Execrable: The Fine Art of Love

The Fine Art of Love (2005)
Directed by John Irvin
Written by Frank Wedekind, Alberto Lattuada, Ottavio Jemma, James Carrington, Sadie Jones
Produced by Ida Di Benedetto, Jan Balzer, André Djaoui, Patrick Irwin, Mario Cotone
Starring Jacqueline Bisset, Mary Nighy, Hannah Taylor Gordon, Silvia De Santis, Anna Maguire, Eva Grimaldi, Enrico Lo Verso, Urbano Barberini, Natalia Tena
From childhood, orphans sequestered at a gated Thuringian boarding school during the early 20th century are immersed in a taxing balletic regimen inflicted as much as conducted by its cruelly unsparing headmistress (Bisset) and terpsichorean instructor (Grimaldi) for the ultimate benefit of a princely patron (Barberini). Can a nascent, sapphic love between two of the school’s star pupils (Nighy, Gordon) weather its crushing intramural tyranny to outlast the forbearance of anyone viewing this supremely mawkish melodrama? Not at all: Irvin navigates his overscripted, overscored, overheated Anglo-Italo-Czech production into a euripus of trite theatrics, menstrual hysterics and the most porcine concerted histrionics in recent memory. Only Bisset sustains any dignity by interpreting her wicked warder as something resembling a plausible person, but even her rarefied instincts can’t mitigate that character’s most risible tirrets. Otherwise, all of her co-stars are steadily, horrendously hammy, their overperformances exacerbated by bum dubbing fit for one of U.S. Manga Corps’ OAVs in the worst Italian tradition, and dialogue that’s stupidly stilted and supererogantly expositive by Wiseauan standards. Perhaps half of the players are miscast: swarthy Sicilian Lo Verso could scarcely look less German, and lumbering, potato-faced Nighy plays a putative beauty opposite stunningly adorable Gordon as her supposedly homely lass. From every dopey declamation to grating gust to adolescent observation to needless murder to the smallest dramatic gesture, Irvin wrests maximal bathos, which culminates in a cockamamie climax importing suicides, arson and rape contextualized to chastise that nefarious patriarchy. A few symbolic shots are as glaringly graceless as any other of this clinker’s excesses, further certifying Irvin’s artless misdirection behind the luxuriant veneer of Dante Ferretti’s typically posh production design and Fabio Zamarion’s fine photography. Not a subtle moment survives a suffocating score by Paul Grabowsky, creeping about every plaster corner and architrave to disambiguate potentially equivocal shots and instruct its audience with dissonant swells in minor keys. It’s wretched from its first ostentation to conclusive shriek.
Instead, watch Innocence, Hadzihalilovic’s superior, empyreally meditative adaptation of Wedekind’s novel.

Sublime: Innocence

Innocence (2004)
Directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Written by Frank Wedekind, Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Produced by Patrick Sobelman, Geoffrey Cox, Alain de la Mata, Paul Trijbits
Starring Zoé Auclair, Bérangère Haubruge, Lea Bridarolli, Hélène de Fougerolles, Marion Cotillard, Olga Peytavi-Müller
Foucault would surely have thrilled to anatomize the passive means by which the cloistered orphans of a remote boarding school are constrained by competition, selective obscurantism, dissemination of scuttlebutt and the accordance of authority in this moony reflection on aberrant childhood. Less an adaptation than a subtilized impression of Wedekind’s novel Mine-Haha, Hadzihalilovic’s analytic celebration of juvenile vim and natural splendor resonates with the unlikely realism resident in equivocacy: unlike too many of her peers, she treasures and masterfully exercises diegetic enigmas. Never pampered, little sylphs skylark within their orphanage’s forested, halcyon grounds, autonomous whenever unattended by their chief pedagogue (Fougerolles) or ballet instructor (Cotillard). Their ages are chromatically denoted by ribbons securing pigtails, and the eldest preteens among them are empowered the charge of their juniors – a representation that exhibits how maturation commences as a facile mimicry of adulthood. An aqueous significance exceeds rural and recreational contexts as an emblem of transience, incandescence and danger. Metaphors interspersed for the attentive gracefully reveal and prefigure implications abundant, as the callow whims, perturbations and aspirations of budding filles chastened and conformed by reliance and peer pressure vividly recall the wonder and impetuosity and impenitence of youth. By so acutely yet gently presenting childhood as a cowing landscape, festive yet fugitive playground and microcosm of adult exploitation, Hadzihalilovic’s crafted a picture as mature as her subjects aren’t with scrupulous framing and performances of allusive nuance. She’s as complete a filmmaker as any presently active.