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.

Favorites: La Cérémonie

La Cérémonie (1995)
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Written by Ruth Rendell, Claude Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff
Produced by Marin Karmitz, Christoph Holch, Ira von Gienanth
Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Virginie Ledoyen, Valentin Merlet
Over shared secrets, scuttlebutt and dudgeon, an industrious and taciturn housemaid (Bonnaire) and pertly obtrusive postmistress (Huppert) bond at the convergence of their scandalous lives shortly after the former’s hired by a gallerist (Bisset) at her husband’s (Cassel) Lucullan rural estate. Under the clerk’s impertinent influence, her only friend’s limited occupational relations deteriorate with a swell of recusancy until jaundice peaks to a bloody fever pitch. His distinctly Marxist merger of the Papin sisters’ notorious murders and Rendell’s popular novel A Judgement in Stone bespeaks Chabrol’s inspiration via Sartre’s politicized interpretation of the former, but this is no cheap or simple dogmatic allegory: notwithstanding their unintentional condescension, his wealthy victims are as bountiful as beautiful, erudite and evenhanded, while the unhinged yet animate antagonists of the underclass reject responsibility with contumelious abandon. Instead, Chabrol imputes detriment to division of class; despite all her employers’ best intentions, Bonnaire’s peripheral domestic is an isolate at a social margin, while Huppert’s dominant intimate is as much a creation of neglect as of madness. Not since his derided, deliberately desipient Tiger series had Chabrol’s style so plangently echoed Hitchcock’s, and never ere so elegantly: players step to close-ups, conspiratorial zooms emphasize unabashed confessions and confrontations, interstitial shots are framed in residential and vehicular interiors, pans repeat subsequent to dissolves and overhead shots rotate in ascent. Sparing, subtle foreboding’s manifest in verbal suggestions, creepy little surprises and the direful strings of a fine score penned by Chabrol’s son and preferred composer, Matthieu. As fans and others familiar would expect, the leads are sublime for their elan; without a word, relinquishing her vanity and nearly uglified by gauntness and a heinous, proletarian haircut, the usually beautiful Bonnaire evinces heart-rending frustration with tearful contortion and gall by glares, a fitting foil for jabbering Huppert as an impenetrably unrepentant accomplice in a part that any lesser actress would likely overplay. Neither might a false note be heard from their co-stars — Bisset’s infallible even under the baton of hopeless hacks, but her painstaking presence and nuanced delivery couldn’t feel more natural. At an age when he’d all but abandoned ideology, Chabrol concocted to almost universal acclaim a work of sneeringly sophisticated agitprop and blackest humor that may be enjoyed as an acute crime drama, but whose implications publicize the concerning conspicuity of servitude, humiliation ensuing crippling ignorance, and consequences of indigence. Worse, his perverse pair personify every sick or uncultivated little girl permitted to grow into a mundane monster.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Rope.

Sublime: Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)
Directed by Xan Cassavetes
Produced by Steve Matzkin, Rick Ross, Marshall Persinger, Susan Heimbeinder, F.X. Feeney, Jonathan Montepare, Leslie Lowell, Alison Palmer Bourke, Ed Carroll
Starring Jerry Harvey, F.X. Feeney, James B. Harris, Vera Carlisle Anderson, Robert Altman, Stuart Cooper, Henry Jaglom, Douglas Venturelli, C.L. Batten, James Woods, Paul Verhoeven, Theresa Russell, Charles H. Joffe, Kevin Thomas, Alan Rudolph, Alexander Payne, Charles Champlin, Jacqueline Bisset, Penelope Spheeris, Bob Strock, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Vilmos Zsigmond
For cinephilic Angelenos, seven years of incomparable entertainment and edification broadcast by L.A.’s early subscriptive telecast Z Channel encompassed an international sweep of commercial blockbusters, celebrated classics, exploitation flicks, neglected chefs-d’oeuvre, softcore pornography: the boundless and omnibus orbit of its disturbed, innovative program director Jerry Harvey, briefly a spaghetti western’s screenwriter and pioneer of the commercialized director’s cut who successfully screened The Wild Bunch with Peckinpah’s ministration as the luminary had intended it at the Beverly Canon Theater, not too many years before an irate epistle to Z Channel evincing his expertise concerning televised presentation won him there his managerial berth. Cassavetes’ comprehensive account of Harvey’s uproarious life and ruinous demise embodies press clippings detailing every phenomenon that the channel induced and weathered, abundant scenes from features which subtly demonstrate the amenity and allure of content that Harvey so avidly aired while paralleling narrative tenor, and an embarrassment of interviews with his ex-wife (Anderson), friends, collaborators and subjects, all interspersed with excerpts from a radio interview in which Harvey articulated with some inhibition many of his objectives, passions and disappointments. Perhaps the most gratifying highlights of this mass are instances in which surviving filmmakers (Harris, Altman, Jaglom, Rudolph, Cooper, Spheeris, Verhoeven), actors (Woods, Russell, Bisset) and critics (Feeney, Thomas, Champlin) who Harvey celebrated, popularized and befriended explicate the aesthetic apercus by which he discerned great cinema, and how his engaging programming monopolized an audience. Z’s worldwide televised premieres of director’s cuts presented the erst abbreviated Heaven’s Gate, Berlin Alexanderplatz and Once Upon a Time in America to audiences who had seen only contracted cuts in theaters; thematic marathons showcased accomplished filmmakers and stars whose renown was limited beyond their native France, Japan, Italy, Netherlands, etc.; classics and their remakes were cablecast in consecution; beset visionaries from Cimino to Altman to Friedman were exclusively interviewed and solicited for projects that had enjoyed scant if any distribution. During a period when New Hollywood was winding down, Harvey was eager to screen its many brilliant flops…or sebaceous sex comedies, jidaigeki, silent obscurities, early Technicolor epics…the universal breadth of feature films transmigrated to television for transfixed audiences was both his secret weapon successfully deployed against the impingement of HBO and Showtime in the L.A. market, and mechanism by which he curated a vast panoply of filmic works to a local subscriber base. This singular dedication to the endorsement of motion pictures unfortunately proceeded from the same dysfunctional formative years as the melancholy that haunted Harvey lifelong: son of a callous Catholic judiciary hardliner who routinely administered capital punishment and phlegmatic mother, and brother to two sisters who capitulated to suicide, the glowering alcoholic’s mercuriality was as familiar to his circles as his generosity. Compounding frustrations fomented the execution of Harvey’s adored second wife an hour before his own suicide served as a sick expiation for his iniquity. If Harvey’s sad, short life seemed destitute of course or satisfaction, his secondhand vision nonetheless communicated a sprawling reverence for the cinematic art that no TV broadcaster had theretofore expressed. Fellow cineaste Cassavetes does her eminent patronym no disrepute with this exhaustive assessment of a supremely sagacious cognoscente who strove to publicly chart a medium from its heart of intrigue to its thrilling fringes.