CINEMA / Gere - the architect of his own destruction

Quentin Curtis
Saturday 04 June 1994 23:02

ACTING your age is often the greatest challenge for the Hollywood star. In Intersection (15), screen fatherhood catches up with Richard Gere, and seems to take him by surprise, as if he wasn't expecting it for another decade or so. Gere is now 44, easily old enough to have fathered the teenage daughter with whom the film shows him lunching. And yet his whole smooching body-language is that of a younger man, of irresponsible bachelordom. There are, of course, men who flirt with their daughters. But not this one: an award-winning architect, whose indecision is the plot's motor, he should be sober and self-absorbed.

Intersection is about middle-age - the great grey area for Hollywood, which deals in the trials of youth and the eccentricity of old age, but largely ignores the ordinariness in between. Gere and Sharon Stone play a couple whose marriage is grinding to a standstill, even as their professional partnership is beginning to go places. He has a lover (Lolita Davidovich) but can't muster the energy - or the will - to start afresh with her. The film disapproves of this wavering. Opening with Gere crashing his Mercedes, and proceeding through a series of Proustian recollections of key moments in his life - the proverbial life flashing before his eyes - it smacks out its message with the complacency of a coat of arms: 'carpe diem'. At key moments the director, Mark Rydell, cuts to a clock mechanism in which a gold ball-bearing inches down a chute - an image of Time's golden moments rolling inexorably on.

For the film to work, we would have to feel the stab of something precious passing, of love cooling into indifference. But though Stone and Gere speak the lines of marital familiarity - 'What is it? Your sinuses?' - they seem like strangers. Stone chose to play the wife rather than the mistress, but the role of a demure organiser squanders her raw vitality. And Lolita Davidovich can't do anything with the under-written other woman: one of those characters everyone compliments on their wit, without there being much evidence of it on the screen.

Intersection is an adaptation of Claude Sautet's 1970 film, Les Choses de la Vie (now available from Arrow Video). Faithful to the original plot, it subtly betrays its spirit, neatly illustrating the gulf in sensibility between European film-making and American. Sautet's film is the cinematic equivalent of the literary 'conte philosophique', with the same blending of theory and feeling that characterised his recent Un Coeur en Hiver. Its plot is merely a pretext for a meditation on death. The film's best sequences show, quite convincingly, what it might be like to die: first a great sardonic weariness, then a moment or two of luminous rapture, and, finally, a gentle sinking.

Intersection has a similar sequence. However, the focus is not on the metaphysical moment but on whether Gere will survive, and how he's going to sort out his personal affairs. The American film is impatient with ideas, always seeking to wrap them in suspense or irony, and so smothering their force. And Gere, though the same age as Michel Piccoli was when he played the role in Sautet's film, seems to have lived a lifetime less.

Howard Davies's The Secret Rapture (15) feels like a fascinating sketch on David Hare's play rather than a fully fledged adaptation. It unravels the play's darkest strand, discarding much of its social comedy. If you admired the stage version, the film may seem distorted. The play was at least as much about Marion (Penelope Wilton), the Tory MP, as her liberal sister, Isobel (Juliet Stevenson). Now the focus is on Isobel; Wilton's Marion, a brilliant impersonation of the raging pathology of Thatcherism, is sidelined.

In these two sisters, and their reactions to their widowed stepmother Katherine (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer), Hare embodies the duelling political philosophies whose battleground was British society in the 1980s. Hare's original genius, which survives in the film, was to make clear which horse he's backing, while showing the reasons why it may never win. Isobel takes the boozing, wayward Katherine into her design firm, and allows her life to be upturned - her livelihood jeopardised, her lover (Neil Pearson) alienated. Buffeted between two types of pragmatism - her sponging stepmother's and her grasping sister's - she is searching for a path through the greedy logic of the world. But her own niceness comes to seem a form of evasion, a goodness that's useless in such fierce times. The film is a tragedy - the tragedy of Britain in the Eighties.

Davies finds smart visual motifs for the play's ideas. Our first sight of Isobel's lover - a pair of arms reaching out of bed for her - is an image echoed in her later complaint that his love is a form of neediness (she's exploited by everyone). But Davies also makes the film oppressively sombre, borrowing the paraphernalia of film noir, its shadows, slatted windows and persistent drizzle. The doomy imagery often looks imposed rather than organic, perhaps betraying a wariness of being found too 'talky'. The film lasts only 90 minutes, and might have benefited from developing its arguments.

Juliet Stevenson gives a fine, anguished performance as Isobel. In a cast of performers known mainly for stage work (including Robert Stephens and Alan Howard), she best adapts her performance to film, toning it down, making it a matter of enigma rather than statement. But I don't think she matches Jill Baker's matter-of-fact saintliness on stage. Stevenson is a star, which feels inimical to the role. She should be a beacon of ordinariness.

The Secret Rapture joins Hare's puzzling, often dazzling, cinematic oeuvre. It has the same feel for the pulse of recent British history, the same instinct for melodrama, and the same piercing but humane analysis of character. And, like most of his work, it is hauntingly elusive.

Patrick Keiller's London, now at the ICA, is a feature-length documentary on the metropolis. Keiller takes us on a series of journeys through the city in 1992 (year of the rise of John Major and the fall of the Royals, among other desultory highlights). Paul Scofield narrates Keiller's commentary - scraps of Continental aesthetics, personal reminiscence and political dissent, mainly reported as observations of the narrator's friend 'Robinson'. This device of distancing the narrator from his narration has been used by the French documentarist, Chris Marker, though Keiller's apercus are not always as sharp as Marker's (the political points are banally partisan).

The film's melancholy power lies more in its stationary camera, whose mistily anaesthetic images amount to a disaffected traveller's slide-show of an unreal city. In one scene, the camera has wandered forlornly into the pomp and absurdity of the Trooping of the Colour. Scofield's narration ('It was certainly an impressive display . . .'), freed of Robinson's pronouncements, is puzzled yet gently appreciative. The narrator's mild acceptance stands, poignantly, for the forgotten populace, hinting at a society whose values are hopelessly out of kilter. As veterans mill, in muffled half-sound, around the Queen Mother, there's a note of bleak absurdism. A murmur of lamentation runs through the film - for something buried, that may have been worth preserving.

Dangerous Game (18) is Abel Ferrara's best film, which is perhaps less of a compliment than its canny study of film-making deserves. It's especially good at showing how bad blood behind the camera can spill on to the screen. Madonna plays herself (competently); Harvey Keitel, as her director, is superb.

No Escape (18) has Ray Liotta trying to get out of a futuristic penal colony in 2022. There are inklings of ideas, but the film's bad instincts get the better of its good intentions.

Ismail Merchant's directing debut, In Custody (U), is a lively, sharply-observed adaptation of Anita Desai's novel about a professor who finds that his idol, a great Urdu poet, has feet of clay. After all these years, we discover that it should have been Merchant, not Ivory, directing.

Cinema details: Review, page 74.

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