April 13, 2010

Brokaw's Best of the Fest - Part One


"Wild Grass" Deep into Alain Resnais' playful tragicomedy that opens The New York Film Festival September 25 in Lincoln Center, we begin to sense how life's random events can reflect back the movies we've watched over a lifetime. Marguerite (Sabine Azema) is waiting outside a cinema for a man to emerge. She's a dentist who happens to have a pilot's license, and she's become increasingly infatuated with an older, married man, Georges (Andre Dussollier) who's found and returned her stolen wallet. It happens that the movie Georges is seeing is "The Bridges At Toko-Ri," the 1954 Paramount filming of James Michener's novel with Grace Kelly and her ill-fated Korean War pilot husband, played by William Holden. Resnais' ravishing, beautifully neon-lit cinema exterior and street of shops is unworldly--it's close to the Taiwan film "Goodbye Dragon Inn," a tender homage to the closing of a movie theater and the end of a cinematic era. Resnais is an 87 years old. Are you following any of this? Keep reading.


The actor playing Georges, who's a Resnais' veteran, looks something like the American author James Salter, who's now 84. Salter was a Korean War pilot who flew F-86 Sabre jets. His first novel, "The Hunters," became the 1958 20th Century Fox war film of the same name with Robert Wagner, Richard Egan and Robert Mitchum, one of whom becomes Salter's ill-fated pilot. When Georges and Marguerite confront each other after "Toko-Ri," he decides to end the cat-and-mouse game they've been playing from a distance, and goes home to his much younger wife (Anne Consigny, looking remarkably like Grace Kelly). But Marguerite, an impulsive redhead who's watching her youth slip away before our eyes, won't be denied. She'll take both Georges and his wife up in a plane that's fashioned rather like those trim attack craft in the Korean War movies. When they meet at the airport for their fateful flight, Resnais inserts (for the second time) the 20th Century Fox opening logo and fanfare music. Up in the clouds, Margarite starts putting her plane through the kind of aerial acrobatics it was never built to withstand.


See if you can knit these clues together. Resnais started his filmic career with a number of vivid war-related pictures ("Hiroshima Mon Amour," "La Guerre Est Finie," "Far From Vietnam," the indelible documentary "Night and Fog"). The evidence up on screen in "Wind Grass" suggests he may be revisiting his roots in the twilight of his career, as master directors often do. "Wind Grass" is the work of a virtuoso in total control of his storytelling prowess, but he's not shy about quoting American studios and their films. While his drama is based on a novel by Christian Gailly ("L'incident"), the author has noted "Resnais does not film literature, he composes images that talk to us about something else altogether...and that is what the cinema should be." Exactly. Resnais has never been considered part of France's New Wave (maybe because he wasn't a film critic), but he's been the director who plays with time and memory in a way Rivette, Godard, Chabrol, Truffaut, Varda and Rohmer have never quite matched. Georges tells Marguerite that he remembers "The Bridges At Toko-Ri" from his youth, as Resnais and many of us do. If you're a deep, deep movie fan, this is one Opening Night (courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, not Paramount or Fox) you'll surely want to unravel.


"Vincere" (Win). We first encounter the gravely handsome, volatile young man who'll become Italy's fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in a Milan pub rally. He borrows a watch and invites God to strike him dead in five minutes. When nothing happens, he declares God is dead. We're watching him through the eyes of Ida Dalser, a beautiful young merchant who's instantly drawn to him. She takes him home and they begin a series of intense carnal couplings, which the legendary director Marco Bellocchio emphasizes because he wants us to understand Ida is going to dedicate her entire life to this distracted, incendiary madman. When she has his child, a son, in 1915, he abandons and disowns them both.


At this point in his riveting and completely absorbing biographical drama, director Bellocchio makes a daring artistic choice. The actor playing Mussolini (a very good Filippo Timi) goes away, and is steadily replaced by archival footage of the actual surly, strutting, speechmaking monster. At the same time, the movie begins to give its full attention to Ida's disintegration as she's shuttered away in a mental hospital run by nuns that's really an insane asylum. Ida is played by Giovanna Mezzagiorno in a performance as spellbinding as anything you're likely to see this year.


Despite the forced intimacy of its narrative, "Vincere" is a big, sprawling, visceral and bombastic tale. It's been a long time since a major actress played a woman driven mad so convincingly, and Miss Mezzagiorno easily eclipses actresses as recent as Jeon Do-Yeon in "Secret Sunshine" and as distant as Isabelle Adjani in "The Story of Adele H." As her life ebbs away in the hundreds of letters she tirelessly writes her son and husband for 11 years (she even scrawls her pleas in longhand up and down the walls of her tiny room), Bellocchio intercuts her anguish with the college life of her son, who's often egged on by his classmates to imitate the theatrical antics of his infamous father, which he does to devastating effect--a monster reborn in miniature. Committed also to an asylum, he died in 1942, five years after his mother; Ida was never able "to embrace, once more, the blessed, divine creative who I adore." "Vincere" (Win) is an odd title for a film that's almost entirely about loss, but Marco Bellocchio, every bit the equal of his French contemporary Alain Resnais, has given audiences worldwide a win-win with the wondrous, Oscar-worthy performance of Giovanna Mezzagiorno.


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