Most sequels open flabbily and take your attention for granted: The filmmakers figure they’ve already hooked you and have all the time in the world. But the lack of a lean narrative line is an unexpected boon to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, a collection of swashbuckling set pieces with the hustle of a vaudeville show. The movie’s predecessor, Curse of the Black Pearl, started like gangbusters but lost its rudder and went around in circles. Plus, it was half an hour too long (at least). This one is longer yet (two hours and 33 minutes for a pirate picture!) and has no ending (a third installment was shot simultaneously), but has so much going on that you forget about niceties like plot or suspense. Zany cannibals! A giant demonic octopus! Half-man-half-fish pirate phantoms! A three-man duel on a huge rolling wheel! Keira Knightley’s magic inflatable jaw! And, of course, Johnny Depp doing … whatever it is he’s doing. His eyes rimmed like a glam rocker’s, his gait a tipsy tiptoe-through-the-tulips, his Captain Jack Sparrow would win a gonzo-effeminacy contest with Marlon Brando’s Fletcher Christian—which I write with admiration and awe.
In Dead Man’s Chest, this maverick weirdo is dubbed a “dying breed” in an ever-smaller world by a shifty lord who takes his cues from the East India Trading Company—by no means the last instance of a multinational corporation using a country’s military to deliver massive profits to itself. Poor Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) find their nuptials postponed by imprisonment for treason; in exchange for the couple’s freedom, Will must track down Captain Jack and obtain a compass that leads to a buried treasure chest with the heart of Davy Jones (of locker fame)—to whom Jack has sold his soul. Early on, I gave up on following the ins and outs of compasses and keys and sundry other MacGuffins and had fun thinking about confounded studio story execs being forced to hold their tongue in the face of the first film’s phenomenal grosses.
The director, Gore Verbinski, has grown more adept at Spielberg-style action, in which the fun is as much in the elegance of the staging as the stunts. I can’t begin to diagram Jack’s pole-vault with a spear full of tropical fruits and subsequent plunge through a series of rope bridges; and that rolling-wheel battle has so many variables it’s like a great Newtonian physics joke. Dead Man’s Chest has fewer JMW Turner marine vistas and more creepy creatures—fishmen formed out of soil and seaweed and parts of crustaceans and mollusks. Davy Jones himself, the Captain of the Flying Dutchman, turns out to be a malicious, mandibled squid-man, a special effect with the hoary snarl of Bill Nighy (recognizable by his trademark little snort): He’s a blend of your worst nightmare above the decks and below—leagues below.
Orlando Bloom is a study in blandness—but he’s largely a straight man for the rest of the cast, which includes the false-eyeballed Mackenzie Crook and the scurvy Lee Arenberg as former Black Pearl ghost pirates who’ve managed to attach themselves to the good guys like a fungus and Naomie Harris as some kind of voodoo swamp priestess. And Bloom is given luster by the ardor of Knightley, a heroine with gumption whose thrusting jaw takes her out of the insipid-ingenue class. She’s like some kind of fish herself—only worthy of a jeweled tank.
Depp has a riotous entrance that I won’t spoil, but there’s no sense of discovery this time. An actor like this isn’t made for sequels; he has new realms of looniness to conquer.
As he demonstrated most vividly in Under the Sand, the writer-director François Ozon has a thing for ocean beaches and a near-fetishistic identification with aging female beauties. In Time to Leave, his protagonist is a gay man, a thirtysomething Parisian glamour photographer named Romain (Melvil Poupaud) who learns he has inoperable cancer. In another sort of film, the nearness of death would be a handy excuse for affirming his love for his basket case of a sister (Louise-Anne Hippeau), busybody mother (Marie Rivière), reticent father (Daniel Duval), and live-in boyfriend (Christian Sengewald). But Ozon deals in unbridgeable psychological distances, and so Romain kicks out his lover and shares his bad news only with his aging-female-beauty grandmother (Jeanne Moreau), a narcissistic loner like himself—and, of course, the usual Ozon alter ego. The movie is a romance of estrangement—terminal estrangement. Romain ends up happily by himself, on a beach.
From Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, literature abounds in dying protagonists forced to reconcile themselves to their aloneness. But in Time to Leave there’s something distasteful about Ozon’s unexamined solipsism. To fill (partially) the emotional vacuum, he introduces a waitress (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and her sterile husband (Walter Pagano), who are in need of an attractive sperm donor—thereby giving Romain an opportunity (if he wants it) to leave something behind. The device would be laughable if not for the ache on Bruni-Tedeschi’s face.
As with all Ozon’s work, Time to Leave resounds with grace notes. The wide-screen cinematography by Jeanne Lapoirie offsets (or maybe disguises) the movie’s narrow scope, and there’s something private—withholding—in Poupaud’s beauty that gives his misanthropy a touch of mystery: He might be more than just an emotional coward. Most affecting of all are the explicit sex scenes: one hungry, with the threat of violence; one probing, exploratory, transcendent. The way in this film that tortured people dramatize their rage and longing via sex reminds you how much is missing—a world of experience—in the American cinema.
Johnny Depp has said that his inimitable pirate, Jack Sparrow, is probably gay, and is certainly based on two of Depp’s main influences: the wobbly Pepe Le Pew and the wobblier Keith Richards. Depp looked to Richards, he said, because pirates were “the rock stars of their day.” However, being a true rock god, Richards didn’t jump at Disney’s offer to cameo as Depp’s father in the third film (out next summer), reportedly saying, “The idea of working with Disney gives me shivers.” Yet Jerry Bruckheimer recently announced that Richards has warmed to the idea—though he didn’t say if that was because Disney offered him more booty.
Pirates of the Caribbean:
Dead Man’s Chest
Directed by Gore Verbinski. Buena Vista Pictures. PG-13.
Time to Leave
Directed by François Ozon. Strand releasing. Not Rated.