August 29, 2007 5:58 pm

A movie musical to whack the eye

Here is what you must do. Blindfold your friends, say you are taking them for a mystery treat, and uncover their eyes only when they are seated in front of the amazing music-drama Opera Jawa (opening in the UK on September 7). Do not say to them: “There is a great new Indonesian film based on an episode from the Ramayana.” They will ignore you, laugh at you or think you are merely mad.

The filmmaker Garin Nugroho, with nine films to his name, is a virtual veteran. But so were the Cole Porter of Kiss Me Kate and the Verdi of Falstaff. Opera Jawa is a screen musical like no other. Commissioned by Peter Sellars for his New Crowned Hope project, the through-sung movie combines gamelan music, ballet and eye-whacking visual pageantry.

The sets and costumes constitute a virtual rebirth of surrealism. Here, in the tale of a village potter’s unfaithful wife and his vengeance against the lover (a petty tyrant fomenting local strife), one sensory epiphany succeeds another.

Giant red drapes hang above landscapes multicoloured with artificial flowers; a woman is moulded like a living pot atop a wheel; candles shaped like human heads gutter in a slaughterhouse. In a climactic scene – thrilling and poetic – a vengeance murder in a beach pavilion is filmed through the tent’s waving yellow gauze, like an apocalypse seen through a cornfield or a sandstorm.

This masterpiece was shot in a barely credible 14 days. Rahayu Supanggah composed the pop/classical score; half a dozen choreographers created the eye-boggling movements.

And Martinus Miroto (potter), Artika Sari Devi (wife) and the sexy-reptilian Eko Supriyanto (seducer) comply with every gymnastic acting challenge. I would compare Opera Jawa with the Michael Powell of The Red Shoes, the Kurosawa of Dreams and the complete works of Miklos Jancso. But it cannot really be compared with anything, except itself.

The British director David Mackenzie has a different visual approach, plain and pared. Hallam Foe boasts a perkier plot than Young Adam or Asylum, drawn from a Peter Jinks novel about a limber-limbed youngster (Jamie Bell) who grows from a tree-house mischief-maker into a stalker-voyeur at large in Glasgow. Think of Fantômas, Rear Window and The Catcher in the Rye mixed together.

The boy’s infatuation with a hotel day-manager (Sophia Myles) resembling his late mother spurs him on over rooftops, into perilous viewing eyries and finally into a double bed. Love has no no-go areas, nor cinema.

The yoyo-ing geography pleases, at least until the thread breaks and we land with a thud on the terra firma of plot resolution. Revelations about Mum’s death; eco-nonsense about despoiled countryside; a “happy ending”. Before that there is Jamie Bell’s vivid, haunted-terrier performance to admire.

Chris Cooper is magisterial in Billy Ray’s Breach. From the maker of Shattered Glass comes another flashlight beam pointed down the corridors of troubled American power. As FBI traitor Robert Hanssen, who sold secrets to Russia for 20 years, Cooper has the tormented magnetism of a famous namesake.

Like the ailing Gary Cooper in his last films, when illness etched tragedy, Chris C’s insides seem gnawed by guilt, dread and a limitless vision of his damnation. When a young Fed (Ryan Philippe) is covertly assigned to unmask him, watching the younger man interact with the older is like watching a puppy go 10 rounds with a mauled mastiff.

Minor characters may be flimsy: Laura Linney as Philippe’s boss, Caroline Dhavernas as his vapid girlfriend. But whenever the camera swings to Cooper, the film experiences a little cosmic shudder. Is this actor a star? Not quite. Something more interesting: a crabby nebula distributing his fragments of insight and humanity through the film’s eloquently benighted spaces.

Julie Delpy’s Two Days in Paris is a lovely feature debut by the French actress, writer and here director. Superficially resembling her Euro-American starring vehicles Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, its tale of a 30-something New York-based couple, Jack and Marion (Adam Goldberg and Delpy), visiting her Paris family (played by the filmmaker’s own family) is about coming apart more than coming together.

In comedy scenes boasting the scatty asperity of Woody Allen they quarrel with each other, with their elders, with the world in general. The dialogue has treats. Upset on learning details of Marion’s French oral history – so to speak – Jack indignantly quips: “I would say a blowjob is a big deal. After all, it was a blowjob that brought down America’s last chance of a healthy democracy.” As they say in France, touché.

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