Sep 22, 2010

The Greatest? Part 4: Huppert Double

Two heavily contrasting films today, one an uncharacteristic foray into comedy, the other one of the most famous tragedies in literature.

DIR: David O Russell
CAST: Jason Schwartzman, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin,
Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, Isabelle Huppert, Jude Law

I ♥ HUCKABEES is one of the strangest films of recent years. It's described as an existential comedy, but to me it seems more like an absurdist art exercise, and frankly I'm not entirely sure whether I like that or not.

The story is an odd proposition, in that I've seen the film three times now and I'm not certain to what degree it has a story. It basically revolves around Albert Markovsky (Schwartzman), who is having an existential crisis brought on by a coincidence involving a tall African man. Wanting to discover the meaning of this coincidence, and perhaps by extension his life, Albert enlists existential detectives Bernard (Hoffman) and Vivian (Tomlin). They pair Albert up with another client, Tommy (Wahlberg) who introduces Albert to French philosopher Catherine Vauban (Huppert), whose insistence that life is a collection of disconnected, meaningless cruelties stands in direct opposition to Bernard's blanket theory.

That's an awful lot to process in 90 minutes, and that's not even half of the movie, because we haven't covered Huckabees middle manager Brad Stand (Law), his model girlfriend (Watts), who rebels against her looks and begins dressing in a bonnet or how Shania Twain fits in to this whole mess. A mess is what I ♥ HUCKABEES is, for much of the running time it feels more like Catherine Vauban's vision of the world; a bunch of meaningless scenes and moments, thrown together and struggling to find form and purpose.

It's a scattershot film, and the rumoured chaos and bad feeling of the set seems to bleed through into the film at times, but among the confused (and, frankly, dime store) philosphy there are images and moments that stick. Some of these moments stay in the memory due to their sheer balls out wierdness, none more so than the disturbing, but undeniably funny image of Schwartzman suckling at Law's breasts (I'm not even going to attempt to explain it, so don't ask). The fact that the film doesn't entirely come together isn't the fault of its starry cast. Schwartzman has a weak role, and an unsypathetic one, at the end of the day his Albert Markovsky comes off as a whiner who never grew up, that said, the film and Schwartzman are aware of this, and it's mined for laughs in several of the film's best scenes including a lovely one in which Catherine Vauban all but breaks in to Albert's parents' house and proceeds to scold them for the way they responded when a nine year old Albert was upset when his cat died. I never really warmed to Albert, but it's a testament to Schwartzman's likability that I didn't want to punch him either.

Among the rest of the cast Hoffman and Tomlin, who had long wanted to work together, seem to be having a lot of fun, and Jude Law is appropriately slimy, but the biggest impressions are made by Mark Wahlberg, who is very funny as Tommy, a firefighter whose existential crisis began on September 11th and by Naomi Watts, who seems to enjoy sending up her dazzling beauty.

Isabelle Huppert is an interesting case here, she's perhaps still too limted in her English to be as effective as she is in French, but she nevertheless almost steals the film as Catherine Vauban. Part of it is the casting; she's known (wrongly, I'd say) as an impassive and cold presence, and here she seems to parody that stereotype. Of all the cast she's the one who never winks at the camera, who never lets on that what's going on is supposed to be absurd and funny, and that seriousness makes her even funnier. She's also, at 50, tremendously sexy. Catherine uses sex as part of her method to teach Tommy and Albert (mostly Tommy) about life's random cruelties. The first sex scene is especially strange, as Huppert and Schwartzman take turns dunking each other in a puddle of mud. In interviews at the time a typically nonchalant Huppert remenisced that, when he was a baby, she'd held Jason Schwartzman in her arms (she's friends with his mother, Talia Shire), and now she was doing it again.

At the end of the day I'm not sure how I feel about I ♥ HUCKABEES. It's a bizzare film, but for all its pretensions to philosophical ideas its conclusions seem obvious and half hearted and for all its discussion of meaning I'm not sure that, at the end of the day, it really has one. As a collection of scenes it is strange enough to engage and amuse, at least for the most part, but many scenes fall flat (especially those laying out the film's various competeting philosophies, which often feel like readings from C grade Philosophy 101 papers) and though the odd image and the odd scene stick, the whole feels ephemeral. Of course that may be David O Russell's point, but I'm not sure even he knows whether that's the case.

DIR: Claude Chabrol
CAST: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Fran├žois Balmer, Christophe Malavoy,
Jean Yanne, Lucas Belvaux

Chabrol's apparently reverent adaptation of Flaubert's classic novel is a strange beast. I must admit that I haven't read the book, and so some of the tonal issues may come directly from the source, but whether or not that is the case, this film is still a wierdly mixed bag.

By 1991 Claude Chabrol was in his early 60's, and had made roughly 45 feature films, in short he was one of cinema's great craftsmen, having long since established a regular crew and a comfortable way of working. It is, then, odd to see how cowed, how intimidated he sometimes seems by the burden of MADAME BOVARY. I really can't think of any other reason that a great director like Chabrol, who could do so much with silent images (see, especially, LE BOUCHER) would have reams of dry narration, seemingly lifted directly from Flaubert, describing characters emotional states which, given his talented cast, it would be easier and more satisfying to portray.

Frustratingly there are times when Chabrol's grasp on his film seems as strong and sure as ever. Especially strong is the scene in which a newly married Emma Bovary (Huppert) spends a blissful night at her first society ball. Here Chabrol steps back; he lets the scene play largely through the actors' body language be it Huppert's fleeting, but real, happiness or Jean-Fran├žois Balmer's proud regard of his beautiful wife, blissfully unaware that she'd happily cuckold him with any one of the men at this party. The sense of period is also strong, Chabrol brings home the squalor that many poor people lived in during the mid 19th century just as well as he portrays the beautifully put together exclusivity of high society, in capturing these two contrasting worlds so well, Chabrol also lets us understand Emma Bovary. She's irresponsible with her husband's limited fortune, but you can see why she wants to put herself across as belonging to a higher social class, because it means more than just status.

All this good work makes the moments that don't play even more disappointing. The dry narration is a problem, but not so much so as the many incredibly overwrought, melodramatic scenes. These have to be Charol's fault, and the cast, notably Huppert, seem visibly uncomfortable. The scenes Huppert shares with Emma's various lovers can be excruciatingly hammy. Melodrama's not a bad thing in and of itself, but it's just not how Huppert acts, and it shows. Her death scene is perhaps the worst work I've ever seen her do, endlessly long and scenery chewing; a performance more suited to amateur theatre.

The reason I think that's Chabrol's fault is simple. First of all, there's little need for these scenes to be so overwrought and, secondly, in the other scenes Huppert is simply sensational. Emma Bovary strikes me as a character who is all but incapable of happiness, and wants to fill her life with things, be they pretty dresses or pretty lovers, to distract her from her misery. As this Emma Bovary, Huppert is perfectly cast. At 35 she's also at the height of her very individual beauty, and convinces on a physical level as the ultimate trophy wife. She's hugely effective when Emma has to hold her emotions in check (as when she meets Leon (Belvaux) at the opera, but is accompanied by her husband), this has always been a great strength of Huppert's,; the ability to let you see the many different emotions that are going on under that practiced, put together, exterior.

The rest of the cast suffer similar fates, all of them are outstanding when the film is more dialled back (particularly Jean Yanne as the pharmacist M. Homais), but when Chabrol cranks the melodrama up to 11, they all struggle.

MADAME BOVARY is a difficult and frustrating film, some of it is brilliant, and some of it is spectacularly over the top. It works perhaps seventy percent of the time, and is still well worth a look for those moments, but the melodrama does become wearing, and I found myself wishing that Chabrol could have had a little more confidence in himself here, and been a little less wedded to the book, however brilliant it may be.

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