Cinema: It shouldn't happen to a nymphet
Sunday 17 January 1999
The Opposite of Sex (18) Dobermann (18) Sour Grapes (15) Buttoners (no cert)
There's little rarer in film than a convincing study of sexuality. More often than not, sexuality is almost always diminished to sex. Take the ubiquitous Hollywood "love" scene - an unsparky business involving characters previously uninterested in each other grappling in a shower to Motown. Then there's the director who wants his characters to "express their sexuality creatively". This always calls for some bold chat, but usually concludes with a couple being torrential on a futon. Worst is the film about the nymphet. There is no chat here, only prattling. She jumps into bed with men, jumps out again, jumps into a stolen car, and drives like a maniac. She always likes ketchup, and waxes her own legs.
Don Roos's The Opposite of Sex sounds worryingly "creative", and stars Christina Ricci, who has recently emerged gasping and righteous from puberty, looking like a bleached Aphrodite. Without doing anything at all, Ricci plunders nymphet territory. Roos uses our weariness over this stereotype as ammunition. He calls his film something vague and experimental, gives it a very specific brand of star, and then produces something raking and varied. It is unexpected cinema - funny and rude.
Ricci plays a brash, sociopathic teenager who goes to live with her gay half-brother (Martin Donovan). He's a sensitive teacher with a shrewish best friend (Lisa Kudrow) and a dumb, smiley lover (Ivan Sergei). Soon, Ricci is pregnant, wanted for murder, and wisecracking her way across America with a dead man's ashes in her rucksack.
This would have been a brutal film if it didn't grin all the time at the cheek of its daring. With its talk of "faggots" and hugely unlikely plot, it is boldly unpious - like gossip fabricated to shock a mannerly neighbour. Sometimes it feels too misshapen and obnoxious, and you want to sock Ricci in the gob, but The Opposite of Sex must still be applauded. Behind its abrasive plot is a magnetic reality. It confronts sexuality, and finds it unknown, but gloriously workable. Roos is neither afraid nor precious about this conclusion. It's hardly deep, but Roos isn't interested in throwing penetrating questions at us and revealing our ignorance. He wants to be frank, and for us to get it. Unknown does not mean illogical.
Dobermann is a French film that has been criticised everywhere because of its wild violence - babies at risk, grown men crying, that sort of thing. It stars Vincent Cassel as Dobermann, the leader of a disruptive gang being tracked across Paris by a fiendish police chief (Tcheky Karyo). The gang successfully rob a bank, which makes Karyo's character extremely cross. But Dobermann doesn't care. Nature sucks, life sucks, rules suck. Hey, he's a free-wheeling, arrogant loon in leather. His chick loves him. And she looks like Isabelle Adjani. The film owes lots to Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs - cue rogues in smart jackets bickering over the details of Godzilla. This is irritating because it is naff, naff because it is now an unchallenging formula in any language, and particularly naff because it doesn't sound remotely hard coming from the mouths of these French actors. No matter how loudly they try, they look like people secretly more comfortable at home listening to Crowded House. (There is nothing hard about a man who drinks fresh coffee.)
At one point, the crims are spied "driving a blue Volvo past the Louvre". Gasp! And just look at what these people are wearing. Dog collars and wristbands, leopardskin minis and big hair. The film has the feel of a soft-rock video, and Dobermann is constantly snogging his moll in the style of someone about to come up for air singing "L'amour physique est sans issue, Ba-yay-bee." Yes, Dobermann is violent, and yes, this violence is sometimes harrying and pagan, but the film is really more foolish than evil-minded. It never stops stomping and thrusting and showing off. You would worry for its heart, if it had one.
Sour Grapes has been waiting for a release for a couple of years, which usually means that important people are ashamed of it. This is odd, because Sour Grapes is more substantial than most trumpeted releases, and can be hilarious. It is written by Larry David, one of the creators of the metropolitan television comedy series Seinfeld, and features all the same kinds of characters being Jewish even when they're clearly not.
Craig Bierko and Steven Weber play cousins, spending the weekend with their girlfriends in Atlantic City. Fatigued at the slot machines, Weber lends Bierko two quarters and watches Bierko win the jackpot. Bierko is delighted, Weber grumpy. Weber feels entitled to some of the money, and Bierko is offended at the suggestion. They return to New York, their relationship in shreds, and proceed to play vengeful games involving a famous actor's testicles and a mother with a heart condition.
This is not a film about greed, although it covers that driving force from just about every angle. It is really about protocol and pettiness, about what it is to feel let down and suddenly merciless. Although largely a series of sketches - the one in the Hollywood producers' office, the one when the girlfriend leaves, taking the jowly mutt - this film is not mechanically minded. It has great energy and oddity. In one scene Weber suddenly uses a Spanish accent. No explanation is offered, and we are left as confused as his girlfriend. I liked this anarchy, this body-bomb silliness. Like any Woody Allen film, it struggles with self- esteem and settles for an aspirin. Sour Grapes turns petulance and peculiarity to excellent use.
Buttoners is another fine comedy, this time Czech. It really is a series of sketches, six separate stories which take us from pre-Hiroshima Japan to Prague exactly 50 years later, all with very eccentric intent. Sour Grapes is happy just to hear us laughing, whereas Buttoners reaches for a tougher kind of glory. It finds a brave link between all its disparate stories of in-laws, and ardour in the back of cabs, and spitting at trains, and bad language. It speaks of chance and luck in a bridled modern world. It sees us all as balls on a pin-table, ricocheting and chatting and feeling and making trouble. Like the best comedy, it looks at our tiny terrors and survives. It's a venous, breath-held piece of work.
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