The value of nothing

The Proprietor Ismail Merchant (12)
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The Independent Culture
There's an interesting film hidden somewhere inside The Proprietor, Ismail Merchant's second film as director but, like any stowaway, it's in no hurry to reveal itself. The screenwriters are an odd couple, the French playwright Jean-Marie Besset and George Trow, for many years a staff writer on The New Yorker. Trow did, though, co-write the early Merchant Ivory oddity Savages, a wild fantasy about civilisation and barbarism.

The situation of The Proprietor contains a number of those Jamesian themes that have proved so attractive in the past to Merchant and his collaborators. The heroine, Adrienne Mark (Jeanne Moreau), is a world-famous French novelist living in New York, but she has a problematic relationship with various defining bits of property. There's the Paris flat that her Jewish mother unwisely made over to a collaborator lover during the war in the vain hope of being protected by him. Now the flat is up for sale, and Adrienne realises her American assets so as to return and bid for it.

She owns also a fine portrait of herself as a child, except that the broken thread of family history meant that she didn't inherit it. It was her (then) husband who spotted the painting in a flea market long after the war, and gave it to her. Adrienne's cultural reputation might seem to be something that she wholly owns, but it turns out she is best known for films made from one particular novel - Je M'Appelle France, respectfully filmed under that title in the Sixties, and still available as a video with the blurb "The movie that changed the way we look at women", but crassly re-made in the Seventies for the American market as Call Me French. Her work seems to be more watched than read.

New York and Paris don't seem all that different in The Proprietor, but that may be because Adrienne lives in rather grand accommodation, with old bricks and a courtyard. New York boasts a fancy restaurant called the Odeon, while in Paris we glimpse an establishment called Cafe Lunch. In America, everything is for sale, and the only domestic commodity that might be worth anything is black music. Adrienne feels that the creative spark has gone out of America, but finds Paris on her return disturbingly racist.

The Americans in the film feel they own everything without responsibility - a woman film executive who makes worthless childish movies ("We own bears - the concept of bears") feels that the flat that Adrienne wants to buy back is "very Cocteau". When told she doesn't know what she's talking about, she replies, "In my mind, Cocteau thinks anything I want him to think." The French, on the other hand, are possessive of their culture, keen to exclude people from it, in a way that makes her remember the Occupation. Is there a middle position between plutocratic free-for-all and narrow protectionism? Perhaps Adrienne, reconnecting herself to her past - repossessing it, as she says - can find one.

According to this almost certifiably benign reading of the film, The Proprietor would be a sort of dowdy cousin of Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, but the reality falls far short. If you give your central character a traumatic past, you need to work it out in some detail. Yet we're given no hint as to how Adrienne survived the war after her mother was rounded up. Perhaps each of the scriptwriters thought the other had filled that little gap.

The closest real-life equivalent to Adrienne Mark would have to be Marguerite Duras (in the film of whose Moderato Cantabile Moreau starred in 1960) but she would hardly have commanded such international celebrity even if she lived in New York. A young American, excited at having run into her at an art gallery, phones a friend to say he's met someone "blonde, and very famous" and then adds wearily, "No, not Cindy Crawford."

Outside of the movies, it's only movie stars and models who are that famous, and Jeanne Moreau herself never aspired to that level. She left that kind of thing to Bardot.

Moreau is a considerable but rather wayward actress, who has bags of charm, an imperious manner and the occasional baleful look, all of which should suit her for the role. But her emotional rhythms are often unconvincing, and several times in The Proprietor she makes an intense speech - saying "You're as mad with me as you've ever been" to her maid, or lamenting the folly of trying to exchange the last 50 years of her life for the first 10 - followed up with a mystifyingly broad smile. In New York she has the unhappy task of wandering around town being arbitrarily reminded of the Occupation: a gown in a window reminds her of her dressmaker mother, a champagne cork popped in Central Park flashes her back to her 11th birthday party, a doorman in uniform triggers a memory of Nazism.

We see clips of the two films made from Adrienne's book and, although the re-make is as crass as advertised, the French original seems sexily pretentious in a way not unknown to that national cinema. But even if it were an uncompromising masterpiece, The Proprietor hardly follows in those footsteps, with its contrived romances, culminating in one of the weirdest musical numbers since Peter Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love, with Sean Young and Marc Tissot singing the Inkspots' "If I Didn't Care" in and around the fountains of a chateau.

Only two scenes in the film hint at something better: one of Adrienne's New York maid Milly, in return for the gift of the childhood portrait, doing the Motown routine she almost recorded with Wilson Pickett, where Nell Carter gives it, charmingly, everything she's got. In the other, a young man in Paris helps his stroke-disabled father into a narrow lift, then races it up the stairs to their floor, to the accompaniment of some atmospheric jazz. This is one of the few scenes not from Adrienne's point of view, indicating perhaps that the director feels confined by this project. And, in fact, the old man in the lift, with his pained, animated monkey- face, does look a little like Cocteaun

On release from tomorrow