FILM / Nicholson, Pfeiffer and an unhappy ending

MIKE NICHOLS' Wolf (15) is a werewolf movie in which the word werewolf is never mentioned. That is not an oversight or a gimmick, but an indication of Nichols' sedulous realism. He avoids such howling cliches as silver bullets - thought of as part of ancient lore but, in fact, cooked up in 1940s Hollywood by Curt Siodmak. For much of Wolf the lycanthropic interludes are so understated that, like the film's hero, a publisher played by Jack Nicholson, you may for a while feel you have dreamt them. When Nicholson, early in the film, jumps up a stairwell on all fours and bites his rival at the publishing firm (James Spader), the incident flashes by almost subliminally, like a spasm of the audience's unconscious, not to be referred to until the film's climax. Other werewolf movies exult in their outlandishness, setting it in the centre of seething humanity - Piccadilly Circus or Times Square. Nichols leaves it at the margins, on the edge of consciousness. He comes to bury the dark side of mankind, not to praise it.

So for much of the time Wolf plays less like a horror movie than a comedy set in the world of publishing. Nicholson is managing editor of a New York publishing house about to be taken over by a multinational firm owned by Christopher Plummer, an autocrat who purrs with the complacency only millions in the bank can provide. The wolf is at the door and the authors are beginning to bleat. Prunella Scales has a glorious cameo as an Irish authoress, fey and loquacious, flapping into Nicholson's study: 'I cannot write for a conglomerate] You'll have to protect me]' (Edna O'Brien may be consulting her lawyers.) The new order is embodied by Spader's thrusting yuppie, who has stolen Nicholson's job and wife, and will strike a chill of recognition into London publishers: 'It's heat, it's gossip - it's what I think publishing is all about.'

In these early scenes, Nich olson is not always convincing. He has a natural danger and energy, an autodidact's swagger, that ill suits a courtly, old-world Manhattan publisher. He has played a number of writers and journalists in his career, and always seems too flamboyant for the solitary challenge of the blank page. (Patrick McGilligan's fine recent biography, Jack's Life (Hutchinson), reveals that Nicholson had a brief stint as a schoolboy basketball correspondent, but is more a voraciously eclectic reader than a writer.) Here he looks out of place amid old copies of the New York Times Book Review and book parcels - like an epic novel on the poetry shelf. It is a mark of his greatness as an actor that he conquers the role, seizing on the brooding aesthete inside the stuffed shirt.

Already there are hints of something wilder. In the first scene we have seen him stop his car one inky Vermont night after driving into a wolf. The wounded beast snaps at him, and, as he puts it later, he comes to feel that 'the wolf passed something on' to him. Once bitten, he loses his shyness. He becomes a predator at the office, snarlingly ruthless - vintage Jack - and something worse, by night, when the moon is full.

You'd think the sight of Jack Nicholson prancing on all fours, savaging sheep and humans, howling at the heavens, would be guaranteed to have audiences howling too. But Nichols and his cameraman, the Fellini veteran Giuseppe Rotunno, strike a balance between realism and mysticism. Almost all the wolf scenes are shot in slow motion, which suspends the ludicrousness. And the cool colours of the nocturnal world are clearly distinguished from the warmth of the day scenes. Nicholson's wolf-features are rarely shot in full light, and are restrained compared to the full snout-and-paws job done by the same make-up artist, Rick Baker, in An American Werewolf in London (1981). Here there is just a slight widening of the upper nose, a wolfish slant to the corners of the eyes, a few fangs and a lot of hair. Nicholson's wolf is closer to the Werewolf of London (1935) and Lon Chaney Jr in Wolf Man (1941) than more recent monsters.

If there is a beast, there must also be a beauty. Step forward Michelle Pfeiffer, playing Christopher Plummer's daughter, as handsome and highly strung as any of the horses she dotes on at her father's estate. But Pfeiffer is too grand these days to play just 'the girl', and so the role has been beefed up with hints at an unhappy past and a wildly implausible former career as a psychiatric nurse. All this reeks of the script conference, but Pfeiffer still comes up smelling of roses. Her own mystery is such that it sweeps aside the dingy strategems of the script. When Nicholson, who becomes her lover, on a bed awash with moonlight, complains, 'I thought only the evil were cursed', she laughs back: 'Oh no, not at all. The worst things happen to the best people.' It is the same defeated chuckle that Pfeiffer's Countess Olenska gave in The Age of Innocence, when rejecting Newland Archer's dream of a society without prejudice. Pfeiffer's ethereal beauty is always grounded in such worldliness. What a pity there is so little film noir these days for her tainted allure to flicker in.

So far, so very good. Why, then, does the film collapse in its last half-hour? The answer may lie in the character of the director. Mike Nichols has always been more concerned with the smooth surfaces of society than its dark undercurrents. Remember that this is a man who escaped the Holocaust by a whisker, and you may understand why he is less than keen to indulge the hairier side of human nature. Most werewolf movies tell us there are destructive, bestial impulses in all of us. Nichols will have none of this. In the only poor scene of the first half, Nich olson gets an earful of wolf-lore from a quack, who tells him that the werewolf reflects the character of the man it inhabits. Nichols is telling us that the beast inside of us may be a teddy bear.

That is like saying you don't believe in werewolves at all. And when the wolves become more than shadowy, fleeting presences, the film scurries into a medley of feeble fights and plot devices, the more absurd for Nichols' earlier control. Still, much of Wolf can be devoured with pleasure. To be more interested in philanthropy than lycanthropy may be a fault to the good.

Two new French films arrive this week, one worthy, the other worthless, while the latest from Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer still await a British release. Aline Issermann's Shadow of a Doubt (15) shows the battle to bring to justice a father accused by his daughter of sexually abusing her. As 12-year-old Alexandrine, Sandrine Blancke gives a remarkable, near-silent performance, her grave face set in a kind of composed terror, the eyes wary, reproachful, lost. Her sadness holds the film together even as her family is falling apart. With just the child's account as evidence, doubt about her father's guilt remains. The film is an engrossing account of the legal process. At times, though, it feels more like a manifesto for children's rights than a drama.

Patrice Leconte's Le Parfum d'Yvonne (18), set largely in the Fifties (though you'd hardly know it), is the tale of a young French deserter from the war in Algeria, his affair with an actress, and their friendship with an eccentric homosexual older man. In other words, Leconte's usual mixture of flaccid eroticism, cheap sensation and strings scraping away on the soundtrack. Like his last effort, Tango (1993), it feels like an idea sketched on the back of an envelope, after a couple of cognacs. The result is plush, pretty, and as emotionally probing as a Gold Blend advertisement.

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