Expert writing, directing and acting help this offbeat drama discover some powerful new themes in a novella that has been scandalising Western society since it was first published in 1870. The book's author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch even gave us the word "masochism". But this film by Roman Polanski and playwright David Ives digs far beneath the S&M to say some startling things about the male-female divide.
It's set in a theatre on a rainy day in Paris, where the actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives late in a disheveled state to audition for the play's writer-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric). But he's had a bad day, and immediately writes Vanda off. Eventually she wears him down, and the moment she starts reading his own words he's transfixed. She not only embodies the character, but she sparks something inside him that makes him question his own work. And as he runs the lines with her, she exerts an odd power over him that shifts in ways Thomas never sees coming.
Even with just two people on a stage, this movie is utterly riveting: funny, sexy, scary, surprising, intelligent and fiercely stylish. Polanski's direction is bold and playful, building a compelling rhythm that charges through 90 minutes of sometimes too-clever dialogue that keeps our minds spinning. And both Seigner and Amalric make the most of the script, packing every moment with insinuation and wit as they play with the ideas raised by the play within the film, which is about a dominatrix and her slave.
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With Ozon's usual sharp writing and direction, this black comedy is a fabulous series of provocations, challenging us to explore how we see, or perhaps imagine, the people in our lives. It's also a playful exploration of the nature of storytelling itself, using a teacher-student relationship to reveal all kinds of uncomfortable truths.
The teacher and student in question are Germain (Luchini), who's tired of teaching literature to illiterate students, and shy 16-year-old Claude (Umhauer), a gifted young writer. His essays spark Germain's imagination because they continue on from each other to serialise his encounters with the family of his friend Rapha (Ughetto). As Claude writes about flirting with Rapha's mum (Sagnier) or becoming pals with his dad (Menochet), Germain becomes gripped by the story. And so does his wife Jeanne (Scott Thomas), who sees this as a wonderful escape from the mundane pressures in her life. But in a private tutoring session with Claude, Germain crosses an ethical line. And things start to get strange.
Writer-director Ozon is wickedly blurring the line between fact and fiction, as everyone who reads Claude's essays imagines the people in ways that fuel their own fantasies. So events unfold through a variety of perspectives, some of which must surely be imagined, especially as Germain and Claude adjust the characters to reveal hidden secrets. Yes, this brings out the voyeuristic tendencies in all of the characters, and in us as well, since we too are living vicariously through people whose lives seem so much more interesting than ours. Even if they are supposed to be us.
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Julian Schnabel's engrossing new documentary, Lou Reed's Berlin, is immediately at odds with this mindset. Schnabel prefaces the film with his own interpretation of Lou Reed's famous 1973 commercial failure, an album, as he would have it, about "love's dark sisters: jealousy, rage, and loss". In reality, Berlin was the follow-up to Reed's breakthrough album Transformer, a Bowie-aping glam rock juggernaut. But unlike its widely-loved, commercially successful predecessor, Berlin made hooey at the cash register and was received with mixed critical reaction. Today, many of Reed's most ardent fans consider it his shining hour as a solo artist.
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Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly takes its title from said book, and, like its source material, the film has a spiffy discordance to it. When Bauby (the great Mathieu Amalric) opens his eyes, so does the camera, and we are struck by the light in the same petrified and blurry way that Bauby is. Manipulated to Brakhage-like lengths, the image has the same effect as Jean-Do's fumbling voiceover; we are as unsure of his footing as he is. His pleading to not sew up an eye threatened by infection becomes our begging; we don't want to lose the slight view we have. Then, with little preparation, we aren't with the protagonist anymore, and we are looking at a frozen, terminally-twitched face in a hospital bed.
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Played by the radiant Marion Cotillard, Piaf rose to stardom as France's most infamous and celebrated singer. Her inebriated bravado and playful demeanor only enlivened her fluid, stunning voice, creating some of the most entertaining and dynamic live performances ever given by a solo vocalist. Rising up with her best friend Momone (a solid Sylvie Testud), Piaf was saved from a youth spent being raised in a bordello when her father couldn't keep things together. Singing on the street, Piaf was finally found by club owner Louis Leplee (the reliably great Gerard Depardieu). From there, Piaf furthered her talents and eventually became the great singer we now know her as.
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Fortunately, The Ninth Gate is neither of these. In actuality, it's a mystery with Johnny Depp as the unlikely hero, Frank Langella as the perfectly-cast antagonist, and Lena Olin and Emmanuelle Seigner as the femmes fatale. Under the direction of Roman Polanski, you can rest assured that these characters get mixed up quite a bit en route through a serpentine plot that is far more interesting than its subject matter would imply: The search for a couple of rare books.
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Why is he bound to a wheelchair? How did the innocent couple turn so perverted? Coyote's story talks about bondage, golden showers, and even ends up with Coyote crawling around on the floor, grunting while he wears a pig mask.
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Opening like a cheap horror movie with titles that fly out of computer-animated castle facades, "The Ninth Gate" has an uphill battle to recover respectability from the very beginning.
Director Roman Polanski bounces back nicely at first though, weaving an eerie, Gothic fabric around this film featuring Johnny Depp as an unscrupulous rare book expert, hired by a cadaverous demonology collector (Frank Langella) to find and authenticate two similar copies of an ancient Satanic volume he has acquired through questionable means.
Sent to Portugal and Paris to study the other editions, Dean Corso (Depp) discovers the demonic engravings that grace each book differ slightly from copy to copy. Some of the drawings, he seems to believe, are signed by Lucifer himself.
Continue reading: The Ninth Gate Review
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