ANYTHING you can do, we can do blander, is the Hollywood motto of the moment. Moguls, discovering that Francophilia isn't an Irish leading man, are plundering European art-house cinema for stories. Sommersby is an intelligent but empty reworking of Le Retour de Martin Guerre: 16th-century France has become post-Civil War America, sex symbols have been swapped (Richard Gere for Gerard Depardieu), and the whole thing has been blown up and embroidered. Only the heart hasn't been transplanted.
The story, an old French folk tale, works well in its new setting, as it feeds off superstition and frayed nerves. On to a jittery Tennessee plantation swaggers Richard Gere, to reclaim his land and family. It's Jack Sommersby, returned from six years' fighting, unless I miss my guess. He's a little slimmer, better read, and, frankly, nicer; but it's the same old Jack. Or is it? His wife Laurel (Jodie Foster) seems to have her doubts. She dusts off an old photograph to reveal a stouter Jack - together they might have been known as Laurel and Hardy - a stolid patriarch rather than the slim rake she now has on her hands, and soon in her arms. There's another funny thing: before Jack went away they slept in separate rooms; now the mariage seems to have gone from blanc to bonk.
There's a problem with this story, as we discovered in Martin Guerre. It's too good. It's so naggingly intriguing that it drains the colour from the characters, who are reduced to questions. Jack becomes Is-he-or-isn't-he, and Laurel Does-she-or-doesn't-she-know. More interesting posers about love and identity are never put. It's like one of those Roald Dahl stories in which everything seems to be working to the twist.
Richard Gere's brand of bogus, mechanical acting is perversely suited to a character who may be a pathological liar. His repertoire of tics - the eyelash flutter and numbed nodding in shock - perfectly fit the sham actor. But the stakes have been raised from Martin Guerre. The returned Martin was better to his wife than the old; the new Sommersby benefits his community too. He's a progressive, giving land to blacks, and standing up to the men in white sheets. You can be a fake and genuine at the same time, we're meant to feel.
Laurel is Jodie Foster's 29th film role and her first romantic lead. With bunned hair, a bonnet and long skirts, she is out of Louisa May Alcott, and fights a losing battle against seeming Little Womanish. She's not as silent as Madame Guerre, a Tammy Wynette who stood by her man - whoever he was. But she looks out of place, dutiful and infatuated, where before she's been streetwise and independent. You can't fault her performance, but it's hard to feel it either.
British TV graduate Jon Amiel directs slickly and unsubtly, italicising every sly hint or shade of irony. When tobacco is being planted, the work is intercut with Gere heaving down on Foster in bed, to suggest that he's an agent of regeneration. Foster has described this film as 'a great date movie'; but it's so straightforward, it will probably appeal mainly to kids. It's photographed by Phillippe Rousselot, who shot A River Runs Through It, and he gives us another dazzling, dappled countryside. There's a virtuoso, wordless opening, showing Gere's journey, under lilac skies and snow, criss-crossing to frosted, feathery evergreens, one perfect composition gliding into another. Close your ears to Danny Elfman's swelling muzak, which sounds as if it's been pinched from a cross-Channel ferry, and feast on the pictures.
'Maxim and I understand each other without talking,' reports Stephane (Daniel Auteuil), narrator of Un Coeur en Hiver. He and Maxim run a violin shop for maestros, and they're as minutely tuned to each other as their fiddles to the fork. They dress with the same impeccable elegance: grey charcoal suits, light blue shirts, and stylishly sober ties. Maxim (Andre Dussollier) is the front man, sweet-talking customers. Stephane is the technician, making tiny adjustments to finger boards and bridges. Together they seem like two halves of the same brain. Expansive, genial and diplomatic Maxim; practical, morose and unyielding Stephane. When Maxim falls in love with stellar young violinist Camille (Emmanuelle Beart), all this harmony gives way to the sort of buzz that is afflicting Camille's troublesome G-string.
The rarefied musical world, where a hair's- breadth deviation from discipline can be ruinous, is reflected in the film's precision and delicacy. Like an ornamental pond, it's carved up by the tiniest ripple and then returns to calm. Great passions are registered by raising an eyebrow rather than tearing of hair. We only know Camille is falling for Stephane from the pounding pizzicato of her Ravel.
Stephane's emotions are the most enigmatic. Seemingly smitten by Camille, he courts her, but when she responds, withdraws. He resolved to make her love him, he claims, without himself loving her - director and co-writer Claude Sautet was inspired by a Lermontov story about a man seducing a woman for the pleasure of rejecting her. If that smacks of evil, Stephane seems more scared than bad, listlessly trying out tunes he knows his heartstrings won't play. 'There's something lifeless inside me,' he confesses. At a dinner party, he argues the value of having no opinions. His cynicism springs from a terror of involvement: the only person he ever loved was his irascible old music teacher (Maurice Garrel). And yet at times we feel he may be disavowing passion to keep it at bay.
Daniel Auteuil is moodily magnetic, half way between sulking Achilles and scheming Iago. With his blinking, shifty eyes, he seems to nurse an obscure hurt. His real-life wife Beart gives a beautifully nuanced portrait of a woman slowly surrendering to passion, and of the pain of rejection. She finally scrapes her chestnut locks into a bun, shadows her eyes, and confronts Stephane with her anguish - pulling her hair up and letting it down at the same time. We close with a shot of a rueful Stephane, which may be the limit of his emotion. All this picking over feelings gives the film the air of an haut monde Eric Rohmer, but it's tauter, with no word or shot wasted.
'That's showbiz,' commiserates a Hollywood director, snatching away the part he'd dangled in front of Billy Crystal's ageing comic, Buddy Young, who used to be Mr Saturday Night but is now suffering, as he puts it, from cancer of the career. The film follows Buddy from early days, giving his Jewish household the giggles, through years wowing Catskill country clubs, a flop on Ed Sullivan, when he was billed after the Beatles, to the present, with bookings as thin as his dyed hair. There were plenty of ups, but they weren't as high as his talent deserved. Pettiness pulled him down: he couldn't take a bad break without throwing a tantrum. We see enough of Buddy's act, with its lightning one-liners and deadly put-downs, to know that he was good, but he clearly lacked the grandeur to be great.
Bearing the brunt of Buddy's bad humour is his brother Stan (David Paymer), once part of the act but now manager. He hadn't the comic cruelty that was Buddy's gift and downfall. There's no schtick without schmaltz, and the scenes between Buddy and his long-suffering family can slip into sentimentality. But mostly the film's a revelation. Crystal, who also directs, made his name on Saturday Night Live, and has been strait-jacketed in conventional acting roles. In films like When Harry Met Sally and Throw Momma from the Train, he seemed whiney and unfunny: presenting him as a lovable grouch has softened his edge. Here his wit is unsheathed, and he slaughters us. It's the best thing he's done, but it bombed in America. That's showbiz.
'Sommersby' (12): Empire Leicester Square (497 9999) and general release. 'Un Coeur en Hiver' (12): Lumiere (836 0691), Camden Plaza (485 2443), Gate (727 4043), Odeon Kensington (371 3166). 'Mr Saturday Night' (15): Odeons Haymarket (839 7697), Swiss Cottage (722 5905), Kensington, Screen on the Hill (435 3366), Whiteleys (792 3324), MGM Chelsea (351 1026). All nos 071.
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