Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tricks and treats galore in "The Prestige" and "Marie Antoinette"


directed by Christopher Nolan
written by Jonathan Nolan
based on the novel by Christopher Priest
starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis

Hands down, “The Prestige” is the most satisfying movie I’ve seen in 2006.

That’s not to say it’s the best, or deepest, or most artistically ambitious. Nor is it trying to be any of these things. It’s simply the most enjoyable piece of entertainment to appear in theaters this year—the thinking man's popcorn movie. And as such it’s likely to remain unmatched this holiday season, even as the studios lay their annual glut of offerings on the altar of Oscar. Part of the reason “The Prestige” works so well is that it operates on its own terms, largely unburdened by such self-conscious expectations. It isn’t packaged or conceived as awards bait; nor is it targeted at lazy viewers looking only for a kiss, bang, and boom for their buck. Fittingly for a story about dueling magicians, it treats the audience as an active participant who’s willing to be hoodwinked, but only so far—only just enough to ultimately figure out the truth behind the trick.

The dueling magicians are turn-of-the-century Londoners Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). The pair start out as fellow assistants to an established prestidigitator, but quickly establish different strengths and styles. Angier is suave, polished, evidently well-educated; Borden reserved, rough-hewn, and working-class. Not surprisingly, the extroverted Angier projects the more compelling stage presence, while the fiercely focused Borden proves the more talented magician. In a sense, one has all the style, and the other all the substance—or so it appears at first; as with any good magic show, nothing is quite as it seems.

The covert rivalry turns overt when a tragic accident during one of their shows drives a permanent wedge between the two men and sparks a bitter, increasingly obsessive game of oneupmanship. The movie begins with what appears to be the climactic end of that game; I don’t think I’m giving much away by noting it’s anything but that. “The Prestige” is, after all, a product of the brothers Nolan, whose last joint effort was “Memento,” and though the narrative non-linearity of “The Prestige” isn’t as deliberately disorienting as their earlier mind-bender, its double pretzel twist of a plot has already inspired enough online chatter to fill a book several times the length of the screenplay. The Nolans are canny enough to drop just enough hints (some subtler than others) to add up to a mostly airtight explanation while leaving just enough room for multiple variants and alternative interpretations (some more farfetched than others).

That’s half the fun. The other half comes from watching the different personalities of Angier and Borden play each other to the brink of death and back: both Jackman and Bale turn in remarkably thoughtful and nuanced performances for a film that’s essentially one extended sleight-of-hand. The rest of the cast necessarily takes a back seat to their face-off, though Michael Caine is appealing as their troubled mentor, while an almost unrecognizable David Bowie cuts a nicely enigmatic figure as Nikolai Tesla, the mysterious inventor who may or may not hold the secret to Borden’s greatest trick of all. Scarlett Johansson fares less well as the stage assistant and love interest caught between Angier and Borden; whether it’s the script or her acting, or both, she seems to function primarily as eye candy, and shows considerably less animation than you’d expect from a girl lucky enough to kiss both Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.

“The Prestige” is flashier and more ingenious than the other magician-movie of the season, “The Illusionist.” It’s also more modern in sensibility, and if it feels too slick by half, that’s because it is. Yet beyond its guessing-game mechanics and indirect indictment of the dangers of obsessive alpha-male competition, it does offer some interesting observations on the divide between performance and craft, and what separates the man on the stage from the man behind the scenes. “No one cares about the man in the box, the man who disappears,” Angier says at one point, revealing perhaps more about himself than his audience; according to him, it’s only the man who reappears who matters. The genius of “The Prestige” is that it makes us care enough to discover both.



directed by Sofia Coppola
starring Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, many others

She’s not just another poor little rich girl. Yet something about Marie Antoinette has managed to inspire a fascination that easily outstrips her actual historical significance. And at bottom it’s the same fascination that attends any public or semi-public figure steeped from head to toe in the kind of opulent wealth that remains a distant fantasy for most of us—a fascination heightened where, as here, the subject is an attractive young woman. There’s an inherent glamour about such a figure, and a hint of mystery: who is the person inside that bubble of privilege?

Sofia Coppola’s take both does and doesn’t answer that question. Loosely inspired by Antonia Fraser’s recent biography of the ill-fated queen, it offers a dreamlike, impressionistic view of her bubble that’s content to show fleeting glimpses of her inner life rather than probing purposefully into its depths. In this respect, and in overall mood and affect, this “Marie Antoinette” is very much in the same vein as Coppola’s previous films, “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” and confirms her establishment of a distinctive directorial voice. Coppola’s own paternal lineage notwithstanding, she clearly feels no need to conform her stories to the aggressive arc of the Aristotelian plot, or the equally aggressive narrative fragmentation popularized by Tarantino, Nolan et al. Her stories aren’t driven, nor are they splintered; they simply flow along, sometimes lazily, sometimes briskly, eventually merging into a larger sea of unknown or unspoken possibility. So it is here, though in this case the historical endpoint is known, and documented, with a narrow specificity that one senses didn’t quite jibe with the director’s looser, more fluid vision. For this reason, perhaps, the film concludes not with Marie Antoinette’s execution but with her flight from Versailles—the end of a long, strange chapter in her life, but not the end.

It begins at the beginning of that chapter, with the teenage Marie (a well-cast Kirsten Dunst) being handed over by her mother, the Austrian dowager Maria Theresa (Marianne Faithfull), for marriage to the future Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). After a long journey and an elaborate passing-off ritual, the bride arrives at Versailles and is immediately swallowed up by a sea of rigidly ornate ceremonies and coldly scrutinizing faces. At first bemused, then bored, she bears up reasonably well under these peculiar conditions, finding companions among the friendlier faces in her royal retinue and indulging in bonbons and the latest fashions. Indeed, although Coppola acquits the queen of the infamous line, “Let them eat cake,” the film is so laden with visual confectionery that I felt a sugar overload by the end of it. Whether the froufrou imagery of pink and white icing, fruit, and flowers is period-accurate—it probably isn’t—ceases to matter much in the context of the larger point it’s illustrating: namely, the near-obscene excess of luxury lavished on individuals who had no idea where it came from or at what cost.

Life isn’t all sweets for Marie, however. Her new husband, whom Schwartzman plays as awkward, though not unkind, and absurdly solemn for his years, seems more interested in his daily hunt than in her charms, and their marriage remains unconsummated for several years. This fact becomes a hot topic of catty court gossip and a source of grave concern to Marie’s family and advisors (principally an ambassador played with characteristic aplomb by Steve Coogan), who dispatch regular reminders that her royal standing hangs by a thread: specifically, by her ability to produce a male heir that would cement the tenuous Franco-Austrian alliance. These weighty geopolitical considerations don’t carry half as much impact, however, as the more immediate presence of her French brother- and sister-in-law, who openly enjoy a good deal of conjugal bliss and easily beat her to the birthing room. Marie’s frustration—a jealousy both social and sexual, concealed beneath a veneer of smiling politeness—is palpable, and makes her long stretch of celibacy feel even longer.

Happily, young Louis is eventually clued in to his role in the marital bed, and Marie finally gives birth to her first child. Once past that hump (literally), the film’s pace simultaneously accelerates and slackens. Timewise, it skips over spans of several years and hardly registers events that an ordinary biopic might dwell longer on, such as the birth (and one blink-and-you-miss death) of further children, and her passing affair with a dashing lady-killer. (Whether intentionally or not, it also spurs questions about the paternity of the little Dauphin.) Yet the overall tempo slows to match the prevailing mood of languorous idleness that falls over the queen’s life – reflecting a pervasive sense that having fulfilled the only duties assigned to her, she can relax and concentrate on nothing other than having a good time and making Versailles a prettier and pleasanter place for her habitation.

Perhaps as a consequence, the middle part of “Marie Antoinette” loses a fair amount of momentum, yet it also effectively evokes the languid rhythms of Marie’s girlish desires and the strange, rarefied universe she occupies with her entourage, who frequently seem no more substantial than the figures on a Chinese fan. A rare exception is the always-excellent Rose Byrne as the Comtesse de Polignac, the queen’s pretty, and pretty wild, favorite, whose reckless self-indulgence makes Marie (who, it transpires, loves music, theater, and puppies as much as hats, shoes, and cakes) look like the innocent Coppola essentially makes her out to be. In this context, Marie’s ill-famed attempts to create a pastoral idyll out of the Petit Trianon seem considerably less callous and slightly—though only slightly—less absurd than history has painted them, given her near-absolute insulation from the living, breathing reality of starvation, blood, sweat and tears they unintentionally mocked.

This insulation also informs the film’s apparent inattention to the larger historical context of the French Revolution. Apart from a few hints dropped by a courtier's word-of-mouth here or a minister's admonition there, there’s hardly any sense of the gathering storm until near the very end, when it suddenly breaks at the very gates of Versailles. And that lack of foreshadowing is quite plainly deliberate. When it does come, we feel the shock of violence—shown not in an action sequence but in still shots of the palace the night before and the morning after the flight of the royal family and the sweep of the rampaging mob—as sharply as its targets, like the shattering of a porcelain jar. A porcelain jar may in fact be the best way to describe the peculiarly sealed, hermetic, yet precariously fragile nature of Marie’s world, pre-1789. That its destruction feels as abrupt and faintly unreal as it does is no more than a reflection of how it presumably felt to her. It’s her subjective perception that most interests Coppola, far more than the (undeniably wrenching) stories that lay outside it, and to criticize the film for ignoring the latter is in essence to miss its point.

Similarly, while much has been made of Coppola’s use of ’80s punk music and such deliberate anachronisms as the trainers Marie wears under her flouncy skirts, the film floats easily above such contemporary trappings because they’re clearly meant to reflect the sensibility of a girl on the verge of womanhood, with nothing to direct her except her own vagrant impulses. It’s a sensibility not so much ahistorical as transhistorical, and one that links the film to the director’s earlier work. Coppola has stated that she intended the three films to form a trilogy, and “Marie Antoinette” does feel like the third movement of a rather loosely structured sonata. It’s a fair bet, however, that the longing-lonelygirl thread will continue to appear in Coppola’s work; the challenge for her will be to develop it into different, distinctive ideas, rather than pretty variations on the same theme. Whether she succeeds or fails, how she goes about it will be interesting to watch.



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