Eccentric blondes are very important in cinema. As we know, blonde girls have more fun; gentlemen prefer them; and about 50 film titles contain the word “blonde” compared with almost none containing the word “brunette”. Add eccentricity and you get Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Goldie Hawn – keep counting – plus the heroines of two films this week.
Cameron Diaz almost makes Knight and Day () worth watching. The screwball spy thriller is a genre that shouldn’t exist, a bio-hazardous hybrid responsible for horrors like Mr and Mrs Smith. Casual death and comedy? Step carefully. Here Tom Cruise kills a planeful of people before the movie has reached 30,000 feet (they are enemy agents), then adopts Diaz as his good luck charm – she was on the flight – as he goes around the world killing more people. If director James Mangold was ever asked by the studio what the movie’s plot was, before it was greenlighted, he can only have replied: “It’s about you giving us money to go to Brazil, Spain, Austria and the South Seas.”
Chases breed chases, murders murders, and Cruise, extravagantly tousled and cowlicked, resembles an action-man doll having a big hair day. Diaz gets to do the kooky reaction shots – variants on “What have I got myself into now?” – and is resourceful to the last. Remember, this woman made There’s Something About Mary the funniest film of the late 1990s. She is a trouper. She won’t stop trying. While there is shtick, there is life.
Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese veteran, made Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl () at the modest age of 100. (Approaching 102 he is still at work.) He has accumulated the authority to make a film about an eccentric blonde who is neither very blonde, more subtly fair, nor obviously eccentric. Standing on a balcony opposite his office, mute, innocent, tantalising, she is the rock against which the young hero (Ricardo Trêpa) dashes his desire. His marriage plans are serially obstructed – first an interdicting uncle, then a long business trip to Cape Verde – and the girl becomes a beacon of unreachability, taunting him across space and time.
Structurally the tale is told in flashback. The hero relates the story in a train to a fellow passenger, a woman who does not look at him. (De Oliveira never stops putting artistic riddles to us.) Yet the distance established, between memory and event, adds to the teasing theme of unattainability. Do we ever experience what we dream of experiencing? Even if we do, is that experience then instantly lost, like a dream?
The film has little conventional logic of either plot or character. Can any man really be this passive? But nor does magic realism, to which it is a cousin. At one point the narrative stops for a musical soirée: Maria João Pires, no less, at the piano. Or does it stop? Isn’t “music” the narrative throughout? The music that underscores our emotional lives, the refrains and melodies of desire, the sustaining pedal of hopeless hope, the timpani of thou-shalt-not. This is a bewitching movie. The director’s more recent one, screened at Cannes, The Strange Case of Angelica, is even better. Don’t anyone tell or remind de Oliveira, please, that he is too old to be alive, never mind to be making miniaturist masterworks.
The Egyptians were lucky the Israelites got out when they did. There was an eighth plague planned and it was movie biopics. Last week’s Gainsbourg grows in the mind compared with the unbelievable tosh that is Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. () Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) was not blonde, but according to director Jan Kounen and screenwriter Chris Greenhalgh (adapting his bio-novel) she did have some fun, circa 1920, with the unprepossessing Russian composer (Mads Mikkelsen), while he and his family stayed as guests at Château Coco.
Little happens here, except some characterless mooning about the mansion, some portentous attempts to interrelate art and fashion, some medium-core sex – but how meaningless screen carnality is between discarnate ciphers with VIP name tags – and Coco doing exit lines like “I’m expected at the shop.”
Do I have to say it again? Celebrity is not drama. In a film laughably claiming to be based on truth – there is no evidence this fling happened – the best bit is the prologue at the first night of The Rite of Spring. In the wings: Diaghilev and choreographer Nijinsky getting the troops in order. Out front: the crescent horror of an audience watching classical music bombed to pieces. On stage: delirious tribespeople dancing, darting and going demented. As PG Wodehouse used to say, in his favourite Pat and Mike trope: “Rushin’ here, rushin’ here, faith and begob, it’s a Russian ballet.”
From Peru, Javier Fuentes-León’s Undertow () is a supernatural love story: a sort of gay Ghost. Instead of Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze making out with wet pottery, we have married Miguel (Tom Jones lookalike Cristian Mercado) haunted by the flesh-and-blood ghost of drowned artist-lover Santiago (Manolo Cardona). No one else can see the randy wraith, though Miguel can both see and touch him. It looks like the perfect set-up, the fisherman getting his wild sea-oats without being ostracised by a machismo-obsessed community.
Magical realism again? If so, it is put on screen with a doleful literalism. The colours are splodgy, the script is sub-soap-opera, the actors hang their heads while delivering the dialogue. Yet astonishingly it works. The wallflower primitivism is lovable because it says, “This is an art movie that won’t join the noisy party.” No wonder Undertow picked up the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award. They are
suckers for simplicity over there, and for feelgood stories with subtitles.
Actually it ends sadly, if stoically and life-changingly. But by then we have moved in emotionally with Miguel and his pregnant wife and are practically choosing the new baby clothes. Never mind the other half of our collective heart, which is with sweet-natured Santiago in Davy Jones’s locker. This is a six-hankie drama masquerading as a disquisition on transgressive love. Don’t let it languish in arthouses. Ship it out to discriminating multiplexes.
I forgot to mention the ninth plague of Egypt: 3D films for those with a mental age of six. Step Up 3D () dances all round you and over you. You are biffed and jostled by teenage breakdancers, hormone-saturated hip-hoppers, black/white/Asian weenyboppers, advancing like a wave from the screen. The plot is the usual can-do dross – “Let’s win the World Jam right here!” – while the dancing, camerawork and 3D effects, especially the aerial trails of “slushy” rising from a drinks cup (you have to be there and see it), are eye-catching, at times almost eye-raping.
The animated Road Runner short accompanying Cats & Dogs – the Revenge of Kitty Galore, also in 3D, is a gem. Funny, crazy, inventive, a throwback to great Warner cartoon days. The feature film, or what I saw, is a laughless shambles with repellent digimated animals. I left after 30 minutes, having an appointment with the preservation of my sanity. It is my loss, or dereliction of duty, if the remainder turned into Kittizen Kane.
Nigel Andrews’ monthly ‘Talking Pictures’ column will appear in this Saturday’s FT Weekend