is gory. Hearts and livers are juggled like hamburger patties. The grisly nature of Jack's dismemberments is made perfectly clear. But isn't that at the heart of our fascination with Jack the Ripper, who has had a longer shelf life than any other serial killer?
Depp and Robbie Coltrane, who plays his sergeant, shake loose from the cliches of the cop-buddy genre and submerge themselves in the story. Ian Holm plays one of those Victorian doctors besotted by mystical theories.
"Too weird"? In a movie about Jack the Ripper? Why do so many moviegoers keep trying to push movies back into their boxes?
4. "Too talky": That would be Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," which is the most visually alive movie of the year. Some moviegoers have the wrong organs on duty. The critics of the Rohmer film were listening with their eyes, and those who find Linklater too talky are watching with their ears. The movie is a series of conversations about free will, dreams, existentialism and the nature of reality, as its hero wanders through Austin, Texas, in a state between life and death. But that's only the story line. Look at this movie!
Linklater shot it in live-action digital, and then transformed it into shimmering, magical animation. He worked with Tommy Pallotta and Bob Sabiston, computer animation wizards who assigned separate artists to each major character, so that the movie interprets each scene according to the personalities involved.
The result is a film that dances and vibrates with life. I have never seen animation shape-shift in this way to mirror the elusive feel of a scene. The dialogue is no less engaging; the conversations are not empty exercises, but reflect the quest of a hero trying to reason himself through that most perplexing experience--life.
Since every word and idea of every conversation is expressed with clarity (there is no show-off obscurity), anyone who finds it too talky is not listening; in an age when too much dialogue is monosyllabic sound bites, are we forgetting how to listen?
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