Tuesday 20 April 2010

Battlegrounds (ST 25/04/10)

Life During Wartime (15) 97 mins ***
Agora (12A) 127 mins ***
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (PG) 160 mins ****

If, like me, you emerged seething from 1999’s mosaic-of-dysfunction Happiness, then it’s probably best to approach Life During Wartime, writer-director Todd Solondz’s unofficial sequel, as a blank slate. Central to the new film, after all, is the possibility (or otherwise) of forgiving and forgetting - a notion accentuated by the recasting of the lead roles, often with performers markedly different from those who appeared first time round. Again, we’re plunged into the quietly despairing lives of the Jordan sisters - it’s a case of new actors, same old domestic trauma.

Perpetually tearful Joy (Shirley Henderson) is first observed splitting from her boyfriend, the heavy-breathing sex-pest played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Happiness, and now by the lean African-American actor Michael K. Williams. (Solondz’s 2005 film Palindromes pulled similar switches with race.) As Joy retreats into numbed misery, perkier sibling Trish (Allison Janney) seems to have found love at last, with the roundly normal Henry (Michael Lerner). Meanwhile, local paedophile Bill (Ciaran Hinds) emerges from prison with another boy - his estranged teenage son - on his mind.

It’s possibly a sign of Solondz’s unsparing worldview that seemingly no actor wants to return to work for him - even Lars von Trier is better liked - yet the cast here is at least as strong as that assembled for Happiness, and Henderson and Janney, in particular, are more tangible in their put-upon flakiness than their predecessors. We get striking contributions, too, from Charlotte Rampling as a cougar out-preying Hinds in a bar, Paul “Pee-Wee” Reubens as Henderson’s ghostly confidant, and Ally Sheedy as the black-clad third sister, Helen - now holed up in Hollywood, reportedly with Keanu Reeves.

The question remains as to what Solondz is trying to do with them all. If his goal is to denounce apple-pie America as rotten to its core, well, even U.S. television has been there, done that, and started to construct its family units along new lines (Weeds, Modern Family). There has, granted, been a maturing in the director’s style. The arch provocation has - one Janney-Lerner sex scene aside - been toned down, and relocating the characters to Florida allows a brighter palette to mitigate against the bleak tenor of the screenwriting. It’s the first Solondz film in a while I could bear to be in the same room as, which is some grounds for forgiveness, I guess.

Still, approach with care: with almost every encounter here resembling an excruciating first date, you may be left wondering what sort of creature Solondz is exactly. Moralist? Misanthrope? Both? There’s never enough evidence to resolve the matter; the distance between Solondz and his characters tends to isolate the slivers of sincerity evident in his writing. At one point, Henderson asks Reubens whether he thinks her sister is faking her happiness. “Sometimes pretending can be better than the real thing,” comes the response. In this tricky, deceptively slender work, we catch flickers of a director still desperately trying to show he means it.

In Agora, Rachel Weisz undertakes the considerable challenge of incarnating the fourth century’s very own Carol Vorderman: Hypatia of Alexandria, sexiest mathematician of her age, and beacon of rational enlightenment at a time of deadly theological turbulence. This heroine’s hands are as full as her head: while trying to figure out her exact place in the galaxy, Hypatia has also to referee between the Jewish and Christian factions amassing outside her academy’s gates, not to mention between two rival students (Max Minghella and Oscar Isaac) who have it decidedly hot for teacher.

Director Alejandro Amenàbar strives nobly to revivify the old-school epic here: there are lashings and stonings, and sweeping helicopter shots of hordes trashing bazaars. Against Hypatia’s singularity, though, the boys are pretty dull, and the sums and theorems Amenàbar sets his stall in come to feel altogether less cinematic than gods and monsters; by the time Weisz is toying with Apollonian cones and describing the heliocentric model in a sandpit, we could be watching a Royal Institution Christmas lecture. Still, one emerges tickled by the attempt: when was the last time that actual physics - astrophysics, even - was made so integral to such an expensive production?

The American documentarist Frederick Wiseman has devoted his career to showing the ways our institutions do and don’t work, in a series of films whose blunt titles (High School, Public Housing) are matched only by the untricksy directness of their gaze. His latest, La Danse, achieves an exceptional appreciation of space: that of the building in which the Paris Opera Ballet is housed, and that through which the Ballet's dancers twirl and pirouette. It’s both a portrait of the backstage admin required in running a successful company - the casting, cooking and costume-making - and a study of performers in rehearsal.

What this elegant, graceful film illustrates is how, within this rarefied world, one corridor, one routine, one season flows into the next; to invert a phrase, it may be the closest anybody’s come to making architecture about dancing. The construction is intricate, and - at 160 minutes - risks accusations of pedantry, but La Danse is only ever as intricate, and forever as compelling, as the movements the dancers themselves are making. Gradually, Wiseman comes to replace the mirror on the rehearsal-studio wall; the result is a rare chance to observe, both before and behind the camera, real masters at work.

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