F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Dracula movie, Nosferatu, is one of the most unsettling movies ever made – maybe the most. The actor who plays its vampire, Max Schreck, was given a look – bat-shape ears, tapered fangs, and spidery fingers – that has served as something of a template for all who have followed in his hurried, silent footsteps. (The ghastliest homage was Klaus Kinski’s in Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu.) Not much is known about Schreck; his surname, which means “terror” in German, was apparently made up. The conceit of Shadow of the Vampire, which stars John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck, is that Schreck, as is known only to Murnau, is a real vampire, enlisted by his director to provide maximum frights. The actor’s payoff: the blood of his co-star (Catherine McCormack, whose alabaster neck beckons throughout the movie). It’s a marvelous, resonant joke that never quite succeeds: Stretches of the film resemble a Dario Argento horrorfest crossed with a Mel Brooks spoof. But the director, E. Elias Merhige, and his screenwriter, Steven Katz, occasionally bring some rapture to the creepiness, and Dafoe’s vampire, with his graceful, ritualistic death lunges, is a sinewy, skull-and-crossbones horror who seems to come less out of the German Expressionist tradition than from Kabuki. He’s also – sickest joke of all – the ultimate Method actor.
Most movies take a while to slip you into a stupor. All the Pretty Horses makes you groggy right away. Set in 1949, it’s a lackadaisical series of vignettes apparently culled from a much longer movie that never made it to the screen. Be thankful for that. Perhaps it should not be held against Billy Bob Thornton, who directed from a script by Ted Tally, that the film never approximates the fragranced, laconic tone of the Cormac McCarthy novel on which it’s based. Such an achievement is likely beyond the reach of any filmmaker, and probably should remain that way: Westerns, after all, are generally best when they’re not so highfalutin. But small-scale does not have to mean, as it does here, small-time. The film works only fitfully as a coming-of-age ramble, starring Matt Damon as John Grady Cole, who rides out from Texas to Mexico with his buddy Lacey (Henry Thomas) and keeps getting hit upside the head with life lessons. Like the mustangs he breaks while working on a sprawling Mexican ranch, Cole yearns to run wild. (Mustangs haven’t been saddled with this much metaphor in the movies since The Misfits.) As embodied by Penélope Cruz, the daughter of the wealthy ranch owner is the most prized of animals in Cole’s line of sight, but her shared passion for him, which is supposed to be torrid, is tepid. We keep seeing what was intended in this film: the contrasts between untamed wilderness and civilization, the elegiac valedictory to the passing of the West, the crucibles of courage that make you a better man, and so on. None of it sinks in, because the landscapes have not been chosen with a painter’s eye – they’re rather blurry and ill-framed – and because the performances are far from grand. (There is one remarkable piece of acting, from Lucas Black as a troublesome, crack-voiced runaway.) To make a movie eulogizing the past, and its passing, it would be helpful to have a stronger sense of the present. All the Pretty Horses seems to be taking place in a hazy, remembered movieland of the mind.
Reinaldo Arenas, the dissident Cuban writer who died of aids in exile in New York in 1990 at the age of 47, is portrayed in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls by the Spanish actor Javier Bardem in a performance that never, thankfully, locks into any single mode. Emotionally, it’s all over the place, and so, deliberately, is the movie: Scenes of camp frippery alternate in a blink with ravishingly lush evocations of nature and sequences that are almost giddy with a sense of dread. Bardem has a heroic presence that allows him to express a crazy quilt of emotional colorations and still seem whole, but he doesn’t give a great-man performance. Arenas – whose autobiographical memoir Before Night Falls, along with other writings and poems, forms the basis for much of the movie – can be regarded as a suffering martyr under the Castro regime; but Arenas, in the film, is too randy and freewheeling, too much in love with the sensual possibilities in life, to ever be regarded as a sacrificial icon. As a young man, he believed in the Cuban revolution, but as an artist and homosexual, he soon found himself cast out, imprisoned. Arenas has a cheeky, fractured sense of the world; he knows he is not wanted in Castro’s Cuba, he knows the revolution was not meant for him, and yet he cannot suffer silently. His taunting is a provocation; he writes, he tells a friend at one point, for revenge.
Still, it would be a mistake to characterize the Arenas of this film as a freedom fighter; his agenda, such as it is, is essentially amoral – he writes to stir his own juices. Bardem doesn’t sentimentalize Arenas’s anguish, which is often as lush as his elation. When the writer, leaving Cuba in the Mariel Harbor boatlift, makes it to New York, his life is not renewed by happiness. Although Schnabel, working from a screenplay by himself and Cunningham O’Keefe and Lázaro Gómez Carriles, is severely critical of Castro, it’s also clear that Arenas’s unsettled soul is not utterly dependent for its welfare on any one system, communist or capitalist. Ultimately, the movie is not really about an artist deranged by the politics of his homeland. It’s about an artist deranged, and rejuvenated, by his own temperament.
The Korean director im Kwon-Taek has made more than 90 films since his first in 1962, and perhaps this explains why his latest, Chunhyang, seems so effortless and masterly. Based on a highly popular eighteenth-century Korean folktale, it’s a movie that, stylistically, mixes the traditional with the avant-garde; the narrative may be ritualistic, but there’s a let’s-try-it-on-for-size friskiness to the filmmaking. For Western audiences, and perhaps also for Korean audiences, the spiritedness of Im’s approach is most welcome; it means, mercifully, that we are not witness to an embalming. Even the pansori theatrical tradition that frames the action has a contemporaneous, rap-gospel feel: A singer performing onstage before a modern audience recounts the story we are watching, utilizing a full range of octaves from growling wails to screeching falsettos, backed by the thwacking accompaniment of heavy drums. The effect is sometimes a bit like a Korean hybrid of Dr. Dre, Louis Prima, and Al Green, and the performer’s in-house audience goes in for some call-and-response encouragement that seems to bring out in him a puckish, preening improvisation. The contrast between this impassioned whooping and the formalistic fable being played out before our eyes is quite heady. It represents a new tone in movies, or at least one that, perhaps because it is distinctively Korean, is new to most American audiences. (Although Korea has a longstanding and lively film culture, few of its films have been exported here for commercial release.)
Giving the film much of its immediacy is its radiant heroine Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung), the daughter of a courtesan and no pushover. Married on the sly to the well-to-do, delicately handsome Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), a governor’s son, she asserts her rights to independence when her husband leaves her to study in Seoul, promising to return. When a savage new governor is appointed to the province where Chunhyang lives, he orders her to pleasure him, and her adamant refusal is her death sentence. What follows is something of a slow-motion cliff-hanger, and even though the eventual rescue operation has a heartiness that would not be out of place in a traditional Hollywood Western, there is also an undercurrent of tragedy. Who knows what will happen after this story? is the message we are left with at the end, and it recasts in shadow all that came before. The supernal beauty of Chunhyang and Mongryong is like something out of a magical picture book. Their allure is too fragile to survive the world’s harshness, and maybe this is why the pansori singer is so jubilantly raucous. He wants to protect these lovers by shouting down the demons.
In brief: Vatel, set in 1671 during a visit of King Louis XIV to a prince’s country estate, looks as if it was made to win Oscars, though doubtless it won’t cop many; it’s too turgid with its own upholstered pomp. But Gérard Depardieu, as the prince’s steward Vatel, is better than I’ve ever seen him in an English-language film: Readying the endless procession of royal ceremonies, dipping his worrying fingers into sauces, he is most convincingly a man for whom the spoils of life were created.
Shadow of the Vampire
Directed by E. Elias Merhige; screenplay by Steven Katz; starring John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, and Catherine McCormack.
All the Pretty Horses
Directed by Billy Bob Thornton; screenplay by Ted Tally; starring Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, and Penélope Cruz.
Before Night Falls
Directed by Julian Schnabel; starring Javier Bardem.
Directed by Im Kwon-Taek; starring Lee Hyo Jungh and Cho Seung Woo.
Starring Gérard Depardieu.