New films: The Nazis' camp was never like this
Friday 06 March 1998
UN AIR DE FAMILLE Cedric Klapisch (15)
MRS DALLOWAY Marleen Gorris (PG)
KISS THE GIRLS Gary Fleder (18)
The first 15 minutes of Bent, Martin Sherman's adaptation of his own 1979 play about the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany, have a woozy, seductive rhythm that's undoubtedly helped by the almost complete absence of dialogue. The setting is a sprawling outdoor nightclub in Thirties Berlin, populated by fishnet fascists, bald transvestites and lounge lizards, all of them united by the common pursuit of sex and drugs. Like your average works do, really, only with the added bonus of being presided over by Mick Jagger, swinging on a trapeze and dolled up like Ena Sharples, which may just be the consummate symbol of decadence.
Swanning around, and snorting cocaine through a rolled-up Deutschmark note, is the dapper Max (Clive Owen), who brings a pretty blond soldier home with him, to the dismay of his lover, Rudy (Brian Webber).
It's around this point, as the Nazis move in on Max and drag him off to Dachau, that the film's focus blurs. The keen cinematic sensibility of that opening sequence is rejected, as the director Sean Mathias chooses to honour his picture's theatrical roots by fixing the camera on Max and his fellow prisoner Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), and staying with their hard labour rituals every torturous step of the way.
Although Max and Horst's attempts to defy their imprisonment by creating a sexual relationship purely through language results in one starkly touching scene, the performances are generally too mannered to be truly affecting. And the film comes unstuck when it attempts to promote a hierarchy of suffering, arguing that the distinction between the treatment of gays and Jews at the hands of the Nazis was broad enough to be notable. I started to lose patience at this point, and fondly imagined that Jagger was going to make a dramatic return on his trapeze and save the day.
Un Air de Famille is also an adaptation of a stage play, and while it displays its origins all too clearly and can't boast the appearance of anyone on a trapeze, let alone Mick Jagger, it does have the benefit of a spiky sense of humour - the slow-burning absurdity of some of its dialogue can make a giggle snowball into a belly-laugh even before you've realised it's happening. The scenario is a gathering in a family-owned restaurant - the wonderfully named Sleepy Dad's Cafe - in which the family concerned bash out all their old grievances and jealousies, with the charmingly dippy waiter (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) watching from the sidelines.
The tone is sometimes reminiscent of Mike Leigh at his broadest, though the film makes few claims to reflect reality, and only really falls on its face when it tries to get serious. Top marks for the writers' persistence with some gleefully tasteless dead dog gags, and for the marvellous scene where a man calling to his wife, who won't come out of her flat, is assisted by a bunch of street urchins contributing cries of "Yo, bitch!" to his desperate serenade.
There's something ingratiating in the way that Marleen Gorris, who has directed the film of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, approaches her material: she trivialises everything she touches, and sucks the passion out of it. Perhaps she is too straight-faced about the hackneyed devices she uses: wistful music and close-ups on an entranced face to signify an upcoming flashback, or the camera making a sudden lurch towards spiked railings to let us know that someone has just committed suicide. Watching her films is like flicking through someone else's family album at a dizzying speed: not only are the people pictured foreign to you, but you can't make out their faces anyway.
As the melancholy Mrs Dalloway, whose memories prompt vague thoughts of mortality, Vanessa Redgrave is haunting, and nicely complemented by Rupert Graves, whose performance as the shell-shocked soldier Septimus has a poignant little-boy-lost sweetness. A film of occasional poetic moments, tacked together as if by a bricklayer.
The serial-killer movie has been part of the cinematic landscape for so long now that it's hard not to feel a faint sense of comfort when faced with another deranged psychopath who makes household ornaments out of his victims' extremities; he's as much a part of our extended fictional family as the hooker with a heart. That could account for the total lack of suspense in Kiss the Girls, or it may be because the makers haven't bothered to add anything original to the pile of stolen ideas which they have assembled, looting everything you can think of, including Seven, Nighthawks, The Silence of the Lambs and No Way to Treat a Lady.
Even Morgan Freeman seems to be parodying himself as the forensic psychologist who joins the hunt for the serial killer who has abducted his niece. Assisting him is Ashley Judd as a kickboxing surgeon - no, really - freshly escaped from the murderer's clutches.
Many questions occurred to me while watching the film, not least why psychopaths in the movies always cover their bedroom walls with newspaper clippings detailing their crimes. If you don't know what to buy the serial killer in your life this Christmas, I'm sure he could use a scrapbook and a few rolls of wallpaper.
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