The gods of coincidence surely arranged it all. At the early-morning Cannes screening of Bright Star (), Jane Campion’s dramatisation of the love between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, this film critic found he had brought nothing on which to scribble notes. As lights dimmed, he hastily opened the day’s festival newspaper to its barest page, an old recourse. Two hours later he gazed at the sheet bearing a full-page ad for an unheard-of film company: an ad bare, besides his jottings, but for the company’s name and logo and a top-of-page copyline gobsmackingly apt to the filmic occasion: “Falling in love can be hazardous to your health.”
What a summation of romantic agony. What a précis of Keats’s life. He hazarded his life by falling in love with too much, far too much, including Brawne. To complete or complicate matters, as Campion’s script from Andrew Motion’s Keats biography makes plain (and plainness is the film’s beauty and strength), his health was hazardous to his love. He went to Italy for his consumption and died far from Brawne’s arms.
In an everyday England, circa 1820, Ben Whishaw’s Keats is the frailly rapturous lad with a versifying talent, smitten with Abbie Cornish’s Brawne. She is the pretty, well-rounded daughter of a neighbour family in Hampstead Village – “village” being all today’s Luvvieland of literary north London then was – and fancies herself as a dress designer. The film opens with a giant, surreal close-up of needle and thread, the first and last bit of visual showboating: Fanny can offer up “triple-pleated mushroom collars”, at least, as brainstorming barter for Keats’s tuition in things poetic.
The film is barely more than conversations made animate by mood-evocation and performance. The few dumbshow sequences – a children’s game of grandmother’s footsteps, a funny aerial shot of the lovers unwittingly tracking each other at distance across a field – are deft symbolic entr’actes. Elsewhere, dialogue scenes have a keen, smarting, perfect immediacy. Whishaw’s Keats is a poet-dreamer at once prettily tousled and (when needful) wryly self-possessed. Cornish makes Brawne an entire weather system of self-willed womanhood in the pre-dawn of gender enfranchisement. Strong support from Paul Schneider as Keats’s best friend Charles Brown – bearish scepticism, sage humour – provides the story with a “third eye”. When heartbreak comes it has a completeness of acoustic and perspective, not just a glib facility
in prompting tears.
Falling in love is bad for your health? But so good for poetry. And for cinema. Those fearing Jane Campion’s career had self-destructed with In the Cut, that US murder thriller substituting besottedness with film noir for love for a humanly truthful subject, can look at Bright Star and recognise its merits. Steadfastness, truth and a simple, blazing, incandescent humanity. This is a literary life story in which life, for once, is the meaningful word.
Falling in love is bad for your health? Paper Heart (, Nicholas Jasenovec), a frisky docu-mocku-mentary, has a clipboard carrying some of the same questions and conundrums as Bright Star.
Starting out as a vox pop about the nature of love, it then turns into a puppyish, vulnerable romance between interviewer/star Charlyne Yi (off-screen a comedian and performance artist) and Michael Cera, the dorky-but-charismatic star of Juno, playing himself. Yi is convinced she doesn’t have the love gene – whatever that is – but soon succumbs to its symptoms: stars in the eyes, loss of sang froid. The film becomes more bewitching the more it loses direction. Yi stops questioning strangers and starts questioning herself. She also interrogates the ability, or inability, of cinema to follow love into its deepest mazes. At the end the couple just shut the door, sweetly, finally, literally, on the camera crew.
The week’s third inquiry into love and health is another documentary, the mesmerising Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (). Jealousy – definitely – is bad for your health. Witness the tale Clouzot planned to film in 1964 of a man (Serge Reggiani) driven towards the green-eyed monster by a beautiful woman (Romy Schneider), and of the curse that seemed to extend from L’Enfer the story to L’Enfer the production.
Towing clouds of glory from past films (The Wages of Fear, Les Diaboliques), Clouzot was given a Franco-Hollywood budget and time to perfect special psychedelic screen effects. But in a promising location, a lakeside hotel near a giant looming viaduct, the shooting fell apart. One witness-survivor recalls the teeming chaos of the visual-effects experiments – “No one seemed to know what they were doing” – while Clouzot on set barked at his actors, lost track of the schedule, seemed converged on by demons.
One problem, surely, was that his film had been made six years before. Hitchcock’s Vertigo, adapted from two favourite Clouzot writers, Boileau and Narcejac (of Les Diaboliques), had mapped the atlas of love, longing and jealousy and charted the expressionist things a director could do with them. Clouzot floundered on with multiple-exposure faces, op-art makeup, lurid filters, and finally with an actor who walked out (Reggiani) and a heart seizure (Clouzot’s) that ended the filming if not the director’s life. Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s documentary is shocking, enthralling, educative. It proves that falling in love with cinema can be, for some who pick it as a career, the most health-endangering thing of all.
Dickens, like Shakespeare, is reinvented for each era. What do filmgoers need today? 3D and digital animation. If they don’t need them, they get them in A Christmas Carol ().
Jim Carrey is motion-captured in the glory of pixelled Scrooginess – beaky features, spectral-skinny body – while his nasal shtick ricochets around the octaves and auditorium. Carrey triples, also, as the three ghosts of Christmas, while Gary Oldman multi-tasks as Marley’s ghost, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. Thanks to writer/director/producer Robert Zemeckis (Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump), it all works better than it should. Dickens purists can stay away. Others can feel free to sample the rollicking aerial views of Victorian London, the droll and scary elasticity of Carrey – animation reconfirming what he does anyway – and Zemeckis’s brave decision to keep much of Dickens’s original dialogue. Why not use a source author if he is witty, talented and, most importantly, out of copyright?
To some movies – ones that seem promising on paper but then migrate to the screen – the only response is “Oh dear.” The Men Who Stare at Goats (Grant Heslov, ) sounded fail-safe, a screwball satire on military “psi ops” starring George Clooney. Peter Straughan’s script is based on Jon Ronson’s novel, inspired by the US army’s belief (or that of some eccentrics in its ranks) that mind can triumph over manpower. And indeed goat-power: see the title scene where Clooney fells a cloven-hooved quadruped with a single, lasering stare. Ewan McGregor co-stars as an investigative reporter, cheerleading the audience’s incredulity. Jeff Bridges re-heats his Lebowski to lackwit effect as a bluff, madcap general. The film starts hopefully, drifts into the desert, ends up starved of point, pith and pattern. By the close, with Kevin Spacey joining the doomed cast as a scrambled-egg wearer essaying spaced-out slapstick, it is like a bad episode of M*A*S*H. Rent a good episode instead, or indeed the Robert Altman movie.
Hip-hop, but no hooray, is the verdict on 1 Day (). Filmmaker Penny Woolcock has a stalwart record in musical dramas plucked from modernity – Mischief Night, The Death of Klinghoffer – but her newest is a gangsta farrago, convincing neither as street-tough crime drama nor soul-motorised rap show. The performers go through the motions, and emotions, as if reading cue cards. The camerawork could use some of the crazed and daring visuals left over from Clouzot.