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Who’s Laughing Now?

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And now that I’ve metaphorically cut the remake of Funny Games into little pieces, I picture Haneke laughing, having once again succeeded in shocking the bourgeoisie. That’s the thing about vapid provocateurs. No matter how wretched their work, they think the joke is always on us.

Next to Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas is a harmless little fetishist: He takes very attractive women, thrusts them into situations of peril (physical and psychological), and gets off (implicitly) on their efforts to wriggle their way out. He doesn’t eroticize the violence the way Brian De Palma sometimes does, but he doesn’t cut as deeply as De Palma, either. (It’s fitting that his best-known film in this country, Irma Vep, is a study of a director struggling to make a fetishistic femme-fatale movie.) Assayas’s newest thriller, Boarding Gate, stars Asia Argento at her most Asia Argento–esque—both aggressively carnal and progressively violated. (She’s the daughter of Italian splatter-maestro Dario Argento, but I can’t help thinking there was a mix-up at the hospital and her dad was Klaus Kinski.) The film is largely set in Paris and has two distinct sections. The first is a messy psychodrama in which ex-prostitute Argento does the attraction-repulsion two-step with Michael Madsen as a debt-ridden mogul. Assayas is out of his element here, and the encounters have no snap: It’s like one of those two-character plays in which the frequent pauses are filled with the audience’s coughing spasms. Then there’s a bloody murder, and Argento lams it to Hong Kong, where she finds herself knocked around by Chinese assassins, shadowy high-finance companies, and a jilted wife who drugs her and plops her down in a limo to be whisked away. (At one point, she is nearly shanghaied—to Shanghai!) Boarding Gate was evidently made quickly and cheaply, and parts of it are fun. It’s too bad there’s no real viewer equivalent—that you can’t watch a film quickly and cheaply.

Early on, Christophe Honoré’s Love Songs makes good on its title. After a realistic opening in which some attractive young people mope about their unsatisfactory ménage à trois (it’s two dishy girls getting it on, one Jewish guy unexpectedly left out), the guy (Louis Garrel) and his girlfriend (Ludivine Sagnier) begin to sing to (really, at) each other in an alley. Alex Beaupain’s pop melodies are tuneful, his lyrics pithy, Honoré’s staging and editing perfect—not too choppy, not too static. The walls of realism just float away, then come back with a soft landing. Love Songs loses some fizz when a major character drops dead: The central dilemma disappears, and the bathos doesn’t mesh as well with the movie’s lightness. But the ease with which the songs—and the inner worlds they invoke—arise out of the characters’ emotions is exhilarating. Sagnier’s sister is played by Chiara Mastroianni, whose mother, Catherine Deneuve, was the ravishing center of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Love Songs is more modest, not such a color-coordinated objet d’art. Honoré has proven you can make a movie musical in which style doesn’t upstage content—a movie musical that blossoms from the inside out.

The Christopher Guest improvisational “mockumentary” form is precarious: In a heartbeat the actors can go from too realistic (not funny) to too broad (bye-bye illusion). Zak Penn’s The Grand is a seesaw, but the setting—the high-stakes poker subculture—is remarkably fertile and the actors are a treat. Cheryl Hines has mastered the technique of remaining unaffectedly chirpy in moments of extreme farce, and Ray Romano is a groggy wonder as her husband, who was once struck by lightning and is now a beat behind. Best of all is Chris Parnell, who meets no one’s eyes and holds forth in a singsong monotone—an Asperger’s poster boy even those with the syndrome will find gut-busting.

Funny Games
Directed by Michael Haneke.
Warner Independent. R.

Boarding Gate
Directed by Olivier Assayas.
Magnet. R.

Love Songs
Directed by Christophe Honoré.
IFC Films. NR.

The Grand
Directed by Zak Penn.
Anchor Bay Entertainment. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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