FILM / That Michael Dukakis feeling

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The Independent Culture
THE HYPE for Bob Roberts is now deafening, almost as loud as the hype for Bob himself. Over in America, apparently, no one can get over the thrill of seeing political satire alive and well inside the movies. Not just any old satire, either, but the kind with a message tacked on: 'VOTE', the credits say. Maybe they should make viewing compulsory: 'GO SEE.' Maybe.

The film is about a fictional candidate in a 1990 race for the Senate - Bob Roberts, 'the rebel conservative', with Yale and Wall Street behind him and a guitar strap round his neck. He froths up support with a stream of songs urging his countrymen to kick welfare in the teeth and get into capital investment. He's a hybrid of John Denver and Oliver North, although he might take that as a compliment. Bob repels all invective and soaks up praise, even when it wasn't meant for him. We know of men powered by the political machine, or snagging in the works, but this one is a machine. None of his background material sounds convincing - he's more like something lowered into Pennsylvania out of a spaceship, programmed by aliens who think they know enough about American politics to play the system and win.

Bob is played by Tim Robbins, who also wrote and directed the film. Such lofty enterprise doesn't feel like self- aggrandisement, though I almost wish it did. Robbins is plainly clever, modest and well-intentioned, and his movie flatters us by making us feel the same. We never learn who Bob is, but it's made quite clear what sort of person he is - one of the steely and soulless who conspire to run the country, a stock figure from movie demonology. He himself does a great robot impersonation: the suit appears to be cut from wraparound steel, the Teutonic wave run by elbow pistons, the smile switched on by crowd-sensitive detectors.

It's almost too skilled a performance: if Robbins gave Bob any more life, he might start to woo our sympathy, pick up a few votes in the process. I have heard Bob Roberts mentioned in the same breath as Citizen Kane, but no way. Orson Welles had the moral imagination to try out the devil's tune; we knew that Kane was a liar and a chancer, but we were also caught in the heat of his desires. We were a rabble, and he roused us, whereas Bob comes complete with instructions: beware, pure poison. Only during his stage act do we sense why anyone might want to join his cause, and even then the songs are too much of a farce - apart from one about liberal complainers, they lack the snap rhymes and singalong chants of the true protest anthem.

The film is framed as a mock documentary, shot by an English crew anxious to unravel the Roberts secret. This means the camera is mostly hand-held, sometimes hand-covered and once or twice arm-wrestled out of sight. But the choppiness of the movie goes beyond this; the action keeps darting away to mirrors, posters, headlines and every kind of screen. There are the grey computer screen where we catch the bendy reflection of Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito), a journalist who sieves through Bob's past for nuggets of filth; the dealer screens on the campaign bus, scrolling down the world markets as Bob proclaims his care for depressed areas (don't expect quiet ironies); and above all, the television screen - Bob's natural habitat, a feast of sound-bites.

With all this toss and turn of images, the movie deliberately loses its thread and starts to have fun: we get celebrity cameos - James Spader and Fred Ward as newsreaders - and a brace of Bob's reactionary pop videos, including an easy piss-take of Bob Dylan. Best of all is Alan Rickman as Bob's adviser, Mephistopheles in smoked glasses. It's like the Sheriff of Nottingham all over again: you want more of him, more snarls, more dancing eyebrows - the sweet stink of excess. Political packaging is now so shiny and assured that most satire just slides off it; only furious caricature can find a way through.

The first 30 minutes of Bob Roberts are the best, with the conceit still fresh, but the last are unbelievable: where did all the fun go? First, the documentary- maker warns a group of Americans about Bob: 'I don't know if he's healthy for your country.' No, really? We also get lectured at, straight to camera, first by Raplin and then by Brickley Paiste, Bob's senatorial rival. Or rather by Gore Vidal, who doesn't so much play Paiste as use him to relaunch the Vidal view of America, of which even he sounds weary these days. We should roar out of this movie with indignation in our veins, but I just felt beaten and deflated, like Michael Dukakis. Maybe it was all those screens, a nation cut into chunks of chat. How can anyone condemn Bob Roberts for fiddling with the truth, when the truth has long ago exploded in our hands?

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf is the third film by the French director Leos Carax, and much the best. It's also much the same: all three are drunk on Paris and graced with a surly hero called Alex, played by Denis Lavant. He doesn't get any older from one film to the next; the aim is delinquency rather than maturity, and Carax backs him all the way. We first see him on hands and knees, grating his forehead against a road as if to relieve the itch of inflamed thoughts. Then he gets run over. Then carted off to a hostel for the homeless. All this happens in the first 10 minutes, which makes you wonder how deep the squalor is going to dive.

Alex's first words are, 'Got to get back to the bridge' - the closed and crumbling Pont-Neuf. There he finds a fellow tramp, the once lovely, half- blind Michele (Juliette Binoche). What follows is a love story, but only just; 'love needs bedrooms,' we hear, 'not windy sidewalks'. It clears away the misty romance of Marcel Carne, his dream that love could flourish anywhere, the gloomier the better. Here it scrapes through by the skin of its knees.

Most viewers have found this unbalanced, and they're right: but on second viewing I found the offbeat rhythms captivating, and these bitter, unlikeable people rather moving - they crave so little sympathy, and seem so cold to their own fate. Think of it as cinema living rough, scruffy patches of tedium broken by bursts of lunatic freedom. The film is set in 1989, and the scenes of Revolutionary celebration - dripping waterfalls of fire, the Seine as angry as open sea, the camera jumping up and down like an excited child - have no equal in recent cinema. It is as though Michele, not Carax, were directing the film: losing her sight, and quickly grabbing a glimpse of colour and wildness before they go for good.

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