Arts: The best film you'll never see

It's written and directed by Paul Auster. It stars Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Vanessa Redgrave and Mira Sorvino. But Lulu on the Bridge can't find a distributor here or in the States. Why? Apparently the film's just too `diffcult'. By Kevin Jackson
Click to follow
Here's a sad fable from movieland. An American novelist spends the better part of two decades all alone in a Brooklyn room, writing a series of books that, before too long, bring him international renown. One day he gets a phone call from a young film director, who likes his work and wants him to write a screenplay. He complies, and the resulting movie is a major critical hit. The novelist goes back to his room and starts work on another novel, but feels fidgety: he's caught the movie bug. So he writes another screenplay, and a hip German director agrees to film it, but pulls out at the last minute for personal reasons. So the novelist, who's seen how films are put together and knows exactly what he's in for, decides to try his own hand at directing.

Since he is by now a very famous novelist indeed, the producers have little difficulty raising money, and big-time actors - one a recent Oscar- winner - are eager to work with him. (He also casts the most famous novelist in the world in a bit-part.) There are many obstacles to surmount, but the novelist finally completes his film successfully and a lot of the people who see it - mainly other writers, directors, actors, critics - agree that it's something pretty special. Now comes the twist ending: despite the American novelist's heavy reputation, despite the bankable cast, despite all the great word-of-mouth, no one seems to want to show his film. As far as the film-going public is concerned, it might as well not exist.

And that, broadly speaking, is the story so far of Paul Auster and Lulu on the Bridge, the film which he completed well over a year ago and which has still to find a distributor either here or in the United States, though Auster's many British fans can gain some idea of what they're missing by reading the screenplay, which Faber has just published. Auster's first screenplay was Smoke, directed by Wayne Wang; the German director originally slated for Lulu was Wim Wenders (from Wayne Wang to Wim Wenders: "WWI to WWII," as Auster quipped); Lulu's cast includes the likes of Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Vanessa Redgrave and the Oscar-scooping Mira Sorvino as the romantic lead (a part originally lined up for another Oscar laureate, Juliette Binoche). The most famous novelist in the world was, is, Salman Rushdie. And the great word-of-mouth includes this praise from Mike Leigh: "Obviously the film is a must for Auster fans, but it stands up in its own right as well. It describes a wonderful inevitable spiral and has a sense of complete directness. It is ludicrous that it doesn't have distributor here."

Actually, a very small minority of Auster's British fans have already seen Lulu, either at the one-off screening (immediately sold out) at the Curzon Soho cinema a couple of weeks ago or by catching it in one of the countries, like France, where it has managed to find a distributor. I chanced across it in Paris earlier this year; watching it was hardly a road-to-Damascus experience, since I've been a fully paid-up member of the Paul Auster Boost Group ever since reading The New York Trilogy 12 years ago, but I did leave the screening more surprised than ever that Lulu should have remained on the shelf over here.

It's hard to summarise the film adequately without spoiling some of the enjoyment (though here's a hint to anyone who's read Auster's new novel: the twist at the end of Lulu has some connection with the figurative meaning of its title, Timbuktu). The main plot goes something like this: Izzy Mauer (Harvey Keitel) is a cynical old bastard of a jazzman, who is almost killed at a gig one night when a stray bullet fired by a homicidally crazed lover hits him in the chest. The surgeons pull him through, though Izzy rather wishes they hadn't. He has lost a lung and can't play his saxophone any more.

Things look grim for Izzy, until he meets and falls in love with Celia, a waitress (Mira Sorvino) who, like 98 per cent of all New York waitpersons, is really a struggling thesp. Thanks partly to Izzy's ability to pull the right strings, Celia lands the plum role of Lulu, the fatal seductress, in an updated version of Pandora's Box - after the plays by Wedekind and the film by Pabst - which is being made by a distinguished English director (Vanessa Redgrave). The film is, in part, about the Lulu myth: "Lulu is a blank slate," Auster explains, "and men project their desires on to her. They invent her. Just as men invent the women they see in movies. The Lulu plays were written before the invention of movies, but Lulu is a movie star. She's the first movie star in history."

So far, so vraisemblable. Like a good deal of Auster's fiction, however, Lulu on the Bridge also has a magical dimension. The other accident which changes Izzy's blighted life comes when he stumbles across the dead body of a smartly dressed businessman, who is carrying an apparently worthless lump of stone which gradually proves to have supernatural properties. Bad guys - or are they secretly good guys, who just go in for the odd bit of beating and kidnapping? - are after this stone, and anyone who has it. Chief among the bad/good guys is the suavely knowing Grand Inquisitor figure Dr Van Horn (Willem Dafoe) - a character originally known as Dr Singh, since this was the Salman Rushdie part.

Indeed, if it hadn't been for the scaredy-cat attitude of the New York Teamster's union, Rushdie would be up there on the screen right now. In the sixth week of shooting, Auster was told he could only go ahead with Rushdie's scenes if the production paid exorbitant costs for extra security against possible attack by Islamic extremists. The budget was tight, the clock was running, and Rushdie bowed out. Auster says he still regrets this bitterly: "I consider it a personal defeat, a moral defeat. As a recognisable figure, [Rushdie's] presence would have reinforced the constant overlapping of dream and reality in the film. A man who has been forced into hiding through terrible, tragic circumstances suddenly appears as a man in charge of interrogating someone who is being held against his will. The captive made captor. It was my little way of trying to turn the tables on the world."

Now, the very least one could say about all this is that it sounds interesting - and not merely because Auster is the first major American novelist to turn film-director since Norman Mailer. Plenty of sensible people have much warmer things to say. So what went wrong for Lulu?

It may have been the curse of Cannes, where the film premiered, and was considered (as one witness put it) "too difficult, too opaque" by some audience members. It may have been the film's fantastical element, though it seems unlikely that many of those queuing to see The Phantom Menace or The Matrix are hungry for social realism.

Whatever the cause, Lulu remains a waif. The latest rumour is that there's a possibility of a limited run in one London cinema later this year, and, judging by the loyalty of Auster's readership (the queues for his book-signing at the South Bank a few weeks ago were among the longest ever seen there) it's unlikely that the management will lose on the deal. There's an even fainter rumour of a London-based distributor who is willing to reconsider Lulu's case. In the mean time ... well, you could always give the latest Michael Winner a whirl.

`Lulu on the Bridge' is published by Faber & Faber at pounds 9.99