Rough Trades and the Wages of Sin


It’s work, not love, that perplexes, frustrates, and infuriates the young women and men in Erick Zonca’s films. How do you earn a living without dwindling into a wage slave? How do you make the transition from the fantasies and small freedoms of childhood to the actuality of 50 years of nine-to-five?

With their impressionist palette and vivid acting, Zonca’s films have a visual beauty and emotional intimacy not usually associated with the problem of labor. But that is the subject at the core of The Dreamlife of Angels, Zonca’s breakout 1998 feature, and his two short films, Alone and The Little Thief. Though neither of the shorts is quite as rich as Dreamlife, they’re a provocative double bill.

Made in 1997, the 34-minute Alone is the sketch from which Dreamlife developed. In the space of an hour, a young woman (Florence Loiret) loses her waitressing job, her apartment, and all her possessions save those in her beat-up shoulder bag. When a gun literally falls at her feet during a police raid, she tries to hold up her landlord (Philippe Nahon, the brutish star of Gaspar Noé’s I Stand Alone), who laughs at her ineptitude and slams the door in her face. During her rapid descent into homelessness and starvation, the gun presents itself (to her and to us) more as a threat than a way out. In the hands of a lesser director, it would be too crude a narrative ploy, but Zonca savors both the contingency of its appearance in the girl’s life and its tactile presence—the way this hard, efficiently tooled object looks in the hands of a fragile, confused woman.

Like the eponymous heroine of the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta, she is willing to do a man’s job, and like Rosetta, she hasn’t a clue why she can’t get one. She has no awareness of the number one rule of the workplace: You can’t let your anger show even when the boss or the customers are abusing or rejecting you. But physically and emotionally, this girl has little in common with Rosetta. Rather, she resembles, as does Natacha Regnier’s suicidal young woman in Dreamlife, the shame-filled, masochistic adolescents in Robert Bresson’s later films.

In their neo-realist use of direct sound, cityscapes, and naturally lit interiors, and in their psychological depiction of youthful anomie, Zonca’s films are clearly influenced by Bresson. But Zonca is a more humanist and more overtly leftist filmmaker. He believes in the liberating potential of human interaction, and even in the tentative reemergence of working-class solidarity. In the last scene of The Little Thief, a worker in a bakery calls out to a new hire: “Are you interested in politics? Come to a meeting.”

The hour-long Little Thief was made immediately after Dreamlife and turns the tables with a male protagonist. S. (Nicolas Duvauchelle) quits his job as a baker’s apprentice for a get-rich-quick life of crime. Although he seems an unlikely candidate, he’s recruited by a Marseilles mob and slowly works his way up the hierarchy from being a break-and-entry lookout to taking care of the boss’s aged mother to guarding prostitutes to chauffeuring the boss himself. After the boss shoves a gun down his throat and then rapes him, our hero realizes that labor relations are worse in the criminal world than in the straight world. The Little Thief lacks the complex characters of Dreamlife, but it extends the range of Zonca’s filmmaking with scenes of punishing, visceral violence.

Punishing, visceral violence is the key element of Reindeer Games, in which Ben Affleck suffers more grievous bodily harm than the protagonists of any Scorsese film, De Niro in Raging Bull and Dafoe in Last Temptation of Christ included. Affleck is bound and beaten to a bloody pulp so often that even viewers heavily invested in the s/m aspect of action flicks will be bored silly. (The scene in which his body is used as a dartboard does little to break the monotony.)

Directed with throwaway skill by veteran John Frankenheimer but hampered by a clichéd script that becomes more illogical with every twist, the picture teeters between parody and pretentiousness. Dimension Films, the producer and distributor of Reindeer Games, has urged critics to “protect its unexpected plot developments so audiences can enjoy them for the first time.” It might have escaped your notice that Bruce Willis was dead in The Sixth Sense, but you’ll know where Reindeer Games is headed long before the end credits roll.

Rudy (Affleck), a naive auto thief newly released from prison, is kidnapped by a gang of gunrunners who plan a Christmas Eve robbery of a gambling casino located on an Indian reservation in the frozen wilds of northern Michigan. It’s Rudy’s forbidden lust for Ashley (Charlize Theron, looking remarkably like Ashley Judd), his former cell mate’s pen pal, that’s gotten him into this fix. Gabriel (Gary Sinise), the head gunrunner, has some relationship to Ashley that would be too complicated to get into here, even if Dimension Films hadn’t cautioned me against letting even the smallest cat out of the bag. Dimension is a division of Miramax, and if this film is evidence of how they treat Affleck, one of their most valued stars, then who am I to risk their displeasure? On the other hand, I doubt that Harvey Weinstein is going to be working the phones trying to plug up leaks the way he did years ago for The Crying Game.

Affleck has learned a bit of action-film technique since his embarrassing turn in Armageddon. His best performance is still as the jock with artistic leanings in Mark Pellington’s Going All the Way. Here, he seems less like an actor than the host of a bad party who suffers his ill-tempered guests with a certain grace. Sinise, however, engages in much teeth gnashing before he gets down to chewing the scenery. I admit a weakness for Frankenheimer’s huge low-angled close-ups and the way he can send a body or two hurtling down a snowy mountain. Still, that’s precious little on which to pin a movie.

Reindeer Games seems like trash with panache compared to Drowning Mona, which looks like a New Jersey version of Li’l Abner without tits or biceps. The more relevant inspiration is probably The Sopranos, where middle-aged Mafia worker bees turn out to have as many neurotic personal relationships as everyone who gets HBO. Drowning Mona is probably only the first of many movies coming down the pike in which people with bad ’70s haircuts, living in small towns and letting their homicidal impulses run amuck, expect us to find them cute. Bette Midler and Danny De Vito mug more shamelessly than usual; it’s better for the careers of the other actors that they remain nameless. Nick Gomez, one of the most promising filmmakers of the last decade, was chosen for this gig on the basis of his direction of some episodes of The Sopranos. Either they had something on him or he needed the money.