The Moderns

January 26, 2012

Alan Rudolph continues to stake his claim as the most intriguing and original young director in America. His independently produced films (Choose Me, Trouble in Mind) are stunning, seductive movies, and even the projects he occasionally makes within the studio system (such as last year’s Made in Heaven) are more interesting than almost anything else around.

With his newest film, The Moderns, Rudolph has realized a dream project that he’s been trying to make for nearly a decade. It’s quintessential Rudolph: a deceptively drowsy look at the various intellectual and sexual configurations within a group of offbeat characters, marked by the director’s tilted sense of humor, surrounded by a superb score (by Mark Isham) and played out in a luscious setting.

That setting is Paris, 1926, where some American expatriates are devouring the city that Hemingway called “a moveable feast.” The focal point is Hart (Keith Carradine), a painter who is coerced into forging some masterpieces. But his main concern is the re-emergence of a woman (Linda Fiorentino) from his past, who is now married to a brutal businessman (John Lone, fresh from his title role in The Last Emperor).

Others include the icy (but tres chic) society dame (Geraldine Chaplin) who commissions the forgeries; a sardonic art dealer (Genevieve Bujold) who declares, “Art is only an infection. Some people get it, some people don’t”; a gossip columnist (Wallace Shawn, simply a joy); and Hemingway (Kevin J. O’Connor) who is affectionately used as Hart’s comic foil.

Rudolph and his co-screenwriter, the late Jon Bradshaw, have given these characters some stylized dialogue. You can’t quite get a handle on it; some characters speak in epigrams that may or may not be serious, and Hemingway stands in the corner saying things that are poetic and comic at the same time: “It’s easy to be hard-boiled in the daytime. But at night….” Just when you think things are getting thick, the gossip writer scuttles in and announces, “I just ran into Maurice Ravel in the men’s room. He didn’t recognize me!”

The characters inhabit a loving re-creation of the cafes, galleries, and studios of Paris (filmed, with appropriate irony, in Montreal). Rudolph and cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita don’t aim for a slavish period homage, but for a living place full of dark corners, smoky rooms, and the breath of artistic creation.

The movie is full of irony, such as the thought that Hart’s lasting contribution to art history might be the forgeries he so grudgingly creates, and that in the end the characters escape the disintegrating Paris scene for the siren song of Hollywood.

But Rudolph always brings a sweetness to his films, and The Moderns has a typically off-center happy ending. The happy ending doesn’t diminish the emotional complexity of the film and its characters. It just increases the sense that The Moderns is one of those movies one could easily live inside.

First published in the Herald, May 26, 1988

They showed this at the opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival that year, and a friend and I, full of Hemingway enthusiasm, went over to Rudolph at the party to say how much we’d gotten a kick out of the depiction of Hemingway in the movie. Whereupon Rudolph seemed to want to get away very quickly—I think he was used to people criticizing that aspect of the picture, and misunderstood our approach. Whatever. Then all those years later Woody Allen went and worked his own variation on the theme.