Sunday, January 10, 2010

In Country (Il Divo and Irma Vep)

Paolo Sorrentino directs Il Divo (2009), a "biopic" (in the vaguest sense of the word) about the controversial Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, as if he were attempting the greatest Martin Scorsese imitation ever. The convoluted plot covers roughly Andreotti's seven-term ministership from 1972-91, focusing on his reputed ties with the mafia and Vatican; and Sorrentino's camera is so revved it can't sit still. It zips, it zooms, it zigs, it zags. It dollies in and out, up and down. It peers at events from directly above (a Scorsese trademark), with whiplash montages of murder and mayhem set to a killer pop soundtrack (ditto). When we meet Andreotti's "gang" -- his supporters in the innocuous-sounding Christian Democrat party -- they spill out of deluxe automobiles like the goombahs spied by Henry Hill at the start of Goodfellas. One thug even shoots his finger at the camera and smirks.

The director's hyped-up style is superficially entertaining; the problem is it doesn't jibe with the depth of his subject's. As portrayed by Toni Servillo, Giulio Andreotti was a politico version of Truman Capote -- short, sharp, quick-witted, with thick rounded spectacles adding the only notable feature to a expressionless face. Those eyeglasses were used ingeniously to impale a thinly-cloaked version of Andreotti in Coppola's The Godfather: Part III, but the actual man is remarkably still alive. Nicknamed "Il divo," an epithet (as were presumably his other monikers, "The Hunchback," "The Black Pope," and "Beelzebub"), the Andreotti in this film has a charming, unflappable, mild-mannered persona that belies the head-spinning felonies he would be charged with (and later cleared of, dubiously, in court). 

Sorrentino may think he's providing ironic counterpoint with his swishes and swoops and smash cuts, but the effect trivializes Servillo's completely immersive performance. Servillo has some terrific scenes: when both the law and the mob begin closing in, his Andreotti betrays a moment of private panic by hilariously pacing back and forth with elbows clenched tightly to his chest. Another scene, a justification of his crimes that breaks the fourth wall, rings hollow. In this lengthy monologue, Andreotti speaks loftily about "doing evil for good." I don't doubt the character's conviction; I just wish he had a director interested in exploring the link between one and the other.      

Maggie Cheung is hopelessly adorable as Maggie Cheung, a Hong Kong action heroine newly arrived to a comically troubled French production in Irma Vep (1996). Playing yourself onscreen is more difficult than one might think. (Reviewing one of the Beverly Hills Cop sequels, Roger Ebert noted that "Hugh Hefner appears as himself, unconvincingly.") In this picture -- a fly-by family outing directed by her future ex-husband Olivier Assayas -- Cheung is called to be charming and self-effacing in a way that usually feels bogus coming from movie stars. Maggie, the character, is given the lead in a questionable remake of the silent film Les Vampires. ("Irma Vep" is the name of the main character from the film, as well as an anagram.) The remake's director, Rene Vidal, is an aging burn-out from the French New Wave (played by, not incidentally, Truffaut and Godard favorite Jean-Pierre Leaud). For three days we follow the on-set travails and off-set intrigues, and Cheung -- other than an interview when she politely yet firmly challenges a prickly journalist's claim that French cinema is the pits -- is laid-back and eager-to-please her high-strung hosts. Then Vidal vanishes, leaving behind for his replacement the question why he would cast a Chinese woman to play a French icon, not to mention rushes that can only be called "an interesting approach" to the material.

Irma Vep was released at a time when France's cinematic exports were indeed pretty banal, and filmmakers like Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin were only beginning to spice things up. (I'm looking forward to seeing the former's latest, the acclaimed Summer Hours.) Looking at it today, the film seems a charming trifle -- a far cry from Stephanie Zacharek's glowing review (one of her joyfully embarrassing orgasmic reveries which you envision she wrote while collapsed on her bed inhaling a cigarette, like Pauline Kael following a dark rendezvous with De Palma). As with its companion piece from the mid-90s, Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, Irma Vep is swift and slight. Yet Assayas achieves Kar-Wai's dreamy romanticism only through the burgeoning friendship between Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard, who plays Zoe, the blonde bohemian costume designer for the film-within-the-film. Zoe develops a sweet crush on Maggie, who is surprised, flattered, and possibly a little curious. (One nifty sequence, which may or may not be a dream, depicts Cheung's attempt to steal jewelry from a naked woman in a hotel room.) Maggie and Zoe share a pair of mesmerizing scenes traveling through Paris after dark, radiant fusions of music and image that leave you floating on air.

1 comment:

Edward Copeland said...

You have received the Kreativ Blogger Award. Details here. Also, didn't realize you used me as an example in your anti-Armond article. Grazie.