Six years ago, I reviewed a silly, frilly, very southern play, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress
, by one Alan Ball, who subsequently became a producer of television's Cybill
, among other unremarkable achievements. Now he has written a supposedly highly original screenplay, the cinematic debut of the noted British stage director Sam Mendes, entitled with portentous vagueness American Beauty
. It has been hyped as well as reviewed ecstatically as the most important American film of the fall, the year, the ages.
It stars the gifted and currently most prestigious actor Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham, a reporter who lives in a typical American suburb (aerial view, of course) and, as narrator, informs us that he is already dead (shades of Sunset Boulevard). But this was the year, he says, he started to live. His wife is Carolyn (Annette Bening), a hard-edged, somewhat fading fashion plate and not very successful realtor. They have a sullen teenage daughter, Jane, who, in a pre-title sequence, bemoans her "horny geek boy" dad, and seems to mean it when she asks her boyfriend to off him.
The film allegedly pushes the envelope. This consists of the following items. 1) Carolyn wakes up at night to find Lester masturbating next to her, unrepentantly. 2) Lester falls madly in love with Angela, Jane's classmate and chum, a very blonde and extremely promiscuous brat ready to have an affair with him as soon as he builds up his physique. 3) Recording Lester's feverish workouts is Ricky, an 18-year-old neighboring voyeur with a video camera, surreptitiously shooting him, and more often Jane, through their windows. 4) Ricky's father, the despotic ex-Marine Colonel Fitts, with a pitifully repressed wife, spies on his son's every step and frequently mauls him. Even so, he is unaware that his son's affluence stems not from working for a caterer, but from pushing hard drugs, which the boy also consumes. 5) Frigid Carolyn, who won't have sex with Lester, has a liberating affair with her envied and admired "King of Realtors," pretty boy Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher).
All right, I'll throw in 6) Colonel Fitts, who wrongly suspects Ricky's friendship with Lester to be sexual, reveals something previously hidden when he suddenly kisses Lester passionately on the mouth. Clearly the film should be called Suburbia Confidential, not American Beauty. Of course, the reference may be to the carpet of red rose petals amid which Lester keeps fantasizing the naked Angela. And now for my final plot revelation, 7) Lester, sick of his bourgeois existence, throws away his job to become a counterman at a hamburger joint. The only reason I withhold 8) whether Lester actually beds Angela or not is that the film turns opaque at this point. It happens (or doesn't) on what may or may not be the very couch where Carolyn refused herself to him, lest he spill his beer on the expensive fabric. Add to this the ever so groundbreaking feature of baring the breasts of both young actresses: Thora Birch (Jane) and Mena Suvari (Angela).
The dialogue has its moments, and Mendes has directed with a certain flair. The performances, except for Wes Bentley's wooden Ricky, are adequate, though with no great depths to plumb. The veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall gets nice effects, often in chiaroscuro, to prove that this is an art film. Thomas Newman's music tries to be arty, but is mostly irritating.
And now one more farewell gift to you, 9) The Burnhams' other neighbors are a homosexual pair, both cutely called Jim (Jim #1 and Jim #2). According to the film's press kit, the two are "probably the most normal people in the neighborhood." For the little we see them, they may even be the most normal in the world. Or not.
That we are at least somewhat lower than the angels no one will dispute: the question is merely how much lower. Take boxing. What is so noble about a crowd wildly egging on two men or, latterly, even two women to pummel each other into bleeding lips, broken noses, eyes punched shut? We can idealize prizefighters in print or on screen, but a couple finding pleasure in, let us say, heterodox fashion is taboo?
All that by way of introducing Romance, a French movie from Catherine Breillat that attempts to challenge this taboo. A novelist, scenarist, director, and occasional actress, the 51-year-old Breillat has made several daring films of her own; has collaborated on screenplays for Fellini, Liliana Cavani, Maurice Pialat, and others; and has produced three children. But it is in Romance, which she wrote and directed, that she goes farthest. "It's hot," she says, "but it burns like ice."
What makes the film unusual is that, unlike most erotica, written by and for men, it is by a woman and aimed at women: Romance caters squarely to female fantasies. Marie, a teacher, lives with Paul, a male model, in an all-white apartment. We see them briefly on their jobs, more often in bed together. We note that Marie (Catherine Ducey) is barely attractive in either face or body, which predicates loss of male interest but allows for identification by a greater number of women viewers. Next, we find out, both visually and verbally, that Paul is no longer interested in making love to her.
Marie now embarks on that staple of erotica, the sexual quest, as she cruises around Paris in Paul's Mercedes convertible. In a bar, she picks up an Italian, Paolo, who, without love, satisfies her sexually. Played by the Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi, he provides sex that is uninhibited and unlimited. But Marie wants something more; presumably a fusion of Paolo and Paul.
The color scheme now turns to red. One of Marie's adventures is with a Middle Eastern fellow, who at first seems very obliging, but then roughly sodomizes and dumps her. She gets involved with her school principal, a vastly experienced lothario, who gags and elaborately binds her, but never goes beyond what she assents to clearly a Sunday sadist for mild masochists. Neither young nor handsome, he speaks literately and thoughtfully, exemplifying cerebral sex. Much of the film is quasi-philosophical wordmongering.
As Marie becomes more liberated, Paul's physical interest revives, but, in another commonplace of the genre, she no longer wants him, even though she gives birth to his child. This, Breillat says, is really Marie's rebirth. She will no longer be obsessed by Paul, or have to pursue other obsessive fantasies. The moralistic conclusion is another staple of the genre.
What I find salient about Romance is how boring it is to sit through. Whatever it means to women, all it says to me is: better honest pornography than this pretentious claptrap.