Catching Up: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Cassandra's Dream, Persepolis, Revolver
By Fernando F. Croce

I've been in the past few weeks getting acquainted with the movies I missed in 2007. I finally caught up with the much-acclaimed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, only to realize that I'd seen it already -- when it was called (rimshot alert!!) My Left Foot, or Iris, or The Sea Inside. Triumph of the human spirit to the Miramax, predictable in its crowd-pleasing, middlebrow vulgarity but with a few inventive, free-floating passages. The theme is the perseverance of the artistic mind, based on the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French Elle editor who, felled by a stroke, awoke from a coma an alert psyche trapped in a paralyzed body. His left eyelid was his sole means of communication, so, blinking out one letter at a time, Bauby dictated the memoir here visualized by Julian Schnabel. The most stylistically adventurous parts arrive early, like a disorientating, 20-minute POV shot that squeezes a dictionary of bleeding textures out of hospital walls, distorted visages, and wavering focus. When the protagonist (played by Mathieu Amalric) gets acquainted with the dishy clinic personnel (which includes Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Olatz Lopez Garmendia -- who hired this crew, Charlie Wilson?) and takes refuge in memory and imagination, the picture becomes Lifetime-conventional and its metaphors (a bubble-boy diving suit in dirty water, insectoid views of flowery fields) grow leaden. The superb Amalric (able to suggest conflicting stimuli even in stillness), vivid appearances by Max von Sydow and Emmanuelle Seigner, and Schnabel's taste for sensual sensation keep the project from getting static, though nobody can save it from the "inspirational" triteness confining its vigor the way Bauby's body confines his spirit.


At one point in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, two desperate brothers hide out in the home of the fellow they are supposed to kill, and, as they wait for their victim, the phone rings. Oh for a dash of the Woody who in Radio Days had two burglars answer the call and win a contest -- with Allen in his overcast-moralist mode, however, the blokes instead lament "the curse of every human soul" as if reading from the phone book. Like Match Point and Scoop, it's a wan product of the director's London sojourn, a half-assed imitation of a thriller short on wit and humanity but overflowing with "insights" on how bleak life really is. The brothers are Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell, the former a small-time restaurateur with ambitious dreams and a gorgeous girlfriend (Hayley Atwell), the latter a mechanic and gambler with loan sharks snipping at his heels; they both need money, their rich plastic-surgeon uncle (Tom Wilkinson) needs a pesky whistleblower offed, and, before you can say Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, the guys are nervously stalking the guy with a pistol. The deed is done (as bloodless as ever, Allen's camera pans left), McGregor glides past it smoothly but Farrell becomes consumed by "bad thoughts," the familial tragedy telegraphed from the very first scene in their boat is mechanically consumed. Everything is utterly disengaged: The actors look as if they got the script five minutes before the camera was turned on, Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is damp, Philip Glass gives the score perfunctory bombast. I'm all for Allen leaving his hermetic Manhattan behind for a bit, but I hope Barcelona, his next stop, stirs him creatively more than London did.


The trenchant delicacy of Persepolis is further evidence, in addition to Ratatouille's big-hearted dynamics, Paprika's dreamlike self-analysis, and Aqua Team Hunger Force's fireball Dadaism, that 2007 was indeed a remarkable year for animation. An adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's collection of autobiographical graphic novels (with the author herself sharing directing credit with Vincent Paronnaud), it traces a young woman's ballooning consciousness with an analog fluidity that keeps expanding the initial blockiness of the 2-D images. Satrapi's animated stand-in lounges dolefully in a Parisian airport in the bracketing scenes, the rest flows as a tragicomic remembrance of youth, struggle, and contraband Iron Maiden tapes. In 1978 Iran, eight-year-old Satrapi (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) giddily mimics the anti-Shah demonstrators outside while her parents (Catherine Deneuve and Simon Akbarian) learn of the torture suffered by the protesters. As the turmoil of the Iranian Revolution accelerates, the mandatory veil (representing "freedom," it is assured in the classroom) is envisioned as a collective, jet-black blanket with oval faces peeking out; the nunnish uniforms which give the teenage heroine (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) her first glimpse of Vienna aren't much different, and, despite the discovery of punk rock and romance, she pines for her roots. The visual style (simultaneously stark and playful, a canvas of shifting forms and expressive silhouettes) is stirringly synched to the dislocation of an acerbic, sensitive mind who experiences an epiphany of personal emancipation set to "Eye of the Tiger." Packing a melancholy-sardonic dictum ("Freedom always has a price") that applies just as cuttingly to American soil, Persepolis is a gentle dance performed at the edge of the abyss.


Another one I wish I had seen before tallying up last year's offerings: Revolver. Its unmistakable passion is all the more surprising coming from Guy Ritchie, whose previous work (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch) seemed to me nothing more than hollow macho shtick. Does Luc Besson's presence in the script have anything to do with it? No matter, there is a newfound weight to the posing here, especially as embodied by Jason Stratham, as spiky and concentrated as Lee Marvin in Point Blank. Stratham is out to take revenge on the Las Vegas casino boss (Ray Liotta) who sent him to prison for seven years, but the film's assorted impromptu halos and chess-playing guardians (Vincent Pastore, André Benjamin) hint at deeper things at stake than gangland bluster. Scenes are played out and rewound, contemplation of life and death stands side by side with a cartoon version of an apoplectic Liotta, even Deepak Chopra pops up for a mock-explanation -- it's an unwieldy, short-circuiting film, packing "more tricks than a clown's pocket" yet imbued with brute spiritual force. When Stratham confronts himself in a mirrored elevator, it is a grand vision of Man alone with Conscience, precisely what George Clooney vainly reached for in Michael Clayton's final close-up.

Reviewed February 10, 2008.

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