Too much safety in the home
SAFE PASSAGE Robert Allan Ackerman (15) THE MAN IN MY LIFE Jean Charles Tacchella (12) SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT Ingmar Bergman (PG)
Thursday 24 August 1995
The movie shapes up as a portrait of a family in crisis: Sarandon's husband, played by Sam Shepard (whose own plays have comprehensively explored the subject), has moved out and is camping in his office; she is restless and resentful that most of her adult life has been spent cutting up other people's meat; there are intimations of tension and rivalry between the sons.
Alas, they all turn out to be boringly well adjusted: there's barely a whiff of dysfunction in the entire brood. The reactionary subtext is that, although she seems at first frustrated, it's a fine, fulfilling job (full, as the film's ominous epigram has it, of "joy and significance") to be a wife and mom. It's slightly surprising to see Sarandon, a prominent Hollywood liberal and feminist, involved with this scenario.
Odd, too, to see the name of another woman, the producer Gale Anne Hurd who has based her career on a stream of action-adventure hits (all with strong, independent roles for their female leads) including Aliens, The Terminator and The Abyss. Safe Passage is a small scale, dialogue-driven domestic drama set almost entirely within a couple of rooms.
The scope could scarcely be narrower: it's one of those American movies that uses a political crisis (and the deaths of hundreds of other unnamed men) as a colourful backdrop to the real drama - what's going on within the four walls of the family home. With bombings in the Middle East back in the news, the head-in-the-sand stance looks even more objectionable.
Still, no film starring Sarandon can be all bad. She fleshes out a dull role, the long-suffering mother, into a character who's difficult, aggressive, infuriating and unpredictable, lending the banal material an edge of constant danger. You keep waiting for her to explode: in vain - the film is, after all, called Safe Passage.
I was thoroughly puzzled by The Man in My Life, directed by Jean Charles Tacchella, who once made Cousin Cousine, a silly, but commercially successful, romantic farce. Half this film appears to be missing as Maria de Medeiros, on the hunt for a rich husband, cuts a bright, erratic swathe through the plot: one minute she's sizing up a man for the job, the next she's back from a disastrous trip to Thailand (which the budget clearly didn't run to showing) and has written him off. A few beats later, she's about to marry yet another character whom we haven't yet seen. Most mysteriously of all, her real love is a hard-up bookseller, a glum, rum, profoundly unsexy individual (Thierry Fortineau) with dubious personal habits and an appalling Bee Gee hairstyle which might have once, circa 1973, almost looked acceptable.
The tone veers as wildly; to call it a comedy is really overstating the matter. The two best scenes, as one would expect in a French film, concern food and sex: the noxious husband, a restaurant critic, railing at the chef for the sea-urchin sauce (without sea-urchins in it) served at his wedding breakfast, while shortly afterwards, in the interests of a speedy divorce, his wife and lover summon a small posse of flics to catch them as they pose obligingly in flagrante.
The name of Ingmar Bergman is not widely associated with levity, and in his memoirs, A Life in Film, he recalls that it was only a long strike in the Swedish film industry in 1951 that forced him to knock off some commercials and comedies to replenish his coffers. He conceived Smiles of a Summer Night while staying in a Swiss hotel next to a clinic for rich roues dying of syphilis, completed it back in Sweden at a boarding house in the company of a young girl recovering from a severe penicillin allergy and shot it while suffering himself from "sickness and depression".
The result, a featherlight comedy about the erotic machinations of a group of couples at a country house party at the turn of the century, has a strong undertow of melancholy, morbidity even, but much surface elegance, sunniness and charm: celebrated homages include Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.
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