This week’s charitable cause – please give generously – is heroine addiction. Black Swan and The Portuguese Nun prove a time-honoured cinematic truth. There is no dependency greater or more merciless than an audience’s identification with an obsession-ridden woman. Gone with the Wind: crazy southern belle vows epic struggle for self-redemption. Camille: French courtesan dies for love, heartbreak and Garbo-luminous fatal illness. The Red Shoes: genius-inspired dancer kills herself for love and art.
Ah, The Red Shoes. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 ballet classic, driven by demons of desire and design (those sumptuous sets), is so blatant a template for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan that hostile critics have used the first as a stick to beat the second. Natalie Portman dances away as a prima ballerina told she must experience the demonic, the satanic, even the masochistic, to be a star. Vincent Cassel plays the Mephistophelian maître de ballet, priming his new production of Swan Lake.
The film is lurid, melodramatic, over-the-top – and currently a hot awards favourite. Aronofsky must have hypnotic powers over jurors and voters. He won the Venice Golden Lion for the equally overwrought The Wrestler. If Black Swan is watchable, it is the watchability of a car crash. The same feeling of “no, it can’t be happening” colours the spectacle of La Portman running her gaudy gauntlet of nightmares: hallucinations, intrigue, bloodshed; at one point real feathers growing from her flesh. Will the Tchaikovsky role prove her cygnet tune or her swan song? Can you bear to look, or not to look? Have you the self-discipline to look away, even to leave, even to save your soul – you really should – by finding another, better movie?
That movie should be The Portuguese Nun. Gold compared to dross; cinematic heaven to potboiling purgatory. On this evidence the French writer-director Eugène Green (small previous oeuvre unknown to me) may be the reincarnation of Robert Bresson, master of the gnomically poetic (Pickpocket, Mouchette). He takes us to Lisbon for this movie-about-a-movie in which a young French-Portuguese actress (Leonor Baldaque), cast as a nun in an adaptation of a Portuguese period romantic novel, experiences a multi-incident journey through profane and sacred love.
If the content is bizarre – enigmatic romances with a suicidal nobleman and a fellow actor, followed by a long, mystically dialogued scene with a nun who may be a saint – the style is almost off the planet. Wide-eyed, trance-like close-ups; tableau-style framings; vocal delivery toneless yet declarative. The film is not afraid to seem ridiculous, but why should it be? For 100 years art has given absurdism a good name, as the proper response to an epoch of apocalypse, godlessness and man’s incomprehensible deeds to fellow man. The Portuguese Nun, looked at with attentive patience, is as perfectly focused in its sly, dry humour – commenting on the large number of intellectuals in Lisbon, the hotel clerk says, “No city is perfect” – as it is serious and spellbinding in its quest for the meaning of love. Is love found in the raptures of the bedroom or the raptures of the beatified? Do we look for it or does it look for us? Are our lives complete and fulfilled when we find it, or are they only just beginning?
If you find either of these films’ female protagonists compulsive, disturbingly so with their contrasting crises and deliriums, there is treatment at hand. Morning Glory will cure heroine addicts at a stroke. Rachel McAdams, a once fetching actress, runs about as if “Fetch!” is the only cry coming from behind the camera. Fetch the joke; fetch the funny line-reading. Wave your arms about. Stammer; cluck and do little mini-sighs like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. In a wannabe zany comedy, poor McAdams plays the precociously promoted producer of a television breakfast show where she must referee unfunny tensions between two veteran anchorpersons, Diane Keaton (yes, she) and Harrison Ford. The film and Miss McA stumble along like mutts taken for a run on a quagmired field.
After this you are ready for the masculinist vision of The Dilemma. Or you would be if this Ron Howard-directed comedy about men in crisis – motor business entrepreneurs Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, distracted from negotiating a big deal by love problems at home – had a sense of comedy or meaningful crisis. Main plot issue: should Vaughn tell James that James’s wife (Winona Ryder) is cheating on him? Vaughn thinks he should; he obsesses about it. Thus is born the male chauvinist prig as movie hero. Pious, intense and often hectoringly implausible, the movie runs on empty while making loud “vroom-vroom” sounds.
There’s many a slip ’twixt script and screen. I wager that Neds (non-educated delinquents), from the powerful Scottish writer-director Peter Mullan (The Magdalene Sisters), read well on the page. The dialogue has spit and venom. The Glasgow gangland vernacular enlivens the tale of a boy striving to assert his individuality, his right to survive, in a 1970s hellhole of violence, drugs and drink.
Yet the script, stood up before the camera, seems to have crumpled at the knees. Like a prisoner facing a firing squad it seems to have cried, “Don’t shoot me!” To play the main youngster John at two different ages, Mullan mystifyingly picks two plump-cheeked lads whose chubby appearances and immobile features send all the wrong signals, or more exactly none at all. Lymphatic vacancy dwells at the heart of the drama. The story is teased out to a shapeless, unengaging 135 minutes, in which it is hard to care about any individual among the characters near-uniformly drawn without edges and angles.
The one exception is Mullan himself, in a small role as the hero’s brutal dad. Suddenly the screen is raked and racked into something special, even spectral. A gnarled, elongated, bony human (memories of Pete Postlethwaite in a similar role in Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives) with a voice that raises the devils from hell and would frighten the angels in heaven. Menace, resonance, a scary credibility: all the things we get too little of elsewhere in Neds.
Glenn Gould surely awaits a Hollywood biopic. The moody, eccentric, off-kilter-handsome Canadian played the piano as if his and our lives depended on it. Perhaps his did. He died at 50 after a stroke hastened by prescription-drug abuse. His life had darkened as his playing days hit their ritardando. Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould is a documentary packed with fact, verified folklore and faces of former friends and family, subpoenaed to bear witness in interview. The archive footage alone is irresistible: Gould playing to a standing-room-only concert in Russia; his interpretative perversities forcing conductor Leonard Bernstein to make a front-of-stage disclaimer before he wields the baton in a Beethoven concerto. Let’s get that biopic in the works. There is a living, working actor right now who is a dead ringer for Gould. Get me Ethan Hawke on the phone . . .