2002 TIFF Update #3: "A Many Splendored Thing"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 7, 2002

Since it occupies a space as one of the primary reasons why human beings act as they do, it stands to reason that love, in its many forms and guises, would be well-represented at a film festival. The 2002 edition of Toronto is no exception, except that love, as defined in a non-mainstream light, tends to be a little different that what one might expect from a traditional romance. While Toronto is not devoid of conventional motion pictures (and I'll be detailing a few in a later column), some of the most interesting cinematic experiences to be had here are of the non-mainstream variety, and that includes love stories. If you want to see a couple meeting cute, going through the expected motions, then heading off into a happily-ever-after sunset, you can find plenty of examples at a multiplex or on the shelves of a video store. If you want something a little more adventuresome, look no further than a film festival. (Note: all of these films either currently have a U.S. distributor or are likely to get one - but they will be exclusively released in art houses.)

Almodovar is back, following up his 1999 award-winning sensation All About My Mother with another success, the aptly-titled Talk to Her. Over the years, Almodovar (one of the few filmmakers who is recognized by only his surname) has been known for his daring forays into the weird and unexpected. However, in recent years, the director has shown great growth and maturity. The result has been triumphs like Live Flesh, All About My Mother, and now Talk to Her, which one could argue is his most accomplished feature to date. (Personally, I'd lean towards All About My Mother.)

Talk to Her uses the kind of offbeat premise we have come to expect from Almodovar, whose films all-but-guarantee an offbeat view of life, love, and relationships. This time, we have two men - nurse Benigno (Javier Camara) and journalist Marco (Dario Graninetti) - who spend a great deal of time in a private clinic, where the most important people in their lives are in comas. For Benigno, it's Alicia (Leonor Watling), a dancer he barely knew before she arrived at the clinic, but for whom he has unceasingly cared for years. Benigno is in love with her, and believes the feeling to be mutual. (At one point, speaking about the period during which he has nursed Alicia, he comments, "These last four years have been the richest of my life.") Meanwhile, Marco's girlfriend, Lydia (Rosario Flores), was a bullfighter before the fateful day when she was gored, trampled, and nearly killed. Now, she, like Alicia, lies in seeming repose, unlikely ever to awaken.

There are plenty of movies available about women talking to one another, but films that chronicle deep, meaningful conversations between men are a rarity. Talk to Her is one of these unusual films, with Benigno and Marco developing a powerful bond as a result of their common circumstances. They speak to their comatose women, but, with increasingly greater frequency, they begin to rely upon one another. There may be an element of homoeroticism here, at least on Benigno's part. He is a virgin and is unsure of his feelings. He is obsessed by Alicia (to a degree that her father finds unsettling), but there are times when his friendship with Marco seems unusually intense. Benigno is clearly a disturbed individual - he spent 20 years caring for a bedridden mother before switching his attention to Alicia. Some of the most telling scenes about him are the flashbacks, which show him spying upon the dancer from afar before working up the courage to approach her. Marco's past is less creepy, but has left deep emotional wounds.

The actors have the poise and ability to convey their characters. Javier Camara's portrayal offers an individual who is simultaneously na´ve and unsettling. He's the kind of person we are naturally sympathetic towards, but are also wary of. Dario Grandinetti's Marco is more straightforward - a man who has been scarred but begins to re-discover himself through his relationships with Lydia and Benigno. Perhaps the most difficult acting job belongs to Leonor Watling, who is forced to spend much of the film in a coma (and often nude).

Almodovar gets all the details right, from Alicia's dancing to Lydia's bullfighting to Benigno's nursing. (I found the scenes depicting the care of the comatose patients to be especially revealing, since I had no idea how much effort is involved.) As is the director's trademark, he interweaves moments of humor (of a variety that occasionally borders on the absurd) into the dramatic tapestry. Talk to Her is a drama of great power, yet some members of the audience will leave the theater believing they have seen a comedy. Almodovar also manages to conclude the film on a hopeful note, and one that will have many audience members wishing that he will someday return to tell more about these characters. (In the press notes, Almodovar offers the following possibility: "Perhaps, at some other time, I'll tell [that] story... but first I'd have to write it.")

Secretary is just your regular, garden-variety romantic comedy with heavy doses of S&M/B&D. For those used to Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks exchanging chaste kisses, the content of this motion picture is going to seem awfully far out on the proverbial limb. The movie enters a realm where few non-porn films venture, and comes across as darkly funny, energetic, and surprisingly gentle. Part of the reason that Secretary succeeds is that it doesn't treat S&M relationships only as the butt of jokes - when we laugh, it's because the director intended us to laugh, not because we're uncomfortable or being exposed to a dirty little secret. While being aware of the absurdity of an S&M relationship, Steven Shainberg recognizes that there are legitimate psychological reasons why people engage in this behavior. He is also careful in not making the actions of the characters too extreme.

The film opens by introducing the protagonist, Lee Holloway (as portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal in a scintillating, star-making turn). Lee has just been released from a mental institution where she was being treated for her self-mutilation tendencies. Whenever the stress in her life becomes unbearable, she would remove a sharp object from a small bag she carries and open a wound on her thigh. No sooner has Lee emerged from treatment than her father's drinking binge veers her back towards the edge. In an attempt to fend off her condition, she decides to look for a job, and finds employment for a stern, emotionally closed-off lawyer, E. Edward Grey (James Spader, taking his sex, lies, and videotape personality to the next level).

At first, Lee's job entails little more than the daily rigors expected of a secretary - answering the phones, typing letters, and so forth. Gradually, however, Edward becomes more domineering in reprimanding Lee for typos, and, on one occasion when his anger at her errors results in a spanking session, both Lee and Edward realize they have stumbled upon a taboo desire that fulfills them both. However, while Lee relishes her part as the submissive (to the point where she intentionally makes mistakes so she can be spanked), Edward is tormented by his inability to give up his addiction to domination. Only when Lee begins to express genuine feelings for Edward does he become frightened and put an end to the non-business aspects of their relationship. Lee is crushed - and realizes that she loves Edward.

Secretary is less about sex than it is about human interaction outside of what society deems normal. Through S&M, Lee finds a cure for her self-mutilation and a reason to go to work every day. Edward, however, is terrified of his own desires - frightened that someone might find out yet unable to stop. More than the S&M, however, Edward is scared of Lee - in particular, what she feels for him and what he is starting to feel for her. The issue of sex isn't introduced until relatively late in the film (although the spankings stand in for intercourse) and it isn't until the closing moments that Gyllenhaal has a nude scene.

Tone is critical, and that's where Shainberg hits pay dirt. Secretary has enough genuine laughs to eliminate the potential twitters and snickers, and it treats Edward and Lee as people. We end up caring about what happens to these two individuals, even as we smile and laugh at their antics. It occurs to me that it would be very easy to make a movie like this judgmental and mean-spirited, but Shainberg deftly avoids that trap. Some of the credit must go to Spader, who is solid, and Gyllenhaal, who is amazing, but the director knows exactly where he wants his characters to go, and successfully takes them there. Secretary is a romantic comedy for those who go into sugar shock from the usual entries into the genre. Also, unless your partner has some unusual proclivities, this might not be the best choice for a "date movie."

Is Leelee Sobieski becoming the queen of May/December romances? After The Idol, one might reasonably ask that question. However, aside from the aspect of Sobieski's character becoming involved with a (much) older man, there aren't many similarities between The Idol and My First Mister. In particular, this film is open and honest where the earlier movie was not, and director Samantha Lang has no trouble addressing the sexual issues that Christine Lahti avoided like the plague.

The Idol is a slow-moving, almost dreamy character study that was filmed in French even though the director and the two lead actors speak English. Somehow, it seems appropriate, because the movie has a peculiar French sensibility to it. It deals with individuals, relationships, and philosophical issues - and no film industry around the world has a stronger reputation than France when it comes to putting this sort of motion picture on the screen.

The events transpire in an old Parisian apartment building, where a down-on-her-luck Australian actress, Sarah (Sobieski), moves in while her theater troupe is playing in France. Across the hall from Sarah lives Zao (James Hong), a 70-year old Chinese man who is considering moving into an old age home. Sarah's arrival invigorates him and he pursues a friendship with her. Although wary at first, Sarah eventually reciprocates and begins confiding in Zao. Her plan is to wait until the play's dress rehearsal, then commit suicide and throw everything into an uproar. Zao agrees to cook for her and help her out until that time comes.

The relationship between Sarah and Zao is complex. It is more than platonic, but not sexual. There is certainly an erotic component - Sarah enjoys playing the exhibitionist (on more than one occasion, she is completely naked in front of Zao) and Zao has no objections to being a voyeur. But there is a mutual aversion to allowing the relationship to become physical. Neither desires sex, although both relish the teasing, sharing, and confiding. Everyone living in the building notices that something is going on between Sarah and Zao, and many of the other tenants reach the wrong conclusions.

Sarah is a manipulator. For her, life is a stage and she's always playing a role. She comes the closest she has ever been to being "real" while with Zao, but, even in his presence, there's still one last layer of artifice that is never fully stripped away. For his part, Zao is honest and straightforward. He is what he appears to be - no more, no less. Other characters occasionally intrude on these two, including Sarah's married lover, a boorish neighbor who listens to Sarah's climaxes when she's having sex, and a young girl who is jealous of Sarah's friendship with Zao.

Director Samantha Lang (The Well, The Monkey's Mask) has crafted a tale that is absorbing for the first two-thirds of its running time, before the wheels come off in the final act. When the movie concentrates on the Zao/Sarah relationship, it's on firm ground, but the emphasis on plot developments during the final 30 minutes creates an uncertain shift in tone. The ending is satisfactory, but much of what immediately precedes it is not (including a bizarre plot development involving a hex). Nevertheless, for those who are fascinated by a May/December romance that defies conventional labels, The Idol offers an excellent case study.

So that's love at a film festival. The emotion is just as powerful as in any mainstream offering, but the permutations are significantly different.

© 2002 James Berardinelli

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