Friday, November 28, 2014

Meditations on Love and Death: L'Enfer (2005), Autumn in New York (2000) and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005)

Karin Viard, Marie Gillain and Emmanuelle Béart in L'Enfer

Danis Tanović's Oscar-winning debut, No Man's Land (2001), drew most of its intrigue from the comic dilemma of two men – a Bosnian and a Serb – reluctantly sharing a trench in a time of war. L'Enfer (2005) is a densely absorbing thriller where three women reluctantly share a spiritual trench in a completely different kind of war. Based on Krysztof Piesiewicz's screenplay, which was originally conceived for the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski and loosely inspired by the second part of Dante's Inferno, L'Enfer is about the kind of erotic unhappiness that burns. Sophie (Emmanuelle Béart) is a married woman who comes to believe that her photographer husband is having an affair with one of his clients. Anne (Marie Gillain) is a young student who is obsessed with one of her professors, a married man who has just split up with his wife. Celine (Karin Viard) is a spinster caring for her invalid mother who begins receiving strange advances made to her by a young man (Guillaume Canet) she meets in a bar.

For a long spell, Tanović draws out the suspense by depriving us of knowing who these women are and how their stories intertwine. But when he does eventually spring the narrative trap, not only does the submerged elements come together, he doesn't distil any of the picture's tension. As in No Man's Land, fate and free-will become predominant conflicts which Tanović masterly weaves into the drama without making a point out of it. A remarkable cast of French actresses, all of them playing on raw nerve, provide an electrical charge that hums under the deceptive serenity of the film's direction. The dramatic thrills in L'Enfer hum like a furnace and lure us into an obsessive web that's so seductive that Tanović lets you feel hell's heat.

Richard Gere and Wynona Ryder in Autumn in New York

Joan Chen's romantic melodrama, Autumn in New York (2000), a love story where death comes to redeem the living, walks into as many dramatic traps as it's trying to avoid. But there's also an intuitive intelligence that seeps through the tired and familiar sentimental tropes in the story. Which is to say, the shortcomings of Autumn in New York are overcome by many of the virtues of the woman directing it. Will (Richard Gere) is a celebrity restaurant owner in Manhattan who is also a womanizer. Every gesture he makes as he greets and seats is softly seductive and flirtatious. Given that it's Gere in the role, he could be on autopilot, but he doesn't play these scenes in the callow manner he developed in earlier pictures like American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman. With his elegant crop of grey hair, Gere doesn't use his handsomeness to fight the camera as he did in those pictures; he opens up instead to what it might find. Gere brings out a vulnerable tentativeness that lurks beneath Will's cocky self-assurance. One night, a young woman, Charlotte (Winona Ryder), is having a birthday party at his restaurant and Will becomes totally disarmed in her presence – especially given the uneasy circumstances of her being the daughter of a woman he once loved and who died. Joan Chen provides a ghostly timbre as Will is initially drawn to Charlotte because of how she invokes his feelings for her deceased mother. But the picture is also about how he works through the spectre of past feelings. Though Charlotte looks like a woman with time on her side, in actuality, she's running out of it as she suffers from a fatal heart condition that leaves her fighting to take in what life she has left. Since Will has been living as if time didn't exist at all, Autumn in New York becomes about how their fragile – and brief – romance tests their resolve to make their love matter.

While the story draws its prurient fascination from the love affair between an older man and a younger woman, Chen and screenwriter Allison Burnett explore this affair not by moralizing, but by drawing our attention to its delicate dynamics. With sensuous shadings, Winona Ryder plays Charlotte as a wise romantic who not only knows what she is getting into, but dispenses of any consideration of her being the innocent ingénue. She's hungry for the kind of life experience that comes with age – and time is something that she's short of. Shot in vivid impressionistic seasonal colours by the celebrated cinematographer Changwei Gu (Farewell My Concubine, The Gingerbread Man), Autumn in New York highlights the picture's tangled emotions and moods. Gere and Ryder also bring out the tantalizing delicacy of their tenuous affair. In the scene where they first kiss, the screen, in the dark shades of fall, is filled with apprehension, doubt and desire.

Although Chen tries to avoid creating a maudlin weepy on the order of Love Story, or using cancer to dispense life lessons as Terms of Endearment did, the picture loses its assurance and poignancy once it includes a scene where Will betrays Charlotte. Despite their later reconciliation, you can't escape the stale notion that her ultimate death is supposed to redeem Will just as Ryan O'Neal was saved by Ali McGraw's demise in Love Story. We're supposed to believe that Charlotte's end turns Will into a nobler man which betrays the tremulous qualities which made the first half so emotionally stirring. When the picture opened, there were no press screenings and the picture was largely torn to pieces. But sometimes the margin between success and failure is a slim one. If Autumn in New York ultimately falls into conventional notions of death and redemption, it still leaves a residue that undermines that sentiment. At its best, Autumn in New York says that no matter how strong the love, death always removes the happy ever after.

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

For much of his career, director Tim Burton has woven together elements of both the macabre and gothic romance into a sumptuous comic symphony – sometimes with delirious assurance (Beetlejuice) and sometimes with stunning tone deafness (his adaptation of Sweeney Todd). Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005) is a spirited and assured piece of stop-motion animation set in a cheerless 19th Century European village, where Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) is about to marry the bashful Victoria Everglott (Emily Watson). At the rehearsal, Victor badly stumbles over his wedding vows and dashes away into the forest in embarrassment. While practising, he places the wedding ring on what he believes is a twig. It turns out instead to be the bony finger of Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), a murdered bride. She gleefully rises from her grave to declare Victor as her groom. Once Victor disappears with Emily down to the necropolis where she resides, a conniving Lord Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant) starts to put the moves on the abandoned Victoria.

Adapting the happily ghoulish sensibility that Henry Selick displayed in Burton's 1993 animated musical The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton (along with co-director Mike Johnson) mix with a fervent glee darkly clever puns and inspired visual gags. Depp's Victor is a gauntly endearing heartsick romantic who could also be confused as a walking corpse. When Bonham Carter's beautifully melancholic cadaver awakens the dormant libido of the sad-sack Victor, it's as if Gahan Wilson had just made his acquaintance with Edgar Allan Poe. Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is a genuinely entrancing ghost story that's also a grand tale of romantic bereavement. The tears of laughter it induces in us are sometimes inseparable from the tears of remorse that inspired it.

Kevin Courrier is currently doing a lecture series at the Toronto JCC Miles Nadal on The Beatles on Monday evenings at 7pm. Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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