FILM / Nothing like a Dane: Adam Mars-Jones on The Silent Touch, Used People and The Jungle Book

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The Independent Culture
A YOUNG musicologist in Poland dreams of lava flow and a simple musical theme, interrupted by ecstatic outbursts from a choir. That's the opening situation of Krzysztof Zanussi's The Silent Touch (15). Stefan (Lothaire Bluteau) becomes convinced not only that this is a piece of music waiting to be written, but that he knows whose music it will be. It will be written by Henry Kesdi (Max Von Sydow), an elderly Danish composer who happens to have written nothing since the War.

International co-production seems to be the future, as far as European films are concerned, but the results all too often end up looking like projects in Esperanto (no insult to Esperanto, but it's nobody's first language). Zanussi, a Pole who spends most of his time outside his native country, is trying to make films whose universality is not another word for homelessness. Presumably that's the reason for basing the script (written by Peter Morgan and Mark Wadlow from a story by Zanussi and Edward Zebrowski) around music, seen as a universal language.

The universality of music, though, tends to be much exaggerated. When Stefan, who has hitchhiked to Denmark and somehow beguiled himself into the old misanthrope's favour, succeeds in persuading him to compose, Kesdi's music - what he calls his Opus 1 - is as old hat as you'd expect from somebody who regards Berg and Schoenberg as interchangeably untalented. As provided by Wojciech Kilar, it's as repetitive as Bolero, and you can easily imagine Torvill and Dean making pretty ice-pictures of it. The dream of a universal language is actually nostalgia for a golden age, the old world order of tonality.

The other universal language in the film, as its title suggests, is physical touch. Stefan relieves Henry's asthma by an instinctive laying-on of hands, though he has no past history of healing. He takes on the old man's aches and pains, and as the story develops, even serious illness. The story is in part an inversion of the Faust legend, with Stefan (whom Henry addresses at one point as Mephistopheles) offering the old reprobate a redemptive bargain. This would be a more powerful idea if the Faust legend wasn't already an inversion - about a rejection of Christ's sacrifice - so that turning it inside out brings us back to square one.

Stefan even provides Henry with physical touch in the shape of a Gretchen figure, a young woman who serves as amanuensis, lover and finally mother of the child he always wanted (rather to the temporary discomfiture of his wife, played by Sarah Miles). Whatever else it does or doesn't offer, The Silent Touch certainly gives Von Sydow a cracking part, his best in years. But then, even Charlton Heston would respond to a script where the septuagenarian gets the girl and the young man gets the aches and pains.

The film's themes are heavy - creativity, sacrifice, the selfishness of art - but the treatment is often light. One sequence, of interviewing candidates for the post of Henry's secretary, could come right out of Fame or The Commitments. It's just that the mixture seems rather arbitrary and rather inconsequential, some way short of the universality that Zanussi is after.

The selling points of Used People (15) are Shirley MacLaine doing a mild repeat of her Terms of Endearment, as the impossible mother whose only problem is loving too much, and Beeban Kidron, director of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for television. Not surprisingly, it's an uneven contest, with MacLaine's infinitely practised tears-and-laughter routines resisting Kidron's attempts to make things a little more abrasive and truthful.

There's only so much truthfulness that a screenplay like Todd Graff's can take. Years ago, a stranger saved the heroine's marriage by telling her husband, who was about to leave her for no very definite reason, that if they couldn't talk, at least they could dance - and showing him how. Twenty years later, this stranger, played by Marcello Mastroianni, turns up after her husband's funeral to pay his respects. He's never met her, but he's loved her for 20 years already.

Not all of the screenplay is quite so soggy, but this is the sort of film where every character has a different kind of wisdom - the heroine's sardonic and earthy, the Mastroianni character's literate and sentimental. Even characters with mental illness turn out to be coping in their own way: a woman bereaved by cot death impersonates movie stars in her daily life - she just can't bear to be the person she is. Her surviving son thinks he's being supernaturally protected by his dead grandfather - that's his style of grieving, combined with a cry for help. Kidron keeps the whole confection moving along, but it's hard to see what she could have hoped to bring out of such a resolutely formulaic entertainment.

The freshest film of the week is incontestably the re-released Walt Disney Jungle Book (U). Disney died the year before the film first appeared, but he made many of the crucial decisions on the project. It was his idea to cast Phil Harris as the voice of Baloo the bear - a wonderfully relaxed characterisation once Harris was allowed to rephrase the lines in his own way. There was disagreement among the animators about how to render Kaa the snake - body language without limbs is something of a tall order - which was solved by giving the creature a big nose, pop eyes and Sterling Holloway voice, heavy on the sibilants. Disney was well enough pleased to insist on Kaa reappearing later on in the story.

The vocal characterisations are the keys to the film's success, whether they set the tone for the visual interpretations - Baloo's shambling ease - or work against them, as with Bagheera the panther, cautionary killjoy in speech, lithe cat in movement. Casting George Sanders, the most urbane voice in the movies, as Shere Khan the tiger is a characteristically inspired piece of perversity (an urbane tiger?). The climax of the film is certainly the set singing duel between Baloo and King Louie of the apes (voiced by Louis Prima) - one of the most sheerly joyful sequences in the movies, animated or otherwise.

See On Release, opposite, for cinema details

(Photograph omitted)

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