War of the Poses

The people of Troy cheer the arrival of the Trojan horse -- a mistake of epic proportions.Photo: Warner Bros.

Except for a few brilliant flashes, mostly from Peter O’Toole as Hector’s father, the Trojans’ magisterially woebegone King Priam, Troy is a fairly routine action picture with an advanced case of grandeuritis. (Its $175 million budget is, however, not routine—not yet, anyway.) The actors model their profiles as if they were going to be stamped on coins. Some are more successful at this than others: Hector, for instance, strikes noble poses even when he’s nestling with wife and child. On the other hand, his brother, Paris (Orlando Bloom), whose seduction-abduction of Helen (Diane Kruger) from her husband, King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), kicks off the festivities, is supposed to be the image of romantic ardor—though most of the time he just looks flummoxed by what he has wrought. He’s a nincompoop for the ages. Helen isn’t much better. The face that launched a thousand ships would be more comfortable launching a new line of cosmetics. Helen’s beauty is the center of the action, yet there is no ominous force in her features, just a bright prettiness. After Paris wimps out in his big public face-off with Menelaus, Helen reassures him that she doesn’t want a hero, just a man she can “grow old with.” Doesn’t she know that dying young is an occupational hazard in his line of work?

Achilles, the world’s greatest warrior, is initially reluctant to lead the attack against Troy under the banner of the perpetually snarling Agamemnon (Brian Cox), king of the Mycenaeans and brother of Menelaus. Achilles detests Agamemnon for using the abduction of Helen as a transparent excuse to extend his empire. But Achilles’s mother, Thetis (Julie Christie in a way-too-brief cameo), prophesizes that if he fights the Trojans, the world will forever remember his name. So that’s that. Achilles is not only the first great hero in Western lit, he’s also the first media whore.

“The actors are forever striking classical poses, trying to memorialize the drama. But you can’t force this kind of thing—either you’re mythic or you’re not.”

Looking gold-dipped and leonine, Brad Pitt has an inchoate surliness. At times, he appears to be doing a Brando, especially when Achilles stands before the gates of Troy and yells,“Hector!” at the top of his lungs. (Presumably, Stella was unavailable.) Still, Pitt isn’t bad in the role, and he (or someone) invented a marvelous leaping motion for Achilles when he moves in for the kill; for a split second, he seems to corkscrew through the air. His character has been cleaned up for the movies, though. For one thing, Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund), his dearest friend in The Iliad, whose death at the hands of Hector incites Achilles’s vengeance, is now his cousin—just in case all that Greek male bonding seemed suspect. Achilles’s elaborate funeral for Patroclus has been cleaned up, too. No human sacrifices here. And Briseis (Rose Byrne), a sexy Trojan priestess, is on hand to bring out Achilles’s softer side—i.e., he doesn’t kill her.

The filmmakers decided to leave out the many gods who populate The Iliad, and it’s probably just as well. It would have been the height of camp to have, say, Sean Connery pop up as Zeus. But without them, the movie needs more than ever an infusion of mythic feeling, and we don’t get it. Homer’s unpitying recitation of war’s awful allure is rendered as a series of confused skirmishes, and the Trojan horse looks like a gigantic wicker objet d’art. Maybe this is why the actors are forever striking classical poses; they’re trying to memorialize the drama. But you can’t force this kind of thing—either you’re mythic or you’re not. This is why the only characters in Troy who appear larger than life are those played by actors who are larger than life. Julie Christie makes you believe, in her scant screen time, that this mother is both fiercely proud of and afraid for her son. And the clouded eyes and fine-drawn El Greco features of Peter O’Toole, along with his peerlessly dolorous line readings, give Priam a great gravity. The horror on his face as he watches his son become carrion is equal to Homer’s finest poetry.

But such imperishable moments are rare. One should not expect Homeric grandeur from Hollywood’s Troy. What about a bit more relish, though? Troy is clearly a bid to capitalize on the success of Gladiator, and, like that film, it often misses the point of why we go to these armor-plated films in the first place. It’s not just the pomp and circumstance of battle that draws us in—it’s also the eye-candy production design and all those wiggy moments involving cuckoo kings. The hissy effrontery of Joaquin Phoenix’s mad-for-eyeliner Commodus in Gladiator was every bit as necessary as Russell Crowe’s he-man waddle. The people who made Troy, however, won’t admit to the kitsch pleasures of the genre. On second thought, it could have used Sean Connery as Zeus.

André Téchiné’s Strayed, set in 1940 during the German occupation of France, conveys with frightening realism what it’s like to be on the run in your own country during wartime. Odile (Emmanuelle Béart), recently widowed, is first shown fleeing Paris with her teenage son (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and 7-year-old daughter (Clémence Meyer). The scenes of German planes bombing roads filled with refugees are grim testimonials to the randomness of death; the shells exploding around her could just as easily have claimed her own family. When Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), an illiterate 17-year-old delinquent with a whippet-thin physique and shaved head, takes the family under his wing, Odile is almost as wary of him as she is of the Germans—his survivalist skills are impeccable, but there’s something feral and fundamentally unsound about him as he scavenges the bodies of fallen Nazis for firearms and breaks into an abandoned home in the lush countryside. (The lushness is a rebuke to the horror going on all around it.) Sequestered momentarily from the war, Odile, her children, and Yvan engage in a kind of play-act domesticity; even though the wolf is at the door, she sets the table for dinner and hangs freshly washed clothes on the line. Téchiné gets deep inside the dread and exhilaration of people who have lost their bearings so suddenly they don’t even have the luxury of grief.

Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, a series of eleven self-contained black-and-white episodes shot over a period of seventeen years, is oddly all of a piece. What unites everything is Jarmusch’s playful, hang-dog absurdism. The first short, which aired in 1986 on Saturday Night Live and stars Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright, is the template for the rest: semi-improvised jabber fueled by caffeine and nicotine. This episode is particularly funny because Benigni is the most wound-up of performers, and Wright the least. Subsequent vignettes are hit-or-miss, but some are wonders: Cate Blanchett playing both herself and her envious “cousin” during some downtime on a press junket; a deadpan Bill Murray moonlighting as a waiter in a greasy spoon with the comically inspired rappers RZA and GZA; and, best of all, a contretemps between the British actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan in an L.A. restaurant. Their graciousness is the flimsiest of camouflages for their careerism. If Oscar Wilde had ever made it to the movie colony, he might have come up with a scene like this one.

War of the Poses