An Engaging Romance

A Manly Disguise: Mira Sorvino in The Triumph of Love.Photo: Neal Peters Collection

Set in an Italian villa that seems to be dipped in honey, The Triumph of Love is a lovely confection about the romance of role-playing. Based on the 1732 Pierre Marivaux comedy, it has a lyrical, playful touch and surprising depths of feeling, too. Clare Peploe, who directed and co-wrote the script with her husband, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Marilyn Goldin, spins the farcical intrigues and gender-bending roundelays with such deft precision that, at times, we appear to be watching a musical performance (minus the musical numbers). Mira Sorvino plays a princess who falls for Agis (Jay Rodan), the exiled rightful heir to her throne, who has been brought up to hate her since boyhood by the rationalist philosopher Hemocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his spinster sister Leontine (Fiona Shaw). Dressed as a male philosophy student and accompanied by her lady-in-waiting posing as a valet (Rachael Stirling), the princess charms her way into the villa and proceeds to enswoon all three of its denizens, though it’s only Agis she wants. The artifice of her disguise is matched by the artifice of her ploys, and the result is a great big mess: She ends up engaged to everybody.

Peploe occasionally intersperses glimpses of modern audiences watching the action, as if they were witnessing an open-air play. It’s a risky gambit that pays off; the confluence of the present day with the distant, perfumed past highlights for us the persistence of erotic gamesmanship and helps take some of the starch out of the proceedings. Peploe is interested in how theatrical she can make a movie and yet still have it seem supremely movie-ish. Her camera is always in motion, as if it were gliding to the rhythms of the characters’ ardor. The editing is often startlingly inventive, full of tricky syncopations, and the colors might have been blended by Fragonard. With the exception of Sorvino, who seems a bit bland for such a conniving love machine, the actors are robust, and a few of their costumes are as witty as anything Bob Mackie cooked up for the old Carol Burnett Show.

In a way, Hemocrates is as much of a poseur as the princess; with his heavy rouge and black wig, he fancies himself a brainiac without a single romantic sinew in his body, and yet his capitulation to the princess (he sees at once through her male disguise) is his undoing. Kingsley is never so comic as when all that frightening, tight-wound energy of his turns to mush. Fiona Shaw matches his meltdown: She’s an icicle who deliquesces into a pool of lavender. Everyone in the movie awakens to what they have denied themselves – true love – and it makes them blissfully daffy. The Marivaux play comes out of an era in which reason and romance were regarded as strict opposites, and the great balm of the show is that, by the end, mind and heart are ecstatically united. The movie expresses the code of the true romantic: In order to understand life, one must have experienced love.

Seeing The Last Waltz again after many years is like revisiting an old passion and realizing the heat is still there. Filming in 35-mm. with seven cameras, Martin Scorsese shot this documentary of the final concert of the Band on Thanksgiving Day of 1976 in the Winterland Theater in San Francisco. Later, he staged a few extra numbers on an MGM soundstage, interviewed the Band offstage, and then took nearly two years to edit all the footage. The result, digitally remixed for its rerelease, is surely the greatest concert film ever made. (Its closest rival: Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads movie, Stop Making Sense.) It’s also unmistakably a Scorsese film: The members of the Band – Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson – have a jagged moodiness off-camera; they’re like blood brothers to the brood in Mean Streets. Danko even looks a lot like De Niro’s Johnny Boy. The movie is a gang rumble of great music, not only from the Band by itself but also, in collaboration, with the likes of Van Morrison, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, the Staples Singers, and Joni Mitchell. Scorsese brings us very close to these performers, who seem to be in a state of rapt self-immolation. No other concert film has ever expressed so fervently the erotic root of rock. Seeing it is the opposite of taking a trip down memory lane; it’s more like a plunge into the belly of the beast.

Changing Lanes is more entertaining than it has a right to be. It’s pulpy and preposterous, and yet it gets at a real truth: New Yorkers are always thisclose to killing each other over the slightest offense. Ben Affleck plays Gavin Banek, a hotshot Wall Street lawyer who collides on the FDR with Samuel L. Jackson’s Doyle Gipson, who is racing to a family-court hearing. Instead of exchanging insurance information, Banek, late for a probate case, proffers a blank check and then scrams when his offer is rejected, mistakenly leaving in Gipson’s possession a valuable piece of court evidence. The situation escalates when Banek attempts to get the evidence back and Gipson, whose own court day has also been a disaster, initiates an escalating, all-out game of shot-for-shot that has both men crazed with vengeance.

Director Roger Michell, working from a script by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin, would like us to believe we are watching some sort of morality play about the wages of sin, and there’s much speechifying about how corrupt we all are and what a mockery of the law the legal profession is; meantime, the movie is milking that corruption for all it’s worth while conveniently sidestepping the racial divisiveness at its core. Still, there’s a perverse pleasure in seeing these two time bombs touch off each other’s fuses. The late Chuck Jones might have appreciated the shenanigans, although he would have had the good sense to nix the message-mongering. In fact, the whole thing might have worked better as an animated feature, especially since Affleck and Jackson often seem like cartoons anyway. Changing Lanes is a bit like a Road Runner cartoon minus the Road Runner: Just two Wile E. Coyotes dusting each other up.

The Triumph of Love
Directed by Clare Peploe; starring Ben Kingsley, Mira Sorvino.
The Last Waltz
Directed by Martin Scorsese; starring the Band.

Click here to read Mark Jacobson’s article on The Last Waltz

An Engaging Romance