Sunday, January 07, 2007

Acting our age

It can easily be argued that greatness in the fine arts has come and, mostly, gone. Really: would you claim that anything being done today in sculpture rivals ancient Greece or the Renaissance? That today's "classical" music is on a par with that of the 18th and 19th centuries? That hip-hop rivals songs by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, or Harold Arlen? That contemporary painting -- well, you get the idea.

It occurred to me -- not for the first time -- while watching a couple of movies on DVD last week that the only art form that, as a whole (not just in a few individual examples), is experiencing a genuine, 24-karat Golden Age now is film acting.

The reason for it is a mystery to me. Better acting schools? Better film directors? More demanding audiences? (Nah, not that.) I first began to notice a significant improvement during my last stint as a paid film reviewer in 1990. It wasn't a matter of a few big stars, like in previous eras. (Anyway, most of the stars of, say, the '30s and '40s just had strong personalities they could project on screen, which isn't the same as acting. There were a handful of exceptions, mostly English stage players, but most of the so-called acting in movies until recently was either dull or scenery-chewing obviousness.) More and more, I began to notice extremely professional work, in lead roles, supporting roles, even in bit parts.

Admittedly, now that I no longer watch movies and write about them as a journalist, I'm pretty selective about what I choose to see. Still, even in the mediocre films or downright turkeys that I inadvertently let myself in for from time to time, there are almost always one or more performances that leave me thinking, "Gee, too bad he (she) didn't have a better script to work with."

days 2
Maggie Cheung in "Days of Being Wild"

Wong Kar-Wai's "Days of Being Wild" was the first of my cinematic adventures last week. I've been seeing Wong's movies in reverse chronological order, having first encountered this director's work in his brilliant "2046." Later I caught up with the earlier "In the Mood for Love," and found it, too, exceptional, if not as stylistically and thematically powerful as "2046."

"Days of Being Wild" is from earlier still (1991). An accomplished piece of work, with (once again) the benefit of Christopher Doyle's seductive cinematography, it's nevertheless more conventional than "2046" or "Mood," a love pentangle that's only a step or two above soap opera. (I'm also getting a little tired of Wong's Old Hollywood cliché of dramatizing scenes by shooting them in buckets of rain.)

But lordy, what performances by the five leads, with the
young Maggie Cheung first among equals. They are totally in character all the time, in synch with one another, no excess gestures or blank spots.

Where did such virtuosity spring from? I don't think that China has any tradition of naturalistic, Western-style acting. It's as though it just emerged, ex nihilo. No doubt the potential was there all the time, but it needed the right combination of circumstances, whatever those were. One reason is easy to guess: Wong Kar-Wai is a thumping good actor's director.

Gabrielle 2

In the French film "Gabrielle," Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory) introduces himself to us via a voice-over in which he self-satisfiedly glides over the past 10 years of his life: how he met his wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert), decided she would be the perfect accompanist for his rise in the haute bourgeoisie -- the house has about eight maidservants -- his knack for making money, and how their dinner parties now attract the well-to-do plus some artistic types for a little spice. He arrives at their antique-laden home unexpectedly early to find a letter from Gabrielle informing him that she is leaving him to be with another man. While Jean is digesting that shock, his carefully constructed world having been torn asunder, he receives another: Gabrielle returns. She couldn't go through with it. Most of the rest of the film, based on a Joseph Conrad story, is virtually a two-hander as Jean and Gabrielle grapple with their emotional upheavals individually and together.

"Gabrielle" annoyed me straightaway. The setting, to judge by the clothing, hair, and
décor styles, is Paris just before the Great War -- about 1912. But as Jean walks home from the train station delivering his smug monologue, there are two shots with automobiles dating from the late 1920s. I hate such anachronisms in period pieces. Although this was a comparatively big budget film (Isabelle Huppert doesn't exactly make minimum wage, and the thing was shot in a widescreen 2.35-to-1 aspect ratio), it's possible the production designer couldn't obtain cars of the correct vintage. In that case, though, why not just use carriages instead? There were plenty of them still on the streets, even in ritzy Paris, at the time.

The director, Patrice
Chéreau, plays other silly tricks. The film switches from color to black-and-white periodically, for no discernible reason. He puts continuity information (e.g., "Le lendemain," the next day) in huge superimposed lettering, or sometimes in white type on a black background, as in a silent film. Although Chéreau has made quite a few films before, he still apparently doesn't have the confidence to do without arty gimmicks.

It's too bad, because when he does play it straight -- and, in fairness, that's most of the time -- he knows how to squeeze the maximum juice out of a scene. For one example: Gabrielle is being tended to by one of her maids, Yvonne, but is still so shaken up by her own behavior that she feels a need to reveal some of her feelings to the maid. What follows is a little masterpiece of psychological observation: Gabrielle talks to Yvonne as to another human being; then, as if she remembers their relative social positions and is ashamed at opening up to a servant, turns insolent; then, unable to help herself, asks Yvonne personal questions; again becomes haughty toward Yvonne because of her own breach of the social code. Meanwhile, Yvonne's responses are equally uncertain, from the reverse perspective, not sure how to handle such confidences from her employer.

Mostly, though, "Gabrielle" is about Jean and Gabrielle, each trying to work out what this rupture of their habitual life means to them. They wheel from anger to shame to regret and, in Jean's case, to something like pleading. And while their shifting moods aren't always different from one another's, they don't match at the same time. I don't know how much of the script comes from Conrad's story, but some of it feels bracingly authentic. Both of these characters are, in their own ways, fools for love, but neither understands how to handle love.

French films can be too subtle for their own good, especially when they consist largely of cold, intellectual dialogue. In "Gabrielle," though, the subtlety mostly pays off, because the two leading actors let you know what they're trying to say, even when they can't. And the film respects their ambivalence. It isn't a simple-minded sermon about how repressed these people are and how they'd be sorted out if only they'd learn to express their feeeeelings. Part of the reason you empathize with Jean and Gabrielle is that they continue to honor self-control and dignity, even in the breach.

Greggory is persuasive as Jean, but it's Huppert you'll remember. I must have seen her in a couple of dozen films, but she has never acted better, or been more beautiful -- although she must be well into her 50s -- than here. She delivers a performance of astonishing insight, variety, and depth. Watching her in "Gabrielle" can sometimes tear you up. I mean that, of course, as a great compliment.

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