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At the movies

Breaking the blockbuster mold


Summer blockbusters are, again, not aimed at NCR readers, except for sociologists looking for samples of over-the-top violence and scatological humor.

But An Ideal Husband (Miramax), based on Oscar Wilde’s 1895 melodramatic comedy, proves there is movie relief from 95-degree heat. Director-adapter Oliver Parker II may be trying too hard to suggest connections between its central story and today’s political machinations, but only purists will fail to be entertained.

The rest of us will luxuriate in Wilde’s elegant paradoxes and the equally elegant costumes, furnishings and handsome irresponsibility of Victorian high society. If the plot seems rickety -- Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), a promising politician, sees his career and genuinely happy marriage to Gertrud (Cate Blanchett) threatened by disclosure of a letter he wrote 18 years ago -- it also reminds us that insider trading is hardly a recent invention and that Bill Clinton is not the first public official to be threatened by tabloid scandal.

Even though Gertrud is too moralistic and adoring, Blanchett captures some of the genuine idealism that can coexist with naiveté.

The point of view behind the many plot twists is that of Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett), an observant idler-about-town who is a stand-in for Wilde himself. The surface cynicism he presents to the world and even his father (who is ridiculously upset that his son hasn’t married and launched a brilliant career) obscures a sensitive man of sound judgment. Goring is Sir Robert’s best friend. Although at first introduction he may seem merely witty and self-satisfied -- “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance” -- it is he, rather than Sir Robert, who is ultimately revealed as “the ideal husband,” to the delighted surprise of his father.

The critique of society that often lies behind Wilde’s epigrams is muffled; the director doesn’t want anything to disturb his attractive confection. He even makes a scene of Sir Robert’s speech in Parliament, which we are supposed to applaud because it ends by decrying “commerce without conscience.” But there is a nice touch in showing the Victorian beautiful people at the theater, where they attend the opening of Wilde’s best play, “The Importance of Being Earnest” (also 1895).

For all its melodramatic contrivances -- to be fair, they are also in the original -- “An Ideal Husband” easily surpasses recent would-be romantic comedies in its ability to send audiences away satisfied. Rupert Everett, after all, is quite a catch, and seeing him finally married off may do more for family values than the last dozen sermons on the subject. Matrimony, the movie suggests, will neither destroy Lord Goring’s wit nor crush Mabel’s sense of independence.

My best bet for your summer moviegoing, however, is Autumn Tale (October Films), the last of Eric Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons,” a delightful comedy that should find the largest audience the French director has had in the United States since “Claire’s Knee.” I liked it better than “Knee” because it is refreshing to follow the romantic complications of characters over 40. Loose ends of the plot are (as in life) left unresolved; and the witty dialogue (a constant in Rohmer movies) is primarily at the service of its autumnal theme, that rich love and companionship are possible between men and women in middle age.

Appropriately, “Autumn Tale” takes place just as Magali (Béatrice Romand), the widowed owner of a small vineyard in southern France, is preparing to harvest her grapes. Her two children are grown, and her insistence that “her work is her only passion” stems from her belief that she is too old to be found attractive.

Best friend Isabelle (Marie Rivière), who is preparing to marry off her own daughter, Emilia, knows Magali is wrong: The real problem is that she is so isolated. Isabelle, though aware that her friend would abhor such tactics, places a personal ad on Magali’s behalf. The possibilities for psychological confusion are doubled when the current girlfriend of Magali’s son, Rosine (Alexia Portal), decides to play matchmaker for Magali and her former philosophy teacher (and lover), Etienne (Didier Sandre).

Such near-schematic plotting can approach farce, but Rohmer’s characters are never one-dimensional, revealing themselves by the way they listen as well as by what they say. “Autumn Tale’s” bias is for wine that has aged, and its leisurely pace gives us time to know and appreciate the two principal women, Isabelle and Magali.

Probably the richest fun takes place in the scenes in which Isabelle meets with Gérald (Alain Libolt), a local salesman and eligible prospect who answered her ad, interviewing him at length before explaining that she is merely a surrogate for her friend. A charming strategist, Isabelle can be seen as a stand-in for the director. She shows Gerald a photograph and invites him to her daughter’s wedding where he can meet Magali “naturally.”

“Autumn Tale” is the next best thing to a visit to the Rhone valley. Rohmer makes the time of the year part of the action. Grapes, birds and flowers are more than background. It is important to take the “tale” of the title seriously; although things may seem hopeless, there is always a sense of beneficent design. Despite his avoidance of didacticism, Rohmer is deeply convinced that creation reveals a principle of order, a purpose beyond the physical world in which he delights. The camera’s return to Isabelle as she dances at her daughter’s wedding reception provides an ending worthy of Shakespearean comedy.

My Son the Fanatic (Miramax) is worth seeing principally because of the overwhelming performance by Om Puri as Parvez, a Pakistani-born father who has supported his family in an English industrial town for 20 years by driving a taxi. Written by Hanif Kureishi (“My Beautiful Laundrette”) from one of his own short stories, it is a revealing (but inevitably incomplete) glimpse into a world of cultural dislocation most of us know nothing about.

Parvez believes he has succeeded when he and his wife Minoo (Gopi Desai) meet their prospective in-laws, an English police officer and his wife, to whose daughter their son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) has become engaged. This social encounter only points up the strains in English intercultural life, as the overeager Parvez tries too hard to be agreeable. Puri catches both the pathos and the comedy of his character, all too aware that he is caught in a dead-end routine while his old friend Fizzy (Harish Patel) is a successful restaurant owner who has long preached fitting in with the English scene.

Parvez is a decent, hardworking man, but in his drive to make a few extra pounds he allows his taxi to be used to facilitate relations with prostitutes. When Farvid breaks off his engagement to the policeman’s daughter, he is also rejecting his father’s compromises with a culture dominated by greed. His radical criticism is not without some justification -- “They say integrate but they live in pornography and filth.”

Unfortunately he finds no alternative except Islamic fundamentalism. Kureishi fails to sketch in the less “dramatic” (but majority) world of ordinary believing Moslems who would be as aghast as Parvez if a Pakistani cult leader and some of his followers tried to take over their home. Parvez delivers a comic speech about the harsh inadequacy of the religious teaching he received as a boy -- which may remind Christian and Jewish moviegoers of comparably narrow versions of their respective faiths -- but unfortunately “My Son the Fanatic” seems to confirm prejudiced Western clichés.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999