Unfolding with fecund ripeness in a long and languorous day and evening in the French countryside, where some siblings and their respective others share a meal and sharp-edged conversation at the old family house, the film plays with the notion of barely-concealed secrets and a hint of rottenness. When Alex Beck (Francois Cluzet) chases his wife Margot (Marie-Josee Croze) through a forested pathway lined with lushly blooming flowers, the scene is romantic but weighted with death -- it wouldn't surprise you to find out that the soil was so rich due to bodies being buried there. Like the childhood sweethearts they once were, Alex and Margot swim playfully in a small pond and then coil up naked in the warm night air on a floating raft. She goes ashore; there are sounds of a struggle. Alex, panicked, swims for the dock only to get whacked unconscious by an unseen assailant.
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While Kevin Reynolds' (Waterworld) recent adaptation was warmly received by both audiences and critics (myself included), his was a truncated version. It made up for graceless transitions with gorgeously shot action sequences and American melodrama. Reynolds focused on the story's conflict but lost all the subtlety of the inner narrative, the character growth, and the true turning of the worm. While not as breathtakingly visual, Josée Dayan's earlier television production is superior to Reynolds' film because it assumes that the audience is familiar not just with the story but the novel.
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The continuity of The Phantom of Liberty isn't entirely random; the plot moves from one character's set of circumstances to another's, taking the film with it and only rarely returning to previous narrative strands. (Richard Linklater's Slacker is an example of another film - perhaps the only other film - with a vaguely comparable structure.) The Phantom of Liberty begins with the execution of Spanish partisans by Napoleonic troops in Toledo in 1808, an incident memorialized in Goya's famous painting "Third of May." The film, in fact, opens with this image - and it recurs more dependably than any character does - the intended irony being that the partisans were fighting against the greater freedoms that the Napoleonic Code afforded, and thus against liberty. Among the French troops is a captain whom we follow into a cathedral; there he makes sexual advances on the statue of a certain Dona Elvira, whose body rests beneath the cathedral floor, until he is assaulted by the statue of her late husband, which kneels next to hers. To this point the film has been narrated, and here the scene shifts to a nanny in contemporary times who is reading the captain's tale out loud in a park. As she reads, the young girls in her charge are approached by a shifty man who offers to show the girls some photos, warning that no grown-ups are to see them. We then meet the father of one of the girls ("I'm sick of symmetry," he announces while handling a display box containing a giant spider); he and his wife are outraged when shown the photos, and later the man's sleep is haunted by a mailman, who delivers a letter to his bed, and what I took to be an ostrich sauntering casually through the room. The following day this man's doctor explains that he's not interested in his patients' dreams, but the man insists that he wasn't dreaming and offers the letter he received as proof.
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Plot-wise, very little actually happens. Or, rather, small things pile up: As Milan takes up residence for a week in Mansquier's dowdy-yet-noble country house, the two share chit-chat about their pasts and their plans. But unlike My Dinner With André, the conversations have their feet on the ground and a sense of humor (Mansquier proudly notes that "not one pupil was molested in 30 years on the job" as a teacher). Milan plots out his Saturday heist with some hesitance, and we learn that Mansquier has his own anxieties to work through: He has a triple bypass planned for the same time as well. Students, relatives, and mistresses pass through the country house, and it slowly becomes clear that each man wants the other's life: Mansquier's house is the home Milan never had, and the rootless life of Milan is what Mansquier has always lusted for.
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Well, the skeptics won this round. Beset by innumerable obstacles, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote never made it past the first few days of principal photography, and all that was left was Lost in La Mancha, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's alternately entertaining and depressing account of Gilliam's failed attempt to film his Quixote opus. The documentarians, who previously collaborated with Gilliam on The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys - a behind-the-scenes look at the production of his 1995 Bruce Willis time-travel vehicle - were granted unprecedented access to the Quixote set. In a fortuitous decision for Fulton and Pepe, the duo chose to accompany Gilliam to Spain for preproduction, and were therefore privy to the tumultuous series of events that would eventually lead to the project's downfall.
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Pignon's wife couldn't stand him and left two years ago, yet he still phones regularly to her and their indifferent teenage son. After learning that he is soon to be fired, Pignon, distraught, returns home and meets that "perfect stranger" we all want to meet someday: The one who steps into our life and brings magic into it. From that moment on, the neighbor, Belone (Michel Aumont), navigates Pignon's life like a chess game.
Continue reading: The Closet Review