Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Produced and Abandoned: The Lost Son (1999)

This question has always nagged me: Why are there so few good directors among great cameramen/women? For instance, when the enormously talented Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) turned to directing movies in the eighties, he came out with the undistinguished All the Right Moves (1983) and the ridiculous Clan of the Cave Bear (1986). You'd be hard-pressed to find anything in those pictures that comes close to the fever dream he conjured up in Taxi Driver.

But then there is Chris Menges, the British cinematographer behind such strikingly diverse work as Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983), Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (1984) and Neil Jordan's The Good Thief (2002). When he turned to directing, his work was not only as distinguishable as the movie-makers he'd worked for, sometimes he even surpassed them. The trouble is: Nobody knows this since his films have been largely produced and abandoned. After being rightly celebrated at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival with his directorial debut A World Apart, about a young girl coming to terms with her political activist parents during the apartheid years in South Africa, his subsequent pictures have gone MIA.

But why? CrissCross (1992) was an intelligently understated story of a single mother (Goldie Hawn) in Key West, Florida, in 1969, who turns to stripping to support her son Chris (David Arnott).When he discovers what his mother is forced to do, he goes to work for a drug-smuggling ring to make enough money so she can stop. Second Best (1994) was an even stronger tale of a middle-aged bachelor (William Hurt) in Warwickshire, England, who adopts an abused and disturbed boy (Chris Cleary Miles), an angry child who doesn't wish to have another father. Despite the highly accessible subject matter, neither film was given a chance to find an audience. As for The Lost Son (1999), a gripping film noir about an exiled French detective (Daniel Auteuil) in Britain who uncovers a child pornography ring, it became a lost film, which in turn, became a loss to discerning moviegoers. (The Lost Son opened commercially only in Europe and then was dumped on DVD. Thanks to my Critics at Large American colleague and friend Steve Vineberg for whisking a disc to me.)

Daniel Autueil in The Lost Son
The Lost Son begins in familiar hard-boiled noir terrain, but Menges' temperament, which plays against genre mechanics, frees the material from its more conventional melodramatic underpinnings. Xavier Lombard (Auteuil) is a former French detective who now plies his trade in Soho getting paid to spy on unfaithful spouses. Early on, we can clearly see that Lombard is simply going through the motions of his life without giving much thought to the emotional ramifications of his work. (One such spouse, having been abruptly caught, tells him, "You're not a very nice person." He looks at her as if he hears it all the time.) One day, Lombard runs into Carlos (Ciaran Hinds), a former cop and an old friend from Paris, who puts him in touch with a wealthy family who need a gumshoe to locate their son, Leon Spitz, who has suddenly disappeared. As he investigates the disappearance, he comes across Leon's girlfriend (Katrin Cartlidge, in a beautifully understated performance) who doesn't know his whereabouts except that he gave her a videotape to hold on to. On the tape, titled Sleeping Beauty, Lombard sees the beginning of the fairy tale unfold until part way through when Sleeping Beauty turns suddenly into the nightmare image of a young boy being raped by an older man. Lombard discovers that Leon's disappearance may have been due to his rescuing boys from a prostitution ring.

director Chris Menges
All of Chris Menges' past films have been about children and adults working out of the varied familial conflicts that always arise. But The Lost Son isn't really about the missing Leon Spitz; nor is it about families; rather it's about the many disappearing children who get scooped up by predators and sold into brutal prostitution.Given the highly incendiary nature of the subject, Menges gives the horror its due. But he does it by underplaying its visceral impact while taking us into the means by which this lurid, profitable business thrives. By taking this more thoughtful approach, the dread works under the surface keeping us transfixed on Lombard's quest to get to the bottom of the crime.Yet all through The Lost Son, Menges fills the screen with haunting images of young, innocent - and forgotten - children whose faces you don't forget. (In one particularly shocking, yet inspired scene, Lombard beats one boy's captor unconscious and his young quiet victim stands astride the motionless body and urinates on him.)  

Daniel Autueil is a very fine actor, but I don't think he's ever played a role in which he portrayed such an emotionally gutted man who uses both his anger and his bitterness as a driving force to do one redemptive thing. He's comparable to Jack Nicholson's border guard in Tony Richardson's unjustly neglected The Border (1982), where Nicholson's decent yet sullied patrolman runs up against corrupt officers trafficking in slave trading Mexican immigrants. Autueil's Lombard knows he can't dismantle the corrupt machinery, but he can do one decent thing. (Like Nicholson's detective Jake Gittes, we also discover that Paris is Lombard's Chinatown.).

Ciaran Hinds in The Lost Son
While the script by Eric Leclere, Margaret Leclere and Mark Mills has a pretty conventional structure (with a conclusion not hard to spot coming), the lean writing allows Menges room to move and the actors spaces to fill. Although she has second billing, Nastassia Kinski's role as Leon's troubled sister unfortunately is a minor one, but effectively complex. Ciaran Hinds also does wonders with his screen time as Carlos, quietly ambiguous, as he stands by Lombard who continually alienates the family that's hired him. Marianne Denicourt turns the trope of the whore-with-the-heart-of-gold into real flesh and blood woman. This tall, dazzling self-assured lady is Lombard's only friend (someone he once saved in Paris) and she goes to great lengths to demonstrate the depths of that friendship. Bruce Greenwood, who plays the kingpin in Mexico behind the operation, adds a new chapter to the collection of creeps he's played in his career. This corporate pimp is slimy alright, but Greenwood plays him with a paternal streak that is unnerving to watch. As he clothes and feeds the young children on his farm, even cheerfully joining them in a game of soccer, the kids have no idea what his plans are for them. With believable skill, Billy Smyth and Hemal Pandya play two of the key children who have been traumatized into silence, until they come to speak in the only way they can.

Perhaps the reason Chris Menges' films occupy a home somewhere in oblivion is that he makes genre pictures that don't push the buttons genre pictures usually get made to push. The stories are an anchor that allow him to delve into complex themes with an economical approach that pays huge dramatic dividends. Because of that, The Lost Son is perhaps one of the most incorruptible and compelling dramas about one of the most sordid of subjects.          

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Through Ryerson Chang School, Courrier begins a 10-week course on writing criticism (Analyze This: Writing Criticism) that begins September 12th (6:30pm until 9pm) until November 21st. Classes will be held at the Bell Lightbox. (For more information, or to sign up, see here.)  

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