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SERIOUS PLEASURES: SEASON’S SWEET SPOTS

By STEPHEN HOLDEN
The New York Times, 8//22/08

 

As “The Dark Knight” starts to relax its grip on the summer box office, consider the roughly 100-to-1 ratio between its grosses and those of the art-film hit of the summer, the French thriller “Tell No One.” Directed by Guillaume Canet, from Harlan Coben’s best-selling novel, it may not be high art, but to my mind it is the best mystery in the Hitchcock tradition since “North by Northwest.” If its popularity is minuscule by Batman standards, “Tell No One” has found the elusive sweet spot where intelligent storytelling, superior filmmaking and escapist entertainment fuse into something resembling a classic.Lately Hollywood appears to have realized that if its blockbusters were a little more like “Tell No One,” they would make even more money and earn more respect. And so “The Dark Knight,” in the hands of an adventurous director (Christopher Nolan), addresses a collective awareness of a chaotic world and its nihilistic antihero (Heath Ledger’s Joker) suggests a scary incarnation of any number of modern despots.


If “Wall-E,” created by the geniuses at Pixar, is a cute love story about two lonely robots, it is also a futuristic satire of the planet trashed by rampant consumerism and a populace drugged by material comforts. The bumbling superheroics in “Hancock” suggest a comic fable about the unreliability of technology. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is a witty, psychologically complex superhero.


But if these movies are enriched by their darker undercurrents, that darkness is discreetly sandwiched into the action and special effects. Distraction is still their primary goal.


The situation is still reversed in the summer’s art films, several of which portray an unjust world in which ordinary people are at the mercy of the rich and powerful. The lives of the characters in “Tell No One,” “Frozen River,” “Days and Clouds” and “A Girl Cut in Two” are endangered by forces beyond their control. A fundamental question facing serious filmmakers who want their movies to be seen is how unvarnished the reality contemplated by their films can be before audiences become alienated.


Below is a checklist of 10 of the best art films in theaters this summer, listed in descending order of personal preference. “The Edge of Heaven” and “Trumbo” have ended their runs in New York; the others are all playing somewhere in the city. If they are not playing in a theater near you, make a note to put them on your rental queue.


THE EDGE OF HEAVEN Six disparate characters collide in this intensely moving cross-cultural drama by the German-born Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin. They include a boorish Turkish widower living in Germany; a prostitute he shelters in exchange for conjugal favors; his son, a mild-mannered, well-educated professor of German; the prostitute’s daughter, a fearless political activist; the young German woman she falls in love with; and her lover’s strait-laced mother, a former hippie. As these complicated people traverse geographic and cultural boundaries (two go to jail), Mr. Akin portrays them with compassion and understanding. Hanna Schygulla, Fassbinder’s muse, gives a quietly magnificent performance as the lover’s mother. (On DVD Oct. 14.)


TELL NO ONE This French thriller has everything you would want in a 21st-century version of a Hitchcock mystery: a kindhearted pediatrician who finds himself on the run, a curvaceous murder victim who may not be dead, an extended chase through Parisian thoroughfares, “Marnie”-worthy horsemanship, the scariest female villain since Lotte Lenya in “From Russia With Love” and a plot as complex as that of “The Big Sleep” but whose pieces actually fit. Jeff Buckley’s heartrending version of “Lilac Wine” on the soundtrack gives the film a wrenching emotional tug. (On DVD Nov. 25.)


FROZEN RIVER Courtney Hunt’s somber film, set in upstate New York near the Canadian border at Christmastime, evokes a perfect storm of present-day woes: illegal immigration, ethnic tension, depressed real estate, high gas prices and grinding poverty. Here is where a financially strapped mother (Melissa Leo) teams up with a Mohawk Indian woman from a nearby reservation to earn money smuggling illegal aliens across the frozen St. Lawrence River. Ms. Leo’s awards-worthy performance is an unsentimental depiction of one woman’s flinty courage.


THE LAST MISTRESS The French feminist director Catherine Breillat’s erotic costume drama, adapted from Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly’s novel “Une Vieille Maîtresse” and set in 1830s Paris, examines the consuming 10-year affair of a sloe-eyed dandy (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) and a hot-blooded Spanish-Italian courtesan and ultimate femme fatale (Asia Argento). The study of unbridled sexual combat between two willful sensualists paints the lovers as 19th-century forerunners of what you imagine the relationship of the young Mick and Bianca Jagger to have been.


A GIRL CUT IN TWO The French master Claude Chabrol’s newest film, loosely inspired by the 1906 murder of the New York architect Stanford White, is an icy examination of class divisions, ruthless sexual gamesmanship and crushing social machinery. Its putative heroine (Ludivine Sagnier) is an attractive television weather girl who finds herself the object of a power struggle between a married, womanizing author who is decades older (François Berléand) and a spoiled multimillionaire playboy (Benoît Magimel) who wants her as his trophy. When the fight turns nasty, she becomes the victim.


VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA Woody Allen’s finest movie in many years is a warm-blooded homage to François Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” set in the happy European city of Barcelona. This film’s smoldering answer to Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine is Penélope Cruz’s Maria Elena, a bohemian spitfire whose tempestuous relationship with her ex-husband and fellow-artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) is a combustible clash of egos and libidos. When two American tourists, the strait-laced Vicki (Rebecca Hall) and the adventurous Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), become entangled with Juan Antonio, the movie gives off heat. The biggest drawback is the pompous male narrator.


TRUMBO Peter Askin’s stirring biography of the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo makes you long for a return of the kind of grand epistolary eloquence that has all but vanished in the age of e-mail. The documentary, adapted from Christopher Trumbo’s 2003 play about his father, features excerpts from Dalton Trumbo’s letters collected in the 1999 book “Additional Dialogue.” The readings by a battery of distinguished actors elevate the musings into forceful, sometimes witty quasi-Shakespearean soliloquies on justice, sex and Hollywood. News clips from half a century ago showing the Congressional hearings at which left-wing writers were rudely interrogated recount the chilling history of the blacklist.


MAN ON WIRE On Aug. 7, 1974, the French aerialist Philippe Petit spent 45 minutes walking, dancing and languishing 1,350 feet above the ground on a 200-foot cable strung between the World Trade Center’s twin towers. With interviews and re-enactments, James Marsh’s documentary portrays the elaborate preparations for the feat as machinations in a real-life heist movie. Their secrecy also eerily recalls the terrorist plans behind the 9/11 attack, although the movie includes no references to it. (On DVD Dec. 9.)


DAYS AND CLOUDS It is happening everywhere. A middle-aged businessman in Genoa is abruptly fired from his high-paying job in the company he helped found 20 years earlier and struggles to regain his footing. This Italian film, directed by Silvio Soldini, is a hardheaded examination of the relationship between income, self-esteem and the network of relationships, including marriage, that are suddenly imperiled when the economic rug is pulled out. (On DVD Jan. 6.)


ELEGY Ben Kingsley, playing Philip Roth’s sex-crazed alter ego David Kepesh from the novel “The Dying Animal,” gives an ominous portrait of an intellectual celebrity as a selfish, entitled rat. As he manipulates the affections of a student he seduces (a miscast Penélope Cruz) and his longtime lover (Patricia Clarkson), he emerges as a self-pitying 60-something narcissist obsessed with his diminishing virility. Less comically pathetic than in the novel, Kepesh as played by Mr. Kingsley is the morally repulsive embodiment of masculine privilege.