TRISTANA (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
Spain: Luis Buñuel, 1970 (Cohen Media Group)
The most beautiful actress alive matched with the most enduringly and brilliantly rebellious filmmaker: That was the incendiary matchimg of star Catherine Deneuve and director Luis Buñuel—who were most famous for their 1967 erotic drama Belle de Jour. In that great film, Deneuve—so lovely and so classically, radiantly, sexily blonde that she took up residence in your dreams forever—played Severine, the icy, ravishing French wife, who becomes a whore during the day in a picturesque bordello, to escape her boring bourgeois life and her handsome but boring husband (Jean Sorel)—and falls into a world of crime, hypocrisy and dreamlike perversity and peril.
But they made another. In fact, the movie collaboration between them that Buñuel preferred—and one of the most personal films of his entire career—was Tristana (1970). Shot in Spain, based on a novella by Benito Perez Galdos (adapted by Buñuel and Julio Alejandro), this not underrated but definitely underseen films starred Deneuve in a role just as arousing and disturbing as Severine: Tristana, the young orphan seduced and exploited and virtually imprisoned by her guardian Don Lope (Fernando Rey). Don Lope, worldly and egocentric, is an aristocrat (eventually a wealthy one) of radical political beliefs, whose desire for his ward undermines his more liberal ethics—even as Tristana, a seeming victim, turns exploiter herself and exacts a terrible revenge.
Tristana is a masterpiece, but it’s also a grimmer, sadder, more psychologically wounding film than Belle de Jour, which was regarded as a great art film turn-on of the 1960s, during the somewhat frenzied romps of Sexual Revolution. But, if audiences thrilled to the whorehouse fear, desire and wayward beauty of Belle de Jour, what were they to make of Tristana, in which the most memorable erotic encounter occurs when a one-legged woman exposes herself to the lustful deaf-mute son of her guardian-husband’s houseservant? Buñuel, notorious for his audacity, has directed some of the cruelest scenes in all of the cinema, in films like Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or, Los Olvidados, El and Viridiana—but he never filmed a crueler scene than Tristana on the balcony: a coolly shocking sequence that delighted no less an epicure of sadism, than Alfred Hitchcock.
Deneuve’s heart-stopping beauty as Tristana makes her plight more affecting, her fall more painful, her desire for revenge more explicable. Buñuel alters Galdos’ novel, changing the setting from the more populous city of Madrid to the more aesthetic Toledo—and the time from the 1890s to the 1930s. He puts the action on the almost-eve of the Spanish Civil War, obviously to intensify the story’s political themes. Don Lope, the showy radical, would back the anti-clerical republic over the Fascist forces of Buñuel’s old nemesis Franco. The Toledo equivalent of a limousine liberal, Don Lope likes to sit in clubs and sip wine and gab about ideology and events with fellow intellectuals, with a complacency that echoes that of the bourgeoisie whom he despises.
Tristana, whose life becomes a series of disillusionments and hurts, endures blow after blow, then begins to deal them back. Her romance with the handsome artist, Horacio (Franco Nero, the good-looking guy who played both Lancelot and Django) is blighted and destroyed. She may not profess or seek or espouse a revolution. But here, in this story and in this private world with Don Lope, she is Revolution. Buñuel was an old radical himself, and an old surrealist, and he knew that the establishment could be (was) wicked and that art could wound and beauty could kill. I love Belle de Jour but Tristana chills to the bone. Hitchcock was right about that balcony scene. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)
Extras (an unusually excellent package): Commentary with Catherine Deneuve and Kent Jones; Alternate ending; Visual essay by Peter William Evans; Two trailers; Extra English-dubbed track for the film; Booklet with essay by Cineaste editor Richard Porton; Excerpts from Catherine Deneuve’s diary on the making of the film, and excerpt from critic Raymond Durgnat’s 1977 book “Luis Buñuel.”
MAMMA MIA! THE MOVIE (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S./U.K.; Phyllida Lloyd, 2008 (Universal)
I wasn’t an ABBA fan in their 1974-82 heyday, when they were one of the world’s biggest pop groups, though as someone with two Swedish-American grandparents, I might have had a little national pride for their hit-making prowess—as I do for Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman and Victor Sjöström and even, at times Bjorn Borg. But they sound good now. (Abba, that is.) Mamma Mia! is a movie musical composed of their original song hits—all originally written by Abba members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (and non-member Stig Anderson) and sung at the time by those two, accompanied by their ABBA-dabba then-wives, Agneta Feltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. And the movie makes ideal use of those easy-going, irresistible tunes and ultra-lite English language words.
The ultra-catchy songs that result are strung around a fragile, amusingly absurd story about a wedding on a Greek island, involving Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), the gorgeous daughter of independent single woman and island resort owner Donna (Meryl Streep). Unbeknownst to her mother, the young bride invites all three of the men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård) who were Donna’s lovers and may be Sophie’ father. (Neither mom nor any of her dads really know. Hey, it was the 1960s.) Three is the magic number here: Mom has two friends (Christine Baranski and Julie Walters) and so does Sophie—and all of them, and the three guys, get heavily involved in the musical action. “Mamma Mia has a powerhouse cast, though not necessarily for a musical.
There’s something cozily delightful about the way the ABBA songs summon up all the corny, cockeyed romanticism that the story kiddingly whips up. The result, full of sunlight, rhythm, dancing and torch songs, campily directed by Phyllida Lloyd, didn’t remind me that much of one of the old MGM classics—with their wit and finesse. But it did recall some 20th Century Fox shows, with their garish high spirits and occasional nuttiness. Carmen Miranda, Betty Grable and Don Ameche wouldn’t have been out of place here—and neither are Streep, Brosnan, Skarsgård, Baranski and the others here. When these “legitimate” actors start selling these songs, it’s entertaining in a loony way that plants an almost constant silly smile on your face. Streep, who sang well in Robert Altman’s swan song, Prairie Home Companion, “is really game, and she shamelessly belts out her songs (like “The Winner Takes it All”)—while Brosnan, shamelessly croons away elsewhere.
There’s also a fantastic bit under the end credits when Streep, Waters and Baranski in clingy sequined suits, belt out “Dancing Queen.” At the end, Streep steps up and asks us if we want more. My audience did—and the trio obliged them, joined by Brosnan and the guys in disco garb, for a roaring rendition of “Waterloo.“ Talk about magic moments. ABBA may have been pop in a world that the tonier rock critics tended to define as punk. But punk never made you feel this good.
TRANCE (Three Stars)
U.K.: Danny Boyle, 2013
Trance, a new erotic thriller from Danny Boyle, is a fast and fancy dance over a whirling floor of crime, suspense and sex. It begins with the theft of a world-famous painting (Francisco Goya’s spooky “Witches in the Air”), swiped from a London auction in mid-sale, and it continues through all kinds of stylish neo-noir alleys and crannies full of bloody gangsterism and Inception-like psychological mystery, until the whole show finally ends with an unraveling that twists and turns and radically changes a lot of what went before.
It’s an exciting movie, and mostly unpredictable. But it’s not completely comprehensible, even when it’s all over, and Boyle and his screenwriters have sprung their last wowser. In any case, you don’t want to talk too much about what happens in Trance to people who haven’t seen it, because it‘s got surprises that may genuinely surprise.
What seems to be happening at first is the complex, meticulously planned and daring theft of that painting, complete with smoke bombs and switcheroos, in the middle of a posh, exclusive London auction, by a brutal but stylish gang led by the fashionable Frank (Vincent Cassel). One of the auction house’s junior employees, Simon (James McEvoy) tries to save the painting by encasing it and running off with it. (Or does he?). But he bumps into Frank and gets cracked on the head, and Frank gets the Goya package. (Or does he?) Soon we discover—and it’s not too much to reveal this, since it’s a key point early on—that Simon is part of the plot, and that the painting has disappeared, and that, apparently because of that head-crack, Simon hasn’t the foggiest clue where it is. How to crack open his head, or memory, again? Well, Frank hires a luscious and oh-so-smart American hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), to unlock the priceless secret in Simon‘s mind, which she starts confidently to do. (Or does she?)
Trance is the kind of movie that manages to be compelling even when it’s confusing; I defy you not to scratch your head a little when the climaxes start climaxing. But it’s a smart show. Boyle is rejoined here on the script by his first feature screenwriter John Hodge (of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting), along with Joe Ahearne, who wrote (and directed) the TV film, also called Trance, on which this picture is based. As in Shallow Grave, there’s a touch of meanness about the movie, along with a high style theatrical edge and a rollercoaster speed and frantic plunge and roll that can discombobulate and even alienate you, even if you still enjoy the ride. The actors are all razor-sharp and noir-ishly off-color—including the hypnotic Dawson, the cracked-open McAvoy, and all the heavies (Danny Sapani as Nate, Wahab Shiekh as Riz, and Matt Cross as Dominic), and especially Cassel.
Cassel, who here has the kind of weathered grace the older Bogart or Widmark had—made his movie star debut in 1995, as the French banlieue juvenile delinquent Vinz (the guy with the gun) in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine. Since then he has specialized a lot in neo-noir, and he brings the part a casual criminal authority, without having to push too hard. McAvoy, on the other hand, makes a more ambiguous character of Simon, a seeming innocent with an evil side. His boyishness is seductive; his weakness is deliberately off-putting. I hate the idea of great works of art being handled like this (razored and ripped from their frames and raced around in the chaos of the robbery, and then lost). But the whole film is so artificial—like a mix of Spellbound and The Thomas Crown Affair—that you can’t take it too seriously. The film, shot by Boyle‘s usual camera-mate Anthony Dod Mantle, is full of glowing colors and helter-skelter action and pungent villains and sumptuous sights—the most scrumptious of which is definitely the beautiful and brainy Ms. Dawson.
Trance isn’t one of Danny Boyle’s best films, but then again, he doesn’t make many bad or uninteresting ones. The movie recycles one of his favorite themes—sudden wealth and its consequences—in interesting new ways. And Boyle keeps it popping, even when the confusion outpaces the compulsion. The plot has its ragged moments, but it’s also satisfying to see a contemporary thriller that isn‘t monosyllabic, vicious and monotonously violent—at least not all the time. By the way, in case you’re worried, the Goya painting, “Witches in the Air” is still safely ensconced in its home in Spain’s Prado Museum. If you’re ever in Spain, you can see it still in fine shape, without smoke bombs.