THE WOMEN: Reviews of I Am Love; Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; Cairo Time; The Girl Who Played With Fire

There is something luminous about I Am Love from the opening shot. Much of this may be due to the gorgeous and entrancing cinematography of Yorick Le Saux. Or maybe it’s just the glowing skin of the lead Tilda Swinton that does the trick. Or maybe it’s both, seeing as how Le Saux also photographed Swinton for her earlier film Julia. It could also be the sweeping operatic music of John Adams that dots the action, or the ravishing production design. Whoever is to blame, I Am Love is luminous and enthralling to watch. Why it is so enthralling may be a more difficult question to answer. For the first third very little happens. An upper class Italian family, the Recchis, prepares for a birthday dinner for the patriarchic grandfather who still owns the manufacturing company that provides the family with its fortune. There are no major conflicts, no obvious inciting incidents, no melodramatic twists or turns. It’s just a quiet study of an upper class family living its life. There are some hints of trouble in paradise. The father Edoardo is upset that his son Edo didn’t win a race during a track meet; the grandfather Tancredi announces he is leaving the firm to both his son and grandson, something Edoardo doesn’t think is a wise idea; and Emma Recchi (Swinton) meets Antonio, the man who defeated Edo in the track meet and who hopes to open a restaurant with Edo’s support. By the time the story is over, Edo is dead and Emma leaves Edoardo to be with Antonio. As enthralling and mesmerizing as the film is, there does seem to be something missing here and that is the central cause of this family crumbling. There is some intimation that the foundations are rotting due to Edoardo’s repressiveness. He berates Edoardo over something as petty as losing a track meet; the daughter Elisabetta only tells Emma she is gay for fear of what Edoardo would say; Edoardo betrays Edo by selling the company out from under him (though Edo never really seemed all that interested in the business in the first place); and there seems to be no passion between Emma and Edoardo (though why is never explored). But somehow, in spite of all of this, the director Luca Guadagnino and the writers Guadagnino, Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo and Walter Fasano, emotionally overwhelm us in the way those grand old melodramatists like Visconti and Sirk managed to. At the end, when Emma is rushing about collecting her things to leave, Adams music takes over and sweeps us along, making us scream out “leave”, even though we’re not quite sure why she is acting the way she is. It’s like a flood; there’s no fighting it, so just grab onto a log and go with the current.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is one of the most brutally honest films I have seen about someone in which the person documented fully cooperated. Whatever else you might say about the movie, by the time it is over, you feel like you know Joan Rivers; really, really, really, really know her, warts and all (well, no warts, her cosmetic surgeon wouldn’t allow it, but you know what I mean). There’s one point where Rivers is readying herself (both physically and emotionally) to be roasted, terrified at what they are going to say, telling us and Kathy Griffin that she sure wouldn’t be doing this if she had enough money. What’s striking here is that this whole film is just one whole roast, hold the jokes. Nothing’s off limits here. Her husband’s suicide and her anger at him about it; her being blacklisted by NBC after she left Johnny Carson to do her own show; her desperate need to work (she’ll do anything, anywhere if you’ll just meet her price); her frustration at never being considered a good actress (for those of you who want to know what she might have become, you might check out the movie The Swimmer where she has a refreshing scene with the star Burt Lancaster). It’s all there. Rivers would probably call it a Brazilian bikini wax of a movie. The documentary, directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg and which is the most successful one of the year so far, is riveting. It follows a year in her life where she has trouble getting work (her schedule is full of white spaces); opens a play in the Edinborough fringe and then takes it to London; does Celebrity Apprentice; and keeps up with her stand up. If you look up workaholic in the dictionary, her picture is next to the definition. The year is full of more downs that ups and you can feel her desperation, which, like the rest of her life, she is more than willing to show the audience. She wants to be loved and is not afraid to tell people that. I came away admiring and even liking Joan Rivers, but could I be in the same room with her? At one point, she has to fire her long time manager, Billy, because he keeps disappearing on her. We never find out exactly why, but it’s easy to see that it was probably due to burn out. When I talked to my friend Beriau about this, I told him that if he had left her years earlier, they could probably have stayed friends. Beriau was not so sure. As he said, one doesn’t leave Joan Rivers; how does one leave a whirling, dark vortex that sucks you in? He has a point. Thank God it’s just a movie.

Cairo Time has been compared to Brief Encounter, the staunch English film about two people who meet by chance at a railway station and consider having an affair, but never do. Though they have a point, it’s actually closer to Summertime, the Katherine Hepburn vehicle about a woman who goes to Venice, finds herself totally at a loss, and ends up having an affair with a man she meets. The reason it more closely resembles Summertime is that no matter what else it is, it really is no more than a travelogue disguised as a love story. There’s nothing wrong with that. Such a movie can be done well (like here or Summertime) and done badly (like Three Coins in a Fountain); but there are times when the sights and sounds of Cairo seem to be more important than the character’s journey. Patricia Clarkson steps into the shoes of Kate Hepburn here, playing Julia Grant, a writer who journeys to Cairo to see her husband who works for the U.N. and is overseeing a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Her husband, however, isn’t there to see her because there are complications at the camp. Instead, Julia spends her days drifting through this romantic city of the Pyramids trying to stand the heat and figure out how to spend her time since her reason for being there isn’t there. Into her life comes Tareq Khalifa (Alexander Siddig), a man who once worked with her husband, but has retired and now owns a café with the best coffee in Cairo. He takes it upon himself to show her some of the sights and help her fill up her days. The only sight Julia refuses to see are the pyramids, something she has promised to see with her husband. But as Julia and Tareq drift along, they also drift into becoming emotionally attached, not because Julia’s marriage isn’t working or there isn’t any passion left with her husband—it is and there is—it’s more because both are emotionally adrift and nothing seems to be stopping them. Julia nearly, but doesn’t, sleep with Tareq, but she does finally give in and commit emotional adultery by seeing the pyramids with Tareq. And of course, as in all tales of love affairs, just as they do, the husband returns. Unlike most stories like this, though, the husband never finds out what was going on behind his back. He goes with Julia to the pyramids, but she lies and says she has yet to see them. It’s a lovely story, though the driftiness of the plotline (written and directed by Ruba Nadda) tends to take over somewhere in the middle and the story slows a bit. But Clarkson, perhaps not quite as luminous as Swinton, is luminous enough and the movie overall is touching, if a bit minor.

I went with my friend Jim to see the Girl Who Played With Fire, the sequel to the hit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which I also saw with Jim). I came out thinking there must be something wrong with me because, unlike the rest of my friends and the critics, I liked it much better than the first. In the …Dragon Tattoo, I felt that the story didn’t start for about thirty minutes and that the mystery never made much sense. Here the story begins immediately and, though I have some doubts about the plot hanging together, I felt it worked much better and was more convincing than the first. Noomi Rapace is back as Lisbeth Salander, giving another intense and thrilling performance as “the girl”, a woman with a mild case of Asperger’s, but who is a brilliant computer hacker. She becomes the chief suspect in a triple murder connected to a story about sexual slavery being investigated by a paper who employs Mikael Blomkvist (also back and still played by Michael Nyqvist). There really is no mystery here because it soon becomes clear who really did it. The plot driving the story is Lisbeth and Mikael’s attempts to prove her innocence combined with an extra twist as to who the murderer is and what he has to do with Lisbeth. My friends didn’t like it because they felt there wasn’t enough of an emotional connection when it came to the characters, and they have a point. Lisbeth and Mikael don’t even meet up until the end (when Mikael finds her at a farm, though it’s unclear how he knew where the farm was located, but what’s a mystery without a few glitches between friends). There is something disjointed about it all. At the same time, I didn’t care. The mystery, Rapace’s performance, and a nice supporting job by Micke Spreitz as a man who can feel no pain, carried me all the way, even with the somewhat anticlimactic finale that is more set up for the next movie than it is an ending.

So tell me what you think.

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