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Betrayal

In a recent interview with The New York Times, real-life married couple Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz seemed as happy as could be: She thinks he’s a great cook, they love to go on luxury vacations, and they relish opportunities to work together. In other words, when they break each other’s hearts as the less-than-happy husband and wife in Harold Pinter’s 1978 masterwork, Betrayal, it’s all an act—they swear. Betrayal begins at the end of a long love affair between a woman and her husband’s close friend and proceeds to tell the story in reverse chronological order. Mike Nichols, who won a Tony for best director for Death of a Salesman last year, directs.

Mondays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. Starts: Oct. 1. Continues through Jan. 5, 2013

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The Bourne Legacy: Who’s the New Guy?

The Bourne films have more than just overstayed their welcome and outlasted the Ludlum books—they’ve been Van Halenized, with an abrupt change of frontman and a resulting dip in personality. The only big-ass popcorn franchise of the past decade to have not been spawned on computers, the series up to now has survived via Matt Damon’s beady gaze, making decisions about where the story goes, even as director Paul Greengrass’s jittery action fuzz did its best to render the set pieces of the past two entries almost unwatchable. (Doug Liman’s initial film, maybe because it eschews the safe harmlessness of CGI, still pulses with panic and still freezes the channel-surfing thumb in mid click.) Now, we have Jeremy Renner as another Treadstone mega man (there were nine, apparently), and though he is a likable enough pug-nosed action figure, the Damonlessness is sorely felt.

Renner is not stranded by himself—The Bourne Legacy is chockablock with busy character-actor casting, from Edward Norton’s nasally fed bulldog to fleeting cameos by David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, and Joan Allen. (For the extra work of a Guardian journalist who’s killed without a line of dialogue, they even bothered to get Paddy Considine.) The film is as densely packed with officious people and global villages as Syriana and takes itself about as seriously. Mostly, though, Renner has on-the-run scientist helpmate Rachel Weisz, who is 41 going on 23 and brings a badly needed, full-throated payload of personal energy to her tagalong scenes, even though they’re just that.

Given the film’s relentless slam-blam effect, it’s rather amazing that anybody gets to act at all. (James Newton Howard’s score is abusive, with every mere establishing shot of Tokyo or Chicago getting a brontosaur’s soundtrack stomp.) But acting does happen, mostly in a two-sentence splats, just enough to kick the narrative one more foot down the highway on its way to the inevitable showdown. There’s a lot of pensive screen-watching in dark surveillance rooms.

Tony Gilroy, on his fourth Bourne and now unleashed from Ludlum’s paperbacks (the subsequent Eric Van Lustbader sequels, even the one titled The Bourne Legacy, were not consulted), overplots in the Christopher Nolan manner. But Gilroy was smart enough to make room for juicy dramatics: After the film’s lengthy centerpiece begins with a hairy workplace-shooting ordeal that Weisz survives, she heads to her crumbling fixer-upper mansion in the woods, where she’s visited by seemingly concerned feds. Antics ensue, but only after a hearty dose of old-school interpersonal tension. The story in general takes a while to hit gears, but its primary task is revealing the broader program from which Bourne arose and the pharmaceutical basis of its behavioral modifications. Renner’s Aaron Cross, first met fighting off wolves in Alaska, is a pill-
popping über-mensch who suddenly realizes, as per Norton’s bureaucratic fiat, that the program is being shut down and its progeny eliminated one by one. He’s motivated to survive the onslaught (at first, via drone) but also to score more über-dope; Weisz’s lab geek agrees to help only after realizing she’s being hunted, too.

This presents a dynamic Damon might not have enjoyed: Without his meds, the quick-minded Cross would revert back to his old learning-disabled self, like the experimental subject in Flowers for Algernon. (“I’ve got a long way to fall,” Cross says, grumbling.) You can’t blame the lug, though the notion that only a daily dose of “viral” beanies was all Damon’s Bourne needed to be Bourne is disenchanting, to say the least. The exposition supporting this chemical backstory fills the eddies in the action flow in ways the Bourne movies never required before, and the techno-gibberish flies like confetti.

Bourne, we’re told, is also still evading assassination somewhere, and perhaps Universal is hoping for a Damon/Greengrass reunion for number five, which we’ll call The Bourne Redundancy for now. Renner might just be a placeholder. Working in the trenches so he can eventually make himself another Michael Clayton, Gilroy keeps things brisk and relatively smart, but he can’t be surprised if we find the rooftop-‘n’-motorcycle chase through Manila a little rote by now, however white-knuckly and free of Greengrass camera palsy. The late-in-the-game introduction of a supervillain—a Bourne 2.0 from a “beta program” flown in from Bangkok in white skinny jeans—feels like outright pandering. But hell, it’s the fourth film, and that’s what happens when Hollywood hyperextends a simple paradigm beyond even the patience of the last cast and crew. (Greengrass just “wasn’t interested” in another Bourne, and without him, Damon bailed.) Are we expecting much more?

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Lovers Try to Stay Above Water in The Deep Blue Sea

The Deep Blue Sea, the first fiction feature in a dozen years from the visionary British director Terence Davies, is a film about love that in no way reassures that love conquers all. Plumbing disquieting depth, Deep Blue Sea investigates the insoluble dilemma of romantic love: the expectation, contrary to experience, that we can or will find every quality that we want in a single person.

Lady Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) has left her husband, high court judge Sir William (Simon Russell Beale)—and a life of cultured conversation and posh fireside comfort amid postwar deprivation—to live in slummy sin with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), an emotionally immature former RAF pilot who survived the Battle of Britain but never readapted to civilian life, and whose lovemaking has irreparably shaken up the foundations of Hester’s existence. “Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly,” Sir William’s mother, an astringent Barbara Jefford, warns. “What would you replace it with?” retorts Hester—a succinct summary of the central problem of The Deep Blue Sea.

The film is based on a 1952 work by the once-prominent British playwright Terence Rattigan, previously filmed with Vivien Leigh in 1955, directed for the stage by social-realist filmmaker Karel Reisz in ’92, and, as Davies’s production began, successfully touring the English provinces. Like Davies, Rattigan was a gay man raised in a society that did not allow such things to be openly spoken of—so both men share an intimate understanding of illicit or “antisocial” love. Otherwise, Davies, who prefers to look at life through the scrim of memory, has made The Deep Blue Sea very much his own, breaking up Rattigan’s front-loaded exposition, revealing the characters instead through fragmentary scenes, images that bob like jetsam across the rushing surface of his heroine’s mind: lovers’ quarrels followed by tender moments of commiseration, a sing-along of “Molly Malone” in a tube-station shelter during the Blitz (one of the simultaneous expressions of public and personal feeling through popular song that runs through Davies’s filmography).

Traveling up a still bomb-scarred, grubby West London street, the opening shot climbs a terrace boarding house to the third-story window, beyond which is a musty-brown bedroom that has been quietly eroding since Edwardian times, where Hester has decided to end her life in front of the gas fireplace.

In the aftermath of the botched attempt, Hester recalls the events that have led her here, establishing the pattern of alternating between the present-tense drama of Hester and Freddie’s affair in its final dissolution—accompanied by the re-emergence of Sir William—and its history. Davies as much conducts as adapts Rattigan’s play—the slow tick of Hester’s mantle clock is a metronome, leading into Samuel Barber’s thrilling, harrowing violin concerto, a full nine minutes of which soundtrack the story of Hester’s social rebellion, outlined in a few abridged flashbacks. The presiding aesthetic is the monochrome austerity of Britain under-rationing, with a luxuriant sensuality bleeding through, as in Hester’s claret-red coat or the smoke of her cigarettes purling through a sunbeam.

Davies and his cast create the rare triangular affair where every side of the triangle is drawn with equal care and sympathy, where each party’s hopes—and their disappointments—are eloquently understood. After Sir William’s anger cools, he again becomes considerate “Bill” to Hester, showing something of a little boy’s nose-wrinkling twinkle in his white-whiskered face. The relatively youthful Hiddleston has no such childishness, but conveys the helpless distress of causing pain merely by being one’s self.

Weisz is 10 years younger than Beale and 10 years older than Hiddleston—true to the age differences in Rattigan’s play, though she looks youthful enough to alter the intended dynamic. Nevertheless, her performance of abject sulk broken by cloud breaks of radiant joy is in perfect harmony with the film’s shifting atmosphere. Reviewing the first staging of The Deep Blue Sea, drama critic Kenneth Tynan concluded: “[Rattigan] has stated the case for [Hester’s] death so pungently that he cannot argue her out of the impasse without forfeiting our respect. He ekes out ingeniously, lecturing her about the necessity of sublimating her impulses in painting and going to a good art school.” Here Davies gives Hester no such loophole escape, but instead allows her a stoical endurance that commands our respect. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, she can only abide—which, in the film’s terms, is the nearest thing to victory that life affords.

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Babes in Bosnia: Hollywood’s Take on Sex Trafficking in The Whistleblower

In Canadian director Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower, shot in Romania, British babe Rachel Weisz plays a poor Nebraska cop who takes a U.N. job in postwar Bosnia to investigate the sex trafficking of young women, including two Ukrainians, and unearths evidence of multinational peacekeeper complicity in the crimes (and U.S. government support of the whole ugly racket). Geographic diffusion aside, Kondracki’s fact-based thriller remains somewhat focused on its grim subject, though its principled bid to allure and enlighten the VOD-surfing masses results in a surplus of Hollywood-style eye candy and narrative formula. No less a looker than Monica Bellucci appears as the bitchy head of the U.N.’s repatriation program, seemingly to offset the arguably admirable characterization of most every male as a sex-crazed creep or worse, while late-reel scenes of suspense involving the heinously victimized Ukrainians fall somewhere along the line between shocking reportage and standard-issue torture porn. Clearly channeling Jodie Foster’s distaff avenger in The Silence of the Lambs (but with a healthy hetero appetite thrown in), Weisz’s Oscar-campaign-worthy turn does nothing to obscure the movie’s half-intended message that, regardless of national borders, where sex is involved, there’s money to be made.

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Sword-and-Sandals Epic Agora: Too Hard on the Crusaders!

Not lacking for conviction or cojones, Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora is a big, broad, stridently atheistic sword-and-sandals entertainment that recounts a tragic turning point in world history. Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia, a brilliant astronomer in fourth-century Alexandria whose life and work is increasingly threatened by a bloody societal shift toward reactionary, virulent Christianity. To its credit, the film calls out Christianity’s ignominious imperialism and locates a valid historical analogue to the religious extremism of today. Yet good intentions shan’t save Amenábar from his own ham-fisted methods. It’s one thing to depict crusaders hurling a cynic onto hot coals, ritually slaughtering pagans, stoning and massacring Jews, and enforcing total faith—but need they wear uniformly dark, ragged cloaks and snarl through unkempt faces, while pagans dress brightly, bathe frequently, and no doubt smell really good? Servant-boy-cum-wispy-indie-rocker-of-antiquity Max Minghella even comes to learn that slavery is far better than belief. Amenábar’s camera assumes extreme low and high angles, setting heroes against starry skies before freely zooming back to assume a celestial POV (praise be to Google Maps). What’s missing is a satisfying, plausible middle ground where heady ideas and metaphors coalesce into compelling drama. Amenábar (The Others, Open Your Eyes) has the ambition but not yet the skill of a Kubrick or Spielberg to make visual flourishes function emotionally. The music swells, characters glower and suffer in slow-mo, and Amenábar champions the life of the intellect by condescending to ours.

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‘Eragon’

In a time of darkness, under the evil reign of John Malkovich—who sits upon a throne in a different soundstage from all the other cast members—a hero shall rise. But lo, there will be little rejoicing, for this farmer turned dragon rider named Eragon is but a pretty boy (newcomer Ed Speleers), somehow in possession of the only soap and clean clothes in all the land. And then shall cometh a big blue CGI dragon, voiced by Rachel Weisz and far lamer—physically and stylistically—than Sean Connery’s beast from 1996’s Dragonheart. As Eragon tries to save his home from the power-mad king, much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensues, especially in the scenes when singer Joss Stone plays a fortune-telling Gypsy, and even more so when songbirds Avril Lavigne and Jem foist themselves onto the soundtrack.

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Fountain of Shame

Solemn, flashy, and flabbergasting, The Fountain—adapted by Darren Aronofsky from his own graphic novel—should really be called The Shpritz. The premise is lachrymose, the sets are clammy, and the metaphysics all wet. The screen is awash in spiraling nebulae and misty points of light, with the soundtrack supplying appropriately moist oohs and aahs.

The Fountain is an exercise in pulp mysticism that, overflowing with ponderous enigmas, universal patterns, and eternalrecurrences, touches all bases in its first few minutes. An opening invocation of Genesis and a close-up of a golden cross segue to a crib from the sacred text, Raiders of the Lost Ark: A fiery Spanish conquistador (Hugh Jackman) is trapped by a horde of growling natives in a jungle cul-de-sac; he escapes by climbing a sacred pyramid to go mano a mano with their flaming high priest. There’s a cosmic cut—in the film. Now a bald astronaut who travels in a full lotus position, Jackman wakes up screaming across the snow-globe universe.

Not nearly as pleasurably tacky as a description might make it sound, Aronofsky’s historical phantasmagoria jumps among three time zones. There’s the 16th-century derring-do in which Rachel Weisz’s glamorous Queen Isabella sends Jackman’s conquistador to find the Tree of Life and bring back the Sap of Immortality. There’s a present-day melodrama in which Weisz appears as the free-spirited Izzi, dying of brain cancer while her renegade medical-researcher spouse Tom (Jackman) races against time to create a cure. Adding to the mystery, Izzi is writing a novel called The Fountain, which is actually the conquistador story and which she begs her husband to complete. (The movie’s most impressive special effect is this leather-bound tome written entirely in longhand without a single blotch, erasure, or correction.) Finally and least explicably, there’s Tom’s 26th-century astral projection.

Izzi who? Are you what? Together these avatars gaze at the Mayan death star, sit beneath the world-tree Yggsdrasil, and make love in a cozy bathtub. Weisz, the auteur’s own inamorata, is accorded many close-ups. She’s able to carry them, smiling bravely through the tears and claptrap. For his part, Jackman plays Dr. Tom at his most Wolverine-ish—a perfectly grizzled, broodingly ungracious loner given to explosions of sour petulance. At one point, he instructs his nonplussed research team to “stop aging—stop dying, that’s our goal.” (And create democracy in Iraq while you’re at it.) Ellen Burstyn, a graduate of Aronofsky’s 2000 skagfest Requiem for a Dream, appears as Tom’s ineffectually scolding, but secretly loving, supervisor.

Part fairy tale, part weepy, part frustrated bodice-ripper, and part film-loop in which beatific Izzi invites distracted Tom for a walk (and is grouchily turned down) six times, The Fountain is a movie that prefers celestial whiteouts to prosaic fades and, when it comes to visual emphasis, privileges the overhead zoom above all. It’s as busy as the hotel lobby that seemingly served as the decorating model for Tom’s lab. By the time the hero’s 26th-century self levitates through the deliquescing woods between the worlds and the layers of the cosmic onion to the golden birth canal, Izzi’s injunction to “finish it” has taken on a new, and not particularly occult, meaning.

What The Fountain lacks in coherence it makes up in ambition. Aronofsky has not only aspired to make the most strenuously far-out movie of the 21st century, but the greatest love story ever told. Lest anyone imagine The Fountain to have been written by Madonna’s kabbalah teacher after a week pondering El Topoand dancing to the Incredible String Band, the words “By Darren Aronofsky” are twice inscribed during the final credits. The third inscription will reveal itself in 500 years.

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The Good Seed

Ralph Fiennes looks and sounds like the Anglophile’s wildest fantasy of the smooth and smoldering British leading man. A well-wrought crucible of flinty, pensive eroticism in The English Patient and The End of the Affair, Fiennes has also spent much of his career upending the romantic expectations that come with cerulean eyes, impeccable bone structure, and cello-range dulcet vox. He put a baby-fattish face on the banality of evil as the Nazi commandant in Schindler’s List, donned the pressed politesse of corrupted WASP entitlement in Quiz Show, and picked through a tattered and scrambled memory as the mumbling schizophrenic in Spider. Fiennes has flirted rather awkwardly with mainstream Hollywood in recent years, wearing the frozen smile of a bewildered guest on the J.Lo luxury liner in Maid in Manhattan and sporting a full-body tattoo as the psycho killer in Red Dragon. But Fiennes, now a youthful 42, has one of his best roles to date in Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener (opening August 31) as Justin Quayle, a mild-mannered British diplomat to Kenya who unravels a vast Big Pharma conspiracy after the murder of his activist wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), whose righteous energies produced a crackling friction with her husband’s genteel tact.

“He’s quite a softly spoken and unassertive man who changes over the course of the film, but what I liked about it was that he doesn’t become a hero, but perhaps he becomes a fuller person, stronger; he emerges from himself,” says the suddenly ubiquitous Fiennes (who also appears in next week’s The Chumscrubber and whose autumn release schedule includes Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and James Ivory’s The White Countess). In The Constant Gardener, Fiennes again plays a man who loves a doomed woman with conflicting allegiances—in The English Patient and The End of the Affair, she’s married; this time around, she’s wed to her secretive, dangerous investigative work.

Fiennes’s performance in Gardener is an achingly subtle progression of tonal shifts: self-amused gentlemanliness (he adds endearing dorky inflections to his vaunted sex appeal), shakily restrained grief, resourceful outrage (on par with Tessa’s, in fact), and finally, a transcendent resignation. “There’s a kind of Englishness there, a tradition of good manners and being attentive to other people that’s also like a wall, and you feel you will never get in. There’s layers of self-awareness, and then a self-deprecating sense of that self- awareness, and on and on . . . and he can see these things, he can laugh at himself.” Fiennes apparently can too, gently ribbing your Voice representative for a certain cover line of a decade ago (“WE HATE HAMLET,” regarding the 1995 Broadway production of Shakespeare’s tragedy for which Fiennes won a Tony).

Adapted from a John le Carré thriller densely tangled with intrigue and double crosses, The Constant Gardener achieves a galloping momentum and raw immediacy familiar from Meirelles’s City of God—especially in the Nairobi-set scenes, where Fiennes, Weisz, and a skeleton crew often maneuvered through real crowds and street life and engaged total strangers in the story. “Fernando keeps it very loose, kinetic; the camera can move anywhere, and he just dives in and uses what’s there,” Fiennes says. “He has a very strong intuition about spontaneity; he wasn’t precious about the script, and Rachel and I improvised quite a bit. He didn’t like it when he felt that script and dialogue were getting too present and stodgy in the middle of a scene, and we could toss them out. It became a joke on the set—’Too much talking! Talking, boring!’ ”

A strong polemical component resonates in The Constant Gardener, which condemns (fictional) pharmaceutical giants for colluding with corrupt governments to use the poorest and sickest in sub-Saharan Africa as unwitting experimental subjects for potentially toxic drugs. “A story that pushes people’s awareness buttons can only be good,” Fiennes says, “and I think Fernando’s managed to pull off this level of polemic without it getting in the way of a good story. But I think there’s a risk—I think many people would rather have a documentary.”

Is a fiction film particularly well equipped to do the kind of work we usually associate with investigative or advocacy journalism? “No, I don’t think it can be, especially if it has to serve a dramatic narrative,” Fiennes says. “Everyone asks questions about the polemical side of the film, but for me it’s also about a relationship between two people, their openness with each other, or their decision as a couple not to share, thinking they’re respecting each other’s privacy. People don’t always tell each other what they need to know—not because they’ve got anything to hide, like a love affair, but because they don’t want to invade. Our ability to be honest with each other, to say, I want this or I don’t want that, it’s all a distant cousin of what happens on the level of social policy, and it’s who we are, isn’t it? Politics starts in the bedroom.”

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The Art of War

Are you tough enough to take the naked truths that Neil LaBute dishes out? Having tried his hand at feel-good comedy and posh literary adaptation with Nurse Betty and Possession, the prolific LaBute returns to the he-man emotional cruelty of his first two movies and recent theater work. The Shape of Things—directed by LaBute from his 2001 play, with the same four actors re-creating their roles—may be considered a distaff version of In the Company of Men. It’s a calculated bit of sexual bait-and-switch in which predatory humans toy with each other to achieve their own carnivorous ends.

Boldly schematic, The Shape of Things opens in a college art museum with Adam (Paul Rudd) and Eve . . . lyn (Rachel Weisz) meeting in the shadow of a classically sculpted male divinity. He’s working as a guard; she’s an aesthetic terrorist who has hopped the barrier protecting the marble artwork in order to spray-paint a penis on its fig leaf. “I hate art that isn’t true,” she tells him. It may not be the Garden of Eden, but dorky undergrad Adam is fascinated by this wily, self-assured M.F.A. student; tempted by the promise of her phone number, he looks the other way.

Perhaps inspired by the British bad-girl installation artist Tracy Emin, Evelyn—so we soon discover—keeps a video camera trained on her bed, creates her own mini Warhol films, and speaks approvingly of a performance piece that involved the artist finger-painting with her own menstrual blood. (So why wasn’t this disruptive vixen called “Lilith”?) Evelyn is a cartoon menace who not only braids her hair in two charming little horns but also accessorizes her Che Guevara T-shirts with Mao buttons. Affecting a buzz-saw purr and squinchy smile, Weisz is nothing if not mannered, but then her part is all about acting.

Adam may be hopelessly devoted to the irritating Evelyn, but he’s not so blind that he doesn’t wonder what exactly she sees in him. “Why would you like me? I’m not anything,” he wails, much to her annoyance. Actually, Evelyn does make a few helpful sartorial suggestions, encourage a weight-loss regimen, treat her aw-shucks young protégé to a new haircut, and, somewhat incredibly, persuade him to undertake a bit of cosmetic surgery. When asked about the bandage affixed to his nose, Adam coyly attributes it to a tumble down some stairs. And, as The New England Primer opens, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

Fortunately for the viewer, Evelyn and Adam are not entirely alone in the world of Mercy College; Adam has two friends, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) and Phil (Frederick Weller), graduating seniors who when first encountered are planning to stage their wedding underwater. They make for an amusingly awkward foursome, and, on-screen as onstage, glamour gal Mol unexpectedly gives the quartet’s strongest performance—prissy and sweet, masking her uncertainty with a tight, demure smile. (As Weisz says of her own character in a different context, Mol presents the most convincing “illusion of interest and desire.”) The entertaining Weller, broadly playing the film’s Aaron Eckhart role, is a self-satisfied male chauvinist who renders his smugness suspect with his sidelong glances, slow-dawning suspicions, and supercilious delivery.

LaBute adds a few stray background noises to the soundtrack but declines to open up his play—although the golden light and neoclassical edifices of the near empty California campus where the exteriors were shot accentuate the allegory. In its costumes, line readings, and structure, the movie faithfully preserves the stage production—a provocative, if meretricious, evening of theater that ends in a paroxysm of LaButality with a bear swipe to the spectator’s head. It is, however, more difficult to rattle a movie audience—at least with words—and, despite its streamlined presentation, The Shape of Things is not nearly as effective on-screen. Where the play ended with a form of direct address, the movie reaches its climax in a Mercy College auditorium (complete with stained-glass windows). Lurking in the background is a perhaps invented aphorism attributed to the author of Love Is a Many Splendored Thing: “Moralists have no place in an art gallery.” Expelled from Paradise at last.

Although much has been made of his conversion to Mormonism, LaBute seems more fundamentally a Puritan—and not simply in his taste for jeremiad and punitive disdain for sexual pleasure. The Shape of Things is itself shaped by a profound mistrust of art—or rather, a hatred of artifice. But who’s kidding whom? This scenario’s emphasis on objectification and mind control, its exaggerated horror of duplicity and role-playing, do not convincingly critique art-world solipsism. As Evelyn’s agenda folds into LaBute’s, The Shape of Things suggests a more personal issue—a self-devouring contempt for theater itself.


An antidote to (or, perhaps, a necessary appetizer for) LaBute’s neo-Cromwellian moralizing may be found this week at Film Forum, which has chosen to revive the most cloying of cult films, Philippe de Broca’s 1967 King of Hearts.

As World War I ends, the retreating German army abandons a picture-postcard French town but not before booby-trapping the place to blow sky high when British troops arrive. The locals flee and, left to their own devices, a gaggle of cheerful lunatics escape their bin and take over the doomed town—thoroughly confusing the British soldier (Alan Bates) who has been dispatched to defuse the bomb. “Theater is everywhere,” the wisest of the loonies informs him—and so are saccharine bromides. The LaBute Skinner box is here filled with bonbons.

As a movie, King of Hearts is more pageant than story. (To add to the enchantment, de Broca contrives to have circus animals wandering the streets; even the British soldiers are costumed in kilts.) As a cultural artifact, however, the movie is less a relic than a symptom. Set to a lilting score by Georges Delerue that shamelessly pastiches his music for Jules and Jim, King of Hearts managed to conflate a topical anti-militarism with the sentimental glorification of mental illness already percolating through mid-’60s popular culture in the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, movies like Morgan! and A Fine Madness, and even the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha. Indeed, given its notion of schizophrenia as a form of defensive role-playing, King of Hearts is nearly a pop exegesis of R.D. Laing’s anti-psychiatry. These adorable crazies are like children who never tire of play: Pierre Brasseur, the ripest piece of Camembert, impersonates a lunatic impersonating a general; Bates’s love interest is provided by a very pert and pretty Geneviève Bujold, zany enough to imagine herself a virginal hooker. (The importance of her fantasy brothel suggests a diluted version of Jean Genet’s The Balcony.)

This cutie-pie be-in opened in the U.S. during the full flowering of hippiedom in the very Summer of Love (“The arena of the spectacle might just as well be Central Park,” Andrew Sarris wrote in the Voice) and achieved bona fide cult status in the early ’70s, evidently running for five years at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, among other college towns. (In New York, King of Hearts succeeded the wildly successful Pink Flamingos as the Elgin’s midnight attraction in January 1974, lasting a mediocre 14 weeks before being yanked for the redoubtable Freaks.) The movie’s middlebrow destiny may be considered fulfilled by its own transformation into a Broadway musical that ran 48 performances in late 1978.

What’s most striking about King of Hearts today is the cost-free detachment of its specious whimsy: There’s a blithe Hitler joke, several farcical executions, and an exceedingly high body count. “Don’t you think these actors are a bit over-the-top?” one wacko remarks upon watching the British and German armies slaughter each other at close quarters. Not really. The new 35mm print, as customary with Film Forum revivals, is impeccable.


Elsewhere on the Viet-era nostalgia front is the latest D.A. Pennebaker-Chris Hegedus documentary, Only the Strong Survive. This sunny paean to the mainly Memphis- and Chicago-based soul luminaries of the ’60s and ’70s lacks the journalistic hook of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, but there are moments that will induce the susceptible to break into a big foolish grin. Carla Thomas still sounds like her 20-year-old self, Ann Peebles looks ageless, and Wilson Pickett’s personality has scarcely lost its gravelly effervescence. I’d have welcomed more archival footage (Pennebaker did, after all, document Otis Redding’s epochal performance at the Monterey Pop Festival), but that would be asking for another movie.