2001 Sundance Film Festival Update #6: "Veterans' Days"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 27, 2001

Star power has not been much in evidence this year at Sundance. From time-to-time, it's possible to run into a familiar face, but Park City isn't exactly crawling with celebrities. The biggest wattage name to turn up this year has been Mick Jagger, who produced Michael Apted's Enigma. With all of the attention accorded to him, you'd think he was a rock star, or a living legend, or something similar. When given the opportunity to interview him, even jaded film critics like Roger Ebert and Harlan Jacobson gushed. (I ran into Harlan shortly after the interview and he said, "I just interviewed Mick Jagger. Cool, huh?")

Of all the filmmakers to bring something to Sundance this year, Apted is arguably the most accomplished. His resume is long and impressive, including a number of intriguing feature films, the amazing 7 Up documentary series, and even a James Bond movie (The World Is Not Enough). Apted's latest is Engima, which is, in some ways, a companion piece to last year's U-571. While that film presented a fictionalized account of how the Enigma decryption device was captured (with Americans taking the place of the British), Enigma shows how the machine was used when it got into the hands of the decoders.

The action takes place at Bletchley Park, 60 miles north of London, where the heart of England's World War II decoding operation was located. Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott, last seen as the bad guy in Mission: Impossible 2) was one of the best in the business until he suffered a nervous breakdown after being dumped by his girlfriend, Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows). Now, a shell of the man he once was, Jericho is back at work - the decoders need him because the Germans have altered their encryption methods, blacking out the Allies at a crucial time (a huge convoy crossing the Atlantic may be headed into a German U-boat trap). Meanwhile, Claire has vanished, and Tom, aided by her flatmate, Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet), begins to investigate her disappearance. The deeper they dig, the more their activities attract the attention of the mysterious Wigram (Jeremy Northam).

Enigma is an imperfect but entertaining thriller that probably would have been more engaging had it been allowed to expand well beyond the two-hour running length. Parts of the film, especially during the last forty-five minutes, feel rushed, as if Apted was under pressure to tell the story as quickly as possible. Economy of screen time is typically an asset in motion pictures (these days, it's also an increasingly rare commodity), but Apted cuts a few too many corners. For example, Tom Stoppard's screenplay never gives us real insight into how the codebreaking is accomplished. An attempt is made to reduce the complex procedure into layman's terms, but the analogy (which involves the name on a tombstone) is neither lucid nor effective.

Nevertheless, Enigma does a good job of depicting the wild energy that drives the codebreakers, as well as the strain they're under from all sides. Lives depend on their actions and the politicians and military men can't understand why the process takes so long. The film's least satisfying aspect is Tom and Hester's investigation of Claire's disappearance, which dilutes the narrative's focus, taking it away from codebreaking and into a more traditional espionage thriller arena. There's a lot of running around (and even a car chase) which, at the end, all seems rather pointless. The best thing about this part of the story is that it allows an understated friendship/romance to develop between Tom and Hester, both of whom come across as well-developed individuals. Credit strong performances by Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet for that. Apted's direction, enhanced by Seamus McGarvey's beautiful cinematography and John Barry's rich score, has an almost retro feel to it. This kind of movie was once far more popular than it is today. Aside from a nude scene, there's little in this picture that would have been out-of-place in a production of a half-century ago.

In many ways, Enigma is an odd choice to play at Sundance. It has a higher profile cast and crew than anything else debuting during the festival's 10 days, and about the only justification the programmers can find for showing it is that it doesn't yet have a U.S. distributor. Nevertheless, with its combination of intrigue, romance, and adventure set against a World War II backdrop, that's a condition that shouldn't persist for long. Flaws aside, Enigma is as engaging as it is ambitious.

It's probably a stretch to call Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson a "veteran", but the provocative and challenging Together is not his first film. Show Me Love, the director's previous effort, achieved a certain amount of worldwide acclaim during its international theatrical run during late 1999 and early 2000. Now, Moodysson is back with a much different kind of story that features the same focus on character interaction. The hallmarks of Show Me Love -- the believability of the protagonists and the urgency of their emotions - are very much in evidence throughout Together.

The film takes place on a commune in 1975 Stockholm. There, we meet a group of diverse and offbeat characters who are trying to live by the rule that there are no rules. Unfortunately, all this freedom is creating tension. For example, a young man named Goran mouths the platitude that he doesn't mind if his girlfriend, Lena, sleeps with someone else, while, in reality, her promiscuity is tearing him apart (especially when she confesses that she's never had an orgasm with him, but has experienced it with another man). Other characters lose and gain partners as result of homosexual tendencies coming to light. And there are always issues about who's going to do the chores. Responsibility is not high on anyone's list of priorities.

The catalyst for change comes with the arrival of Goran's sister, Elizabeth, and her two children. She is fleeing from an abusive marriage and has nowhere else to go. But, along with her family, she brings a dose of conventionality to the commune, and, even as the free lifestyle begins to transform her, so she affects a change in it. Two members, disillusioned by the diminished purity of the commune's new vision, decide to leave. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's son longs for communication with his estranged father.

Moodysson does not take a pro or con view of commune living. Instead, he shows the strengths and pitfalls of such a lifestyle. There's obviously a fondness to his approach, but he doesn't ignore the problems that eventually resulted in an end to commune life, reducing it to a fad of the '70s that became impractical in the more materialistic '80s. The director's focus is on the characters, and, despite having a large cast, he gets into each of their heads. We come to know every one of the commune members - who they are, why they're there, what their life philosophy is, and whether their needs are being met. And the commune isn't just a colorful backdrop against which the relationships can play out. The lifestyle is a critical component to every interaction. With Together joining Show Me Love in the international arena, Moodysson has shown himself to be a master of character development and simple (but not simplistic) storytelling.

Filmmaker Richard Linklater brought not one but two films to Sundance this year. The first, and more ambitious, is Waking Life, an animated excursion through the dreams and philosophical musings of the main character. Waking Life is clearly an experiment, and, as such, looks and feels much different from anything else playing at the festival. In his introduction, Linklater posed one question to the audience, and it goes a long way towards setting the stage for Waking Life. "How many of you out there are on drugs?" he asked. When a number of hands went up, he added, "Good. This is for you. The rest of you, just bear with me."

Waking Life is animated, but not in tradition of Disney features. Linklater filmed the entire movie in live action, then digitally transferred the images to computers, where his animators went to work. The final result is disjointed and dreamy, with images that are sometimes finely detailed and sometimes almost crude. The backgrounds frequently waver, making it look like all of the action is taking place on board a gently rocking ship. This is all intentional, since every moment of Waking Life is meant to be transpiring inside a dream.

The nameless protagonist is played by Wiley Wiggins, who is perhaps reprising his role from an earlier Linklater offering, Dazed and Confused. Also making a return appearance are Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, picking right up where they left off in Before Sunrise (my choice for the best romance of all time). They are present in an interlude, having an intriguing discussion about dream activity and reincarnation. Indeed, Waking Life is comprised of a series of philosophical discussions ranging from how language evolved to the role of the media in modern life to free will & quantum mechanics to the meaning of identity. For those who enjoy this kind of rambling, talky motion picture, Waking Life offers a full platter. Guest appearances by the likes of director Steven Soderbergh and Speed Levitch (the protagonist of The Cruise) only up the ante. Waking Life certainly isn't for everyone, but, in large part because of its fresh approach and its endlessly fascinating discourses, I found it to be one of the festival's few real winners. Hopefully, someone will pick this up for distribution.

Linklater's other film, Tape is more conventional, but no less engrossing. (It's also a little further away from being completely "ready" - although the final cut was presented, it was digitally projected. Linklater has not yet gotten around to transferring it to 35 mm film.) A filmed three-character play, Tape never moves beyond the confines of a small motel room. Powered by the star wattage of Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman, the project was completed in a scant three weeks (two weeks of rehearsal and six days of actual filming) on a miniscule budget. Like Waking Life, it's a talky piece, but the subjects addressed are of a much different nature.

There isn't much of a plot. Tape is about the reunion of two old friends (Hawke and Sean Leonard) at a film festival in Lansing, Michigan. As these two reminisce about past times and where their lives have gone in the 10 years since high school, one significant, unresolved issue comes to the fore - the girlfriend whom Hawke dated and Sean Leonard slept with. But was it just sex, or was it rape? When pushed, Sean Leonard admits that they were both drunk, the sex was rough, and he held her down. Hawke captures this admission on tape, then invites the woman (Thurman) to the motel to offer her own surprising recollections of the situation.

In addition to exploring the thorny topic of date rape, Tape examines how the passage of time can distort memories, and how no two perceptions of the same event are ever identical. Along the way, a number of other issues are touched upon, but everything comes back to the central question: what is rape and was it committed in this case? The three lead actors are superlative (Hawke and Sean Leonard moreso than Thurman, who has the least amount of screen time), fully inhabiting their characters. Screenwriter Stephen Belber's words recall the cadence and content of something by David Mamet; indeed, comparisons to Oleanna are perhaps inevitable. For something so static, Tape is an amazingly dynamic motion picture - one that challenges viewers' ideas and preconceptions. This is the kind of movie I hope to see at film festivals.

Curiously, Tape isn't the only movie at Sundance 2001 to focus on date rape. The other one is a competition entry called The Business of Strangers, from director Patrick Stettner. In it, Stockard Channing plays Julie, a successful business woman who is at the end of a long business trip and is looking to let off a little steam. Julia Stiles is Paula, a young woman she meets at a bar. Using alcohol as a lubricant, the two bond. Enter Nick (Frederick Weller), a head hunter whom Julie has casually known for years. Paula's reaction to Nick - one of horror and revulsion -- is unexpected. She later confesses to Paula that Nick raped a friend of hers years ago at college. So, with their inhibitions loosed by too much booze, the women plot a form of revenge.

For most of its running length, The Business of Strangers is a sharp, compelling film that walks a tightrope between thriller and drama. The psychological interplay between Julie and Paula lies at the movie's core, and Stettner gives us about 45 minutes of it. Like the two Linklater films, the movie works because the dialogue is insightful and meaningful. The conflict between the two leads is entirely verbal, but it is every bit as tense as any cinematic physical confrontation. Only at the end, when the director employs a cheat to offer one final plot twist, do things start to unravel. While the film's final turn shines a different light on many of the events that preceded it, it also significantly reduces the complexity of Paula, transforming her into little more than a plot device. Nevertheless, the disappointing conclusion of The Business of Strangers does little to limit the film's overall impact, nor does it diminish the fine performances of Channing and Stiles.

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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