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Blossoms on Steel

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The last Zwigoff-Clowes collaboration, Ghost World, had the same life-sucks-and-then-you-die perspective, but the director’s frames were wittily deadpan, and he got a lot of mileage out of Thora Birch’s and Scarlett Johansson’s glum demeanors and lingering traces of baby fat. But there’s nothing to be made of the increasingly rancid protagonist Jerome Platz (the black-browed Max Minghella), who’s bullied in grade school and largely ignored in art school. He fixates on the tragic cast of a beautiful artist’s model (Sophia Myles), but when he loses her to a studly artist who becomes all the rage in this shallow, vapid, even ghostlier world of art poseurs, Jerome’s misanthropy eats him up.

I’ve always been haunted by the end of Clowes’s story “Like a Weed, Joe,” in which his alter ego, Rodger Young, announces, “I went to a new school where I struggled to be thought of as someone who housed a vital and complicated inner world.” There’s more insight in that confession than in all of Art School Confidential, a curdled mess of self- and other-loathing.

Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a 154-minute one-joke movie, but since the joke concerns the end of a person’s life, it has a momentousness you can’t shake off. The obvious comparison is to Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich, but the protagonist here is even less distinctive—as a camera subject, poor, grizzled Mr. Lazarescu with his headache and swollen liver is almost completely closed off. He wets and soils himself, and still the other characters—neighbors, nurses, and doctors—lecture him about his drinking before turning their attention to matters like borrowed drills or horoscopes. Although a lone emergency medical technician takes her part in this indifferent universe, she’s helpless to hold anyone’s attention for long. It’s almost a blessing when Mr. Lazarescu slips into dementia. Of course, that means he’s unable to sign a consent form to be operated on. This Romanian movie defies categorization—it’s halfway between a black comedy and a Fred Wiseman documentary. And it haunts you like the ghost of any dead person you’ve ever ignored.

The Promise
Directed by Chen Kaige. Warner Independent Pictures. PG-13.

Art School Confidential
Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Sony Pictures Classics. R.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Directed by Cristi Puiu. Tartan Films. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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