Monday, June 28, 2010

Tilda Swinton IS "Love"; "Ondine" coasts on Irish charm


directed by Luca Guadagnino
starring Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parente, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Marisa Berenson, Alba Rohrwacher, Pippo Delbono, others

If ever there were a person who could make a vanity project worth watching, it would be Tilda Swinton. Unfortunately, “I Am Love” never amounts to more than a gilded showcase for her strange, almost alien beauty and her dazzling acting chops. It’s watchable, yes. But I, for one, couldn’t find much “there” there, though I know the film has passionate advocates who would strongly disagree with me.

Swinton, whose collaboration with director Luca Guadagnino spanned several years, stars as Emma Recchi, the Russian-born wife of a wealthy Italian industrialist who falls into a torrid affair with her son’s friend, a brilliant chef and aspiring restaurateur. If this all sounds like a cliché, that’s because it is. Originality is not really the point of “I Am Love.” Nor, apparently, is subtlety. Scenes of lovemaking and sexual epiphany are flanked by shots of orgasmically luscious-looking food and verdant nature, including (I kid you not)a bee pollinating the garden, and the dramatic climax is punctuated by an overly insistent ostinato that reaffirms a point proven by the equally over-scored “The Hours”: that a critically acclaimed classical composer (in this case, John Adams rather than Philip Glass) isn’t always the best fit for a movie.

More problematically, for all these visual and aural signifiers of passion, the thing itself is curiously absent. Swinton gives an excellent performance as a pale porcelain shell of a woman who’s gradually animated by her illicit liaison (it’s surely no accident she shares a first name with Madame Bovary), yet her Emma is too thinly written, too elusive to elicit from the audience the same emotions that overmaster her, while Antonio remains even more opaque, if not totally inscrutable. The other major players in Emma’s life—her son, daughter, husband, in-laws—are no more fully realized, despite the best efforts of the actors. It doesn’t help that there’s an oddly detached, anthropological quality to Guadagnino’s filmmaking that doesn’t quite mesh with his lush, Sirkian palette. Romantic pretensions notwithstanding, “I Am Love” is all gorgeous surfaces—the food and gardens, the architectural dream that is the Recchi family mansion, the exquisite cut and material of Emma’s clothes—and not much else.



directed by Neil Jordan
starring Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Stephen Rea, Alison Barry

A slight, sweet tidbit of a film, Neil Jordan’s “Ondine” doesn’t aspire to be much more than a modest pleasure—nor is there any particular reason it should. There’s a place for this kind of movie, even if it’s just a small, quiet corner of the cinema world that not many will seek out. Colin Farrell stars as an Irish fisherman named Syracuse (“Circus” to his friends and neighbors), who pulls a beautiful, half-dead woman (Alicja Bachleda, Farrell’s real-life companion) out of the sea one day and manages to revive her, but has less success getting her to tell him anything about herself or how she ended up in his fishing nets. She tells him to call her by the suitably allegorical name of Ondine, tries to avoid interacting with the rest of the townsfolk, and soon brings him good fortune: as she sings in a strange tongue, legions of fish fill his nets. All this convinces young Annie, Syracuse’s angel-faced, severely ill daughter, that Ondine is a selkie (mythical creatures who can change from seals to women by taking off and hiding their sealskin); Ondine plays along with Annie to avoid giving straight answers, and though Syracuse, who’s taken his share of life’s hard knocks, including a bitter divorce and a hard-won struggle with alcoholism, knows better, he can’t help half-believing this gorgeous, kindly creature really is some kind of magical gift to him and to Annie.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle (best known for his work for Wong Kar-Wai), “Ondine” also benefits from having two very appealing figures at its center—I mean Syracuse and Annie, more than the titular Ondine, though the latter is effective enough as a projection of both their wistful fantasies. As I’ve said before, I’ve never been a fan of Colin Farrell, but he’s been growing on me in the last few years and exudes a wry, low-key charm here that makes it easy to understand why Ondine, whether selkie or merely woman on the run, might want to sojourn a while with him. Newcomer Alison Barry is equally fetching as young Annie, who’s at once innocent and precocious without being the least bit annoying. As for the plot, it takes a few turns that don’t really add much to the story, and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about the ending. I’d rather expected the film to remain open-ended, allowing viewers to decide for themselves Ondine’s true nature. Not so: Jordan answers the question clearly and unambiguously, and while this might be less of a cliché, it comes as a mild disappointment after the delicate balance he’s maintained up till that point between grim reality and whimsical fancy. Still, “Ondine” stays with you in its gentle, understated way, and may be just the tonic for those who’ve had their fill of louder, gaudier, or more convoluted Hollywood products.



Blogger LVJeff said...

I think your review says exactly what's in my head, heh (and I even love Philip Glass, and might've never made that comparison, yet agreed that his Hours score was too much). I wish, for my review, I could just point to your review! But a B/B-? I'm gonna get on your case from now on -- give out some C's already, girl! :-D

5:07 PM  

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