Murder on the narrative express

Episode movies. Portmanteau features telling separate stories. Don’t they drive you up the wall? For the filmgoer they are the cerebral equivalent of watching movies in the old, pre-painless 3D. There you had to re-focus your eyes for each new shot; here you must re-focus your brain for each new tale. In book form the short story is at home: we can start a new tale whenever we want and since collections are usually by the same author, they are ghostly romans-fleuves. But The Players (Les Infidèles) and 7 Days in Havana each has seven directors. And each railroads you through its narrative stops and starts like an express train ignoring the lights. In Havana, especially, I kept wanting to tug the communication cord: “Stop! I need a break. I need some air. Even a stale station sandwich ... ”

Did this kind of movie ever work? I recall Dead of Night (1945), a princely British ghost story feature. The tales were so good they frightened off disbelief; volitional serial suspension was barely needed. Or Paris Vu Par (1964): little to go wrong if you round up Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol and co. But The Players, arriving in the afterglow of Francomania created by The Artist, has a Who-Isn’t-Who of Gallic directors, with Michel The Artist Hazanavicius almost the sole “name”. These men steer Jean Artist Dujardin – who had the original idea, stars throughout and directed one story – through the variable variants on sexual turpitude. The theme is adultery: the priapism of the married male. The style is anything-goes. It is brave of Dujardin, debonair centre of recent Oscar glory, to hazard his charisma with 107 minutes largely consisting of mugging and bonking. You see more of him in some stories, in every sense, than you expected.

There have been worse multi-story movies even so. The theme is strong enough to empower the variations and though some tales are trashy or trivial, others hit a note of cynical perspicacity (the Hazanavicius vignette about a business conference) or manage a feint at emotionally charged realism. Dujardin and real-life wife Alexandra Lamy enact a confessional corrida, during an evening home, which has the authentic pawing, snorting noise of a conjugal calamity about to come to climax. If The Players achieves little else, it proves that Dujardin can extend his range well beyond the boulevard smirk and the Brylcreemed charm.

7 Days in Havana feels like seven years, with no remission for good behaviour. I stayed awake; I took notes; couldn’t I (my inner human being asked) get one story removed from my sentence? Since they are all penned by the same man, Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura Fuentes, the film retains a kind of tonal unity: wry wonder at life’s surreal collisions. But with seven directors, however beguilingly eclectic (France’s Gaspar Noé, Israeli-Palestinian Elia Suleiman, Argentina’s Pablo Trapero), the relay baton keeps crashing to the ground. Noé’s sexy-menacing, flame-lit vignette about a lesbian girl’s purification rite seems to be competing in a different event from Suleiman’s Tati-esque portrait of a foreign journalist (himself) walking the city before a Fidel Castro interview. Even Havana is not enough to unify the stories. The crumbling old lady does her best, hitching her Hispano-baroque skirts and strewing the crumbs of picturesque decay. But there are some birds you cannot feed. They wander away muttering, “Whatever happened to the auteur principle? What price the creed of the single artist and sovereign vision?”

Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America is a satire more miss than hit. As its murder-happy guy and girl (Joel Murray, brother of Bill, and Tara Lynne Barr) go on the run across a corrupt and culture-dead country there are a few comic bull’s-eyes – “You mean we’re platonic spree killers?” complains the girl when she learns sex isn’t on the menu – and more than a few mile-wide misses. Goldthwait, once the squeaky-voiced clown of the Police Academy series, came of age as a writer-director with the funny Sleeping Dogs Lie and the terrific World’s Greatest Dad (redemption day for Robin Williams). The new film’s fire-power is too sloppy, too wide-spread; it barely scathes even the easy target of an American television talent show complete with Simon Cowell clone.

The Hunter has Willem Dafoe glooming existentially – no one glooms better – through a thriller/drama/eco-fable. The Tasmanian Tiger: does it exist? Can Dafoe find it? Should he find it, since his paymasters are a pharmaceuticals giant (hiss!) wanting to tap the creature for drug production? There is a drowsy love plot (Frances O’Connor) and a cameo for Sam Neill. There is much sermonising. There is fabulous scenery. You want to say: “Can I have the message in a separate envelope and just spend the film looking at the landscapes?”

Weird lady sits in large open space, silent and impassive, opening her eyes only to gaze at those taking turns to sit opposite her. It has to be art, hasn’t it? In Matthew Akers’ Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present we watch the performance-art doyenne do this at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. I respect Abramovic and her wish to push boundaries. I respect less, and suspect more, the New Yorkers queuing all night for their 10 minutes of cultural benediction or – my hunch, this being matriarchal America – pathological mother need. Gowned as if by Leonardo, Abramovic looks like the Blessed Virgin Marina. The weak weep before her gaze; the strong, bravely trying to throw some art back at her (one girl strips off as she approaches the chair), are thrown out by MoMA guards. Here, you start to feel, is commodified culture at work in its capital city. I wanted to know – since Abramovic herself is seen marking off the days of the show’s exhausting three-month run – how much she was doing this for art and how much for Mammon. But that, of course, we are never told.

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