Mike D’Angelo is a film critic for Esquire, writer for Las Vegas Weekly, and proprietor of The Man Who Viewed Too Much.
screened Monday August 25 2008 on DVD in Astoria Queens
I much prefer the compact noirs and westerns of Anthony Mann to this three-hour, loosely historical epic with Charlton Heston inevitably playing the Christ-figure superhero with lockjawed conviction. The story largely proceeds as a grim Medieval intrigue whose fatal crossings among characters (few if any of whom are agreeable) engage more than the final act, when the narrative makes a beeline bid for El Cid’s martyrdom through unwavering loyalty to an undeserving king. The non-stop testing of El Cid’s loyalty to his country in the service of God, leading to the character’s gradual transformation from a strong but peace-loving pragmatist (think Spanish Obama) to near-fanatical patriot, could in theory follow the pattern of many a psychologically tortured Mann protagonist, but Heston’s two-dimensional reading of the role as a warrior Pilgrim’s Progress pretty much wipes out that prospect. For his part Mann often follows Heston’s lead, as his visual storytelling is largely iconographic in the silent film sense, alternating bold close-ups with spectacular crowd shots. At best, Mann makes vivid use of his Cinemascope canvases, at times using deep focus and foreground/background contrasts to amplify the inherent width of the frame, particularly in intimate interior scenes depicting the uneasy courtship between El Cid and Ximena (Sophia Loren, used agreeably as window dressing). It’s in these smaller scenes, the kind that contemporary blockbusters would treat as instantly disposable, that Mann, one of Manny Farber’s favorite termite directors, finds his creative crevices within this massive white elephant of a production.
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screened August 12, 2008 on Fox Lorber DVD in New York, NY
A deceptively modest triumph in guileful storytelling and poker-faced acting, Claude Sautet’s late career hit is unabashedly bourgeois to the bone, concerned with little more than the romantic miscues between a trio of classical violin professionals (one plays them, one fixes them, one works with one and sleeps with the other) in between rigorous rehearsals and cozy cafe catchup sessions with friends. Thoroughly embedded within this milieu, Sautet presents a scenario that thoroughly vivisects this subculture from within, exposing the contending values and asumptions that make its characters tick, the most dominant – and destructive – being middle-class politeness. When Camille (Emmanuelle Beart) falls for Stephane (Daniel Auteuil), the friend and partner of her lover Maxime (Andre Dussolier), all Maxime can do is step aside and let love take its course (after all, he dumped his wife for Camille). Camille, a young ingenue violinist, sees in Stephane one with a kindred passion for the art, as his fine tuning of her instrument unleashes in her a higher level of virtuosity. After initial intimations of romantic interest on Stephane’s part, he abruptly spurns her; his flat answer, echoed by the what-you-see-is-what-you-get camerawork, is a renunciation of intimacy so blunt that it leaves the viewer scouring Auteuil’s expressions for the slightest hint of self-betrayal. Auteuil’s performance, in his quizzical reactions (or non-reactions) to the experiences and expressions of love and pain presented to him by others, may feel one-note at first, but it goes considerably well beyond the gimmicky blankness of Peter Sellers in Being There or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, or the sentimentality of Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. Unlike all of them, Stephane straddles a gaping paradox between social sophistication (affably holding his own at dinner table conversations and cafe chitchat) and the most contemptuous, self-alienating sociopathy. The most critical distinction of Stephane over other movie simpletons is his capacity for machination: Sautet’s script lays several clues as to his motivations in disrupting the affair between Maxme and Camille, but leaves him as much as an enigma as when it found him. But perhaps none of this would matter, neither the script nor Auteuil, if it weren’t for Beart’s youthful conveyance of Camille’s passion and insecurity. It is through her heartbreak that we learn what’s at stake in the movie: she must discover her own rules for navigating through the bourgeois world of art and love, or else succumb to a comfortable nihilism that, as embodied by Stephane, threatens to occupy its center.
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