2002 TIFF Update #8: "Speaking in Tongues"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 13, 2002

Here's an overview of some of the foreign-language films I saw at this year's festival - and one that's in English, but whose title makes it sound like it's not...

Adolphe represents Benoit Jacquot's seemingly annual entry at the Toronto festival. Based on the novle by Benjamin Constant, the film examines the ties that bind lovers before, during, and after the heart of their affair. The setting is 19th century France, where the restless young engineer Adolphe (Stanislas Merhar) makes unwanted advances towards Ellenore (Isabelle Adjani), the mistress of a nobleman. Adolphe's persistence eventually pays dividends, and Ellenore falls as madly in love with him as he is with her. However, once the conquest is made, Adolphe's ardor cools, and, even as Ellenore throws away everything to be with him, he finds himself seeking a way to be rid of her.

Adolphe concentrates on the shifting emotional tides of the central relationship - the white hot passion at the crest, and the cool disinterest at the nadir. There's also plenty of jealousy, guilt, and dishonesty to go around. Adolphe is not a bad individual, just an irresponsible one. He has a conscience, although it is fickle. At first, he views Ellenore as a worthy challenge. The more she refuses him, the more inflamed his desire becomes, until he is obsessed, and manages to convince himself that he loves her. Once she gives in, he loses interest, but recognizes that he bears the responsibility for her predicament, and stays with her out of pity. He finds himself trapped, desperate for a way out. What starts out a tale of doomed love ends up as a painful examination of what keeps couples together once the ashes of the relationship have gone cold.

Jacquot's tone is slow and deliberate, as befits the material. The last half-hour seems drawn out, with several redundant arguments occurring. Isabelle Adjani is radiant as the female lead, inexplicably looking no older than she did 25 years ago. (Is she really 47?) Adjani expertly captures Ellenore's changing feelings - from an early indifference to the eventual fear and insecurity. Stnislas Merhar has his share of wooden moments, occasionally displaying a limited range and often paling in scenes he shares with Adjani. With such a minimal plot, the movie relies strongly upon its actors and its atmosphere to involve viewers. For those who appreciate a painful, thoughtful examination of amour fou, Adolphe offers it.

Catherine Breillat's Sex Is Comedy is more intriguing than it is entertaining. The film transpires during the shooting of a movie. The director, Jeanne (Anne Parillaud), is having trouble with both her lead actor (Gregoire Colin), who is arrogant and self-centered, and her lead actress (Roxane Mesquida, the svelte sister from Fat Girl), who doesn't like her co-star. Both performers have issues about appearing nude, which is a problem, because the key scene in the movie is a sex scene.

The film's central flaw is that the characters are haphazardly developed, and don't come across as more interesting than the props. The worthwhile aspect of Sex Is Comedy, however, is the insight it gives into filmmaking, and, in particular into the filming of sex scenes. Plenty of movies have gone behind the scenes of a motion picture production; none have been as frank about the complications involved in shooting naked bodies and simulated intercourse. (The actor uses a prosthetic penis - making us wonder whether this is a trick employed by Breillat in some of her previous, explicit efforts - which becomes a source of much of Sex Is Comedy's raunchy humor.)

According to Breillat, while much of what happens in Sex Is Comedy is drawn from real-life events (in particular, from her experiences while filming the sex scenes in Fat Girl), it is not intended to be autobiographical. The director did not want Ann Parillaud to mimic her, nor is everything that transpires during the course of this picture a representation of something that previously happened to Breillat. Her successfully-realized intention is to represent her experience of filmmaking on the screen, and, for anyone whose curiosity is piqued by this (and who doesn't mind a lot of talking), Sex Is Comedy is of interest.

Switching from a movie that uses the word "comedy" in the title (but doesn't have a lot of it in the text) to one that practices it on screen, we come to 8 Women, which was a huge box office hit in France when it was released earlier this year. The product of French director Francois Ozon, 8 Women offers as much delicious enjoyment to the viewer as it obviously did to the cast and crew when they were putting it together. Part satire, part comedy, part musical, and part murder mystery, this motion picture criss-crosses genre lines at will, offering just about every kind of pleasure imaginable, guilty and otherwise.

The eight women of the title are Gaby (Catherine Deneuve); her daughters, Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier) and Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen); her mother (Danielle Darrieux); her sister, Augustine (Isabelle Huppert); her sister-in-law, Pierrette (Fanny Ardant); and her two maids, Louise (Emmanuelle Béart) and Chanel (Firmine Richard). These characters are trapped in a large house during a snowstorm with one dead body (Marcel, Gaby's husband) and cut phone lines. Tensions run high, as each suspects the other seven. Secrets, some silly and some shocking, are revealed. Suzon begins acting like Hercule Poirot, and everyone else takes a few moments to break into song and dance. A more enjoyable confection cannot be found.

What a cast! No director could dream of a more accomplished and attractive group of performers to grace his film. The names read like a who's who of French film across three generations. All of the actresses are in top form and in step with what Ozon is trying to do. In addition to paying homage to, and spoofing, Agatha Christie (via a '60s play written by Robert Thomas), he is re-creating the look and feel of a '50s or '60s Technicolor movie, complete with brightly-hued costumes, old-fashioned sets, and a lushly melodramatic score. Plus, for good measure, he throws in six musical numbers, allowing nearly all of the characters an opportunity to sing while strutting their stuff. Add to that a lot of witty, spicy dialogue; numerous surprise twists and turns (many of which are hilarious); and a not-to-be-missed catfight between Ardant and Deneuve, and Ozon has exceeded all expectations. With this film, he has also established himself as a filmmaker of great range. One cannot imagine a more stark contrast between the light-as-a-feather entertainment of 8 Women and the painful, haunting seriousness of his previous movie, Under the Sand. In many ways, 8 Women is the ultimate feel-good movie, Ozon's valentine to those who have stuck with him through his darker days.

Continuing down the road leading from the sublime to the ridiculous, we come to Shaolin Soccer, a Hong Kong blockbuster that was bought by Miramax, reworked in the editing room, and is now being released for North American consumption. Shaolin Soccer doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is - a comedic action movie that often looks like an over-the-top comic book brought to life. Watching this movie in a room full of serious movie-goers who were all laughing as hard as I was, I was reminded that sometimes it's nice just to have fun.

The film's North American release does not come without some minor controversy. Fans of the Hong Kong version are irate that Miramax has gotten out the scissors and done some pruning. The original Shaolin Soccer clocked in at 1:51; Miramax's is about 1:25, which means that one-quarter of the original footage has been cut. However, while one would expect the loss of more than one reel of material to damage the flow, I didn't notice that anything was missing. Then there's the controversial issue of dubbing. Instead of using subtitles, Miramax opted to dub the film into English. And, while dubbing can make a serious film seem silly, it only serves to enhance Shaolin Soccer's lightheartedness.

Stephen Chow's crowd-pleaser follows the efforts of former soccer star Fung (Ng Man Tat) to build a soccer team to compete in the championship game. He is desperate to beat Team Evil, coached by his former employer, Hung. One day, Fung encounters Sing (Stephen Chow), a master of the art of Shaolin Kung Fu. Fung sees how Kung Fu could be applied to soccer and urges Sing to recruit his five brothers. Soon, by using the powers of its members, the team is winning in some very unlikely ways, and is on a collision course with Team Evil.

I suppose there may be a message somewhere in this film, but I didn't feel like thinking hard enough to uncover it. Shaolin Soccer combines the conventions of a sports movie with an avalanche of kitsch and offbeat humor. It's not really about the overachieving underdog - at least not in the conventional sense. The amount of "real" soccer is about equivalent to the amount of "real" kung fu - that is to say, there isn't much. This is more about comedy and cheesy special effects. Visually, the film is interesting. Chow employs familiar wire techniques that allow his actors to appear lighter than air. There's also a heavy CGI component. Although the computer generated effects are not polished, and often look like cartoons drawn into live-action frames, they fit the overall tone.

Leaving the theater at the conclusion of Shaolin Soccer, most of those who had been in the audience were smiling. As long as your expectations are focused in the right direction, it's a sure bet that you'll have a good time watching this infectiously entertaining comedy.

Finally, there's Bubba Ho-Tep, a bizarre horror movie from director Don Coscarelli. Based on a true story, the film finally reveals what really happened to Elvis and why so many people are reluctant to admit that he's really dead. In fact, the man buried in the King's grave is an impersonator. At one point, Elvis (Bruce Campbell) got tired of being the King, and switched places with his best impersonator. When "Elvis" died, the real singer was trapped in a life of trailer parks and cheap concerts, until he broke his hip, fell into a coma, then ended up in an East Texas rest home. It's there that the 70-year old Elvis must face his greatest challenge. Alongside a black JFK (Ossie Davis), he must confront the ancient evil of the soul-sucking mummy Bubba Ho-Tep.

Okay, so maybe the movie takes a little artistic license with the facts. The screenplay, written by Coscarelli, is based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale. Every bit as cool as Shaolin Soccer, and probably a little more inventive, this movie isn't afraid to do anything. Elvis has appeared in many movies, but this is the first time he has been cast as an aging action hero who fights an undead monster while hampered by his need to use a walker. Amidst all of the outrageousness and downright silliness, viewers might be surprised to know that, while there's quite a bit of caricature associated with this version of Elvis, an effort has been made to develop him into a sympathetic and multi-dimensional individual. On more than one occasion, he expresses sincere regret about abandoning his daughter, and he wonders whether Priscilla would take him back if she found out he was still alive.

Bruce Campbell gives what is arguably the best Elvis impersonation ever to reach the screen. Forget Kurt Russell; Campbell is the King. In addition to bringing the exaggerated mannerisms, voice, and look to the role, he throws in a pinch of Ash (the hero from the Evil Dead movies). After all, it's time to get out there and kick some undead butt. Ossie Davis, normally as "straight" an actor as they come, seems to be having as much fun playing JFK as Donald Pleasance had with Sam Loomis in the Halloween series. Sometimes actors have to sit back and figuratively let their hair down.

As a satire and an off-the-wall comedy, Bubba Ho-Tep hits the bullseye. As a horror movie, it's less successful. Maybe we're too busy laughing to be scared, but the title character isn't that frightening and we instinctively recognize that he's no match for Campbell's Elvis. Nevertheless, as I enjoyed this low-budget tale of a dead Egyptian let loose on today's world, I couldn't help wonder how much better the recent big-budget Mummy movies could have been with Coscarelli at the helm. Without a doubt (and with virtually no budget), Bubba Ho-Tep blows them away. To the writer/director, I have only one thing to say: thank you very much.

© 2002 James Berardinelli

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