FILM / Valley of the doldrums

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The Independent Culture
Abraham Valley (PG)

Manoel de Oliveira (various)

City Slickers II (12)

Paul Weiland (US)

Faust (15)

Jan Svankmajer (various)

Which is worse, a failed Hollywood pot-boiler or a failed European art movie? The pot-boiler will boast a basic story-telling proficiency. It will have acceptable production values (none of your woolly, over-exposed hand-held camerawork) and it will generally have the huge, not-to-be-underestimated value of brevity. But it will be mindless, and mindless is not automatically fun. The bad art movie will offer formal ingenuity, intense acting and brainy pretensions. But, boy, can it be dull.

Abraham Valley is by no means incompetent; each scene is framed and shot with Swiss-watch precision. It's a quirky, off-centre literary adaptation - of Flaubert's Madame Bovary - whose unpredictable rhythms are quite different from the kind of lit pics we make here. But this three-hour 'reflection' is a mighty hard slog.

Its Emma is now called Ema and lives in Portugal: the film conveys a vivid sense of the steeply terraced landscape in which the story is set. A real little madam, she grows into a haughty, angular woman possessed, we are told, of a 'menacing beauty'. Wracked by frustration and superiority, she drifts through a series of unsatisfying affairs.

Abraham Valley exudes the terminal melancholy which seems to afflict every Portuguese film that surfaces in Britain. Everyone waffles on endlessly, leaving you often with not the faintest idea what they are on about. A sample: 'Come back to your mental disorders and the sugary expression of the heart you lost.' We all perked up a bit when another subtitle told us that 'Ema put on a boiler suit to go mad in a motor-boat', but the excitement didn't last.

The odd thing is that this director, Manoel de Oliveira, has led an action-packed life: he has been an athletics champion, a prize-winning motor-racer, a trapeze artist and a winegrower, only turning to movies in later life (he is now 85). How he could make such a languid film is a mystery.

City Slickers II is an urban office-worker's fantasy of action heroics. It is also this week's bad Hollywood pot-boiler. There can be few more dispiriting experiences than listening to jokes clanking like stones tossed into an empty tomb. The big question is how, with the same writers and much the same cast (Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Jack Palance), could the team which made the silly but amusing City Slickers I have produced such a stiff?

One answer may be that there is a different hand at the helm: here, it's Paul Weiland, a respected British commercials director who, on this evidence, has no flair for comedy. Another may be that the formula has run prematurely out of riffs. Palance, who died in the first film, turns out to have an identical twin (how's that for originality?), but the new Palance is a pale shade of his former self, that old boot who lit matches on his face. Palance II isn't even a cowboy.

We find Crystal et al still caught in the male menopause, still heading West on the Iron John trail, still bonding closely but not too closely (note the strong undercurrent of homophobia). They are in possession of a treasure map and the film's ending says, in nice Nineties manner: 'money doesn't matter, what really counts is relationships'. But then it quickly adds, Eighties- style, 'but it's awfully nice to be rich as well'.

With Faust, the Czech master-animator Jan Svankmajer chucks Goethe, Marlowe, Gounod and other sources into a crucible. The result is another literary update, this time mixing model and puppet animation with live actors. The film opens well enough, and spookily. for some 20 (entirely dialogue-free) minutes, Svankmajer's hero is slowly drawn into a sinister, subterranean world where he finds himself re- enacting the Faust legend. The director has a fine eye for unsettling detail: a chicken trapped, frantic, in an apartment stairwell; an egg discovered mysteriously inside a loaf of bread; a tongue protruding, in greedy, almost obscene close-up, through a man's beard.

The most serious problem is Faust himself. Svankmajer has taken one of the most complex characters in Western culture and turned him, literally, into a wooden marionette, manipulated by forces beyond his ken.

The production notes try to give this reading of Faust as eternal victim a political spin: 'Man cannot free himself from his own anxieties,' it says, 'any more than the change of a political regime can alter the foundations upon which civilisation has been built.' But a dummy is, frankly, a thin hero to sustain a full- length feature, and the puppet sequences often look plain flat, with little of the visual wizardry of Svankmajer's earlier model-animated shorts - only a breathtaking early sequence involving a protean clay baby hints at what might have been.