It might have been a hit, but Ron Howard’s movie of Dan Brown’s Catholic-symbolist potboiler The Da Vinci Code stank to heaven: Howard did it for the money and was clearly too dispirited after the flop of Cinderella Man to fake the requisite conviction. (Brown’s dumbed-down Umberto Eco–isms at least had fervor.) For the sequel, Angels & Demons, Howard seems hell-bent on atonement—of a sort. He delivers a shapely, stylish, white-knuckle horror-thriller that hits its marks with blood and thunder. It stinks to heaven, too, but it isn’t lame. The streets of Rome haven’t run this red since the Inquisition.
Tom Hanks is back, slimmer and sans bouffant, as Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist turned breathless sleuth. His vigorous swim interrupted, Langdon learns that Vatican City is under siege. A liberal Pope has mysteriously croaked; four cardinals have been kidnapped, ostensibly by the ancient, pro-science sect “the Illuminati,” and are marked to die at hourly intervals; a tube of antimatter stolen from a Swiss supercollider will vaporize the Vatican at midnight; and—as if all this weren’t enough—a conclave is meeting behind locked doors to elect a new pontiff, and some of the candidates (especially Armin Mueller-Stahl) look awfully shifty. Is Stellan Skarsgård (as the obstructive head of the Swiss Guard) the Illuminati mastermind? Does Ewan McGregor’s lack of inflection as Camerlengo—temporary head of Vatican City—suggest he has something to hide, or is it just his usual lackluster acting? This Church dispenses loaves and red herrings.
To save Catholicism, Hanks’s Langdon and Ayelet Zurer’s comely Italian particle physicist Vittoria Vetra join forces on a furious scavenger hunt from church to square to skull-laden crypt. It was Vetra who isolated the stolen antimatter—the “God particle”—and Langdon is suitably awed: “You’re talking about the moment of creation.” “Yes, in a way, I am.” Their exchanges have a comfy sameness. He explains the meaning of a sign, she restates what he just said, and he says, “Exactly.” Their squealing tires underscored with booming liturgical choirs, the pair habitually arrives just in time (an onscreen clock shows 8:59, 9:59, etc.) for the latest cardinal carnage.
About that carnage: Angels & Demons is rated PG-13 in spite of multiple splattery shootings, brandings, gouged eyeballs, and close-ups of holy men writhing in flames. Of course, there’s no nudity. Also, the Lord’s name is never taken in vain, at least in the sense of George Carlin words-you-can’t-say-on-TV. In fact, God is invoked as the reason for Langdon’s presence: Despite the symbologist’s professed lack of faith, it is Langdon, the academic, who protects the Catholic Church from loony fanatics. There has been a lot of noise about Brown’s supposed anti-Catholicism—talk of boycotts, scholarly denunciations. That’s surprising. With atheists out of the closet and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens anchoring the best-seller lists, Brown’s scriptural cliffhangers put him squarely on the side of the angels. (Even if he were on the side of the demons, at least he believes they exist.) You can understand the conservative ratings board’s reasoning in opening the doors to kids: When a film is so pro-belief, what’s a little arterial spray?
To hell with Angels & Demons, and hats off to Olivier Assayas’s plain yet hauntingly beautiful Summer Hours, a true—albeit nonsecular—meditation on art and eternal life. The first half hour belongs to a time-honored genre, the country-house reunion drama. A 75-year-old widow, Hélène (Edith Scob), welcomes her three children and their families to the estate outside Paris she inherited from her loving (perhaps in both senses) uncle, a famous artist. We can tell she’s dying—death is in the air. The question hovers: What will happen to the house, the Corot paintings, the nineteenth-century glassware, the etched silver, the Viennese armoire? Frédéric (Charles Berling), the eldest sibling, assumes it will all remain in the family so his children and their children can swim, climb trees, and live among the works of art—simply displayed but pervasive in their aura. But businessman Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) plans to relocate to China with his wife and kids and needs money; and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a designer, has little use for France, dividing her time between Japan and New York, where she lives with her boyfriend. Despite Frédéric’s sorrow, there isn’t much to debate. Bring on the appraisers and auctioneers.
The obvious comparison is to Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, with its harsh coming of a new social order and passing of one that’s lovely but essentially useless (or, at least, nonutilitarian). Underneath the mundane exchanges here, great forces are at work—globalization, the disintegration of a culture, and the triumph of economic forces over art. But masterpieces make their own rules, and Summer Hours is spare, glancing, tactile—sui generis. Assayas began his career making movies with gentle tempos but is coming off a slew of extroverted, erotic, sensationalistic dramas and thrillers in which his subjects seemed caught on the fly and his camera fetishized everyone. Those films—rewarding but motley—have freed him. His touch is alert but relaxed, his frames loose yet vivid. Despite the arty milieu, there isn’t a trace of artiness. (I was surprised to see Assayas invoke Wong Kar-Wai in an interview—the film is a world away from an aesthete’s play of light and color.) Summer Days is earthbound for the best of reasons. In the room where her uncle died, Hélène holds up his final sketch, of the window and curtains—holds it up against that window and curtains to show the contrast between life and life transformed and preserved.
I fear I’ve made Summer Hours sound heavy when it’s lighter than air—lighter than The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Berling suggests a man racked by the fear of floating away. (When his teenage daughter is caught with drugs, he knows his family is going, going, gone.) Binoche, the least actressy of great actresses, shows Adrienne’s restiveness by indirection—by never seeming rooted enough to make a scene. Edith Scob was immortalized in the most lyrical of horror films, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, the fragile beauty behind the mask whose skin grafts never took. That face, aged but still lovely, its bone structure intact, carries a whiff of the tomb—that inexplicable awareness of decay in the summeriest of hours.
Visit the Projectionist next week for my review of Kirby Dick’s scathing documentary Outrage, which shows how Republican closet cases pass anti-gay legislation and peddle propaganda—and how much happier they are when they set the record un-straight.