Dangerous Liaisons

September 26, 2012

Dangerous Liaisons is the slightly more pronounceable title given to the movie version of the Broadway hit, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton. In any language, the movie is witchy fun, though overall it’s a bit underwhelming.

Hampton’s play was drawn from the 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos, in which a pair of cold-blooded aristocrats play a sort of sexual parlor game with other peoples’ lives, only to trigger their own comeuppances. The central character seems to be the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), a “conspicuously charming” seducer; but he is in fact manipulated by the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), a waspish widow.

They wager that Valmont will seduce the most virtuous woman in France and also deflower a young bride-to-be (Uma Thurman), all during a summer stay at a lavish estate. Valmont is successful, of course, but he finds himself uncharacteristically moved by the innocent Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The web that Hampton and director Stephen Frears are spinning here is designed to catch their amoral characters, and it is, for the most part, elegantly managed. The script is laced with sharp, pointed insults and double entendres; when Valmont flatters himself over seducing the young virgin, the Marquise derides the conquest as “insultingly simple. One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.” You can’t help thinking that the whole thing plays like “Dynasty” in powdered wigs.

Through all of this, as enjoyable as it often is, I had a sense that it wasn’t quite coming off. Frears, who is better known for his looks at English blue-collar life (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), is a fine director and he handles the change in scenery adeptly. Like Amadeus, the movie features American actors, without pretentious posturing or the traditional stuffy approach to such material. (Frears told Premiere magazine, “It’s a film like all my others; about sex, power, money…I enjoy playing off the modern sentiments against the facny dress. Of course, scholars of French literature will undoubtedly be appalled.”)

Some of my reservations have to do with the cast. The smaller roles are fine: Swoosie Kurtz as an anxious mother, Thurman as the young virgin, Keanu Reeves as her doe-eyed suitor. But Close and Malkovich dominate. Close, who carries over a certain Fatal Attraction vibe to the role, is small-eyed and crafty, and suitably wicked.

Malkovich (the black marketer in Empire of the Sun) is such an odd actor, and this is an odd part for him. Malkovich is not a conventionally attractive guy, and the Casanova role seems an awkward fit. He remains a cold figure, although what happens to him at the end of the film clarifies the character. It’s something of a stumbling block for the movie, and it’s one of the reasons I doubt Dangerous Liaisons will seduce its way to being a hit.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

It was enough of a hit, and won three Oscars, and probably should have won one for Glenn Close. Malkovich’s lizard-like qualities threw me, but it’s a casting inspiration, no doubt about it. The competing DL movie, Milos Forman’s Valmont, had to wait for this one to get out of the way, and then quietly died when it opened a year later. Too bad it wasn’t made in the era of the instant reboot.

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My Beautiful Laundrette

April 23, 2012

My Beautiful Laundrette is a sneaky little movie. It unspools so languidly, and plays its cards out so coolly, that you can’t quite figure out where it’s headed until at least halfway through. By that time, however, the considerable charms of the film will have worked their influence.

The subject matter presents an unfamiliar and exotic milieu. The main characters are members of London’s Pakistani subculture, who have their own customs and hierarchy.

At the top of the heap is Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), an entrepreneur with vaguely underworldish connections. As a favor to his brother (Roshan Seth, who played Nehru in Gandhi), he agrees to give nephew Omar (Gordon Warnecke) a start in the world of business. Omar can wash cars at Nasser’s garage.

Well, it turns out Omar has a natural savvy for capitalism. Within days, he finagles his way into managing one of Nasser’s rundown launderettes—a low rung on the ladder, to be sure, but Omar has bright dreams of success. First, a laundrette dynasty, then…who knows?

By chance, Omar runs into a former school chum, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis, last seen as the prig in A Room with a View), who is now punked-out, roaming the streets, and harassing “Pakis” like Omar. But Omar offers Johnny a job fixing up the little launderette, and the business, and a friendship, is off and running.

As it turns out, the friendship between these two is more intimate than you might expect. One of the film’s most ingenious sequences is the grand opening of the refurbished launderette, as Nasser and his mistress waltz among the washers to the Muzak of “The Skater’s Waltz” while Omar and Johnny are doing a different kind of waltz in the back room.

There are plenty of cold realities along the way, like the gangsterism within the Pakistani business world and the vicious punks who want the Pakistanis out. Yet the overriding tone of My Beautiful Laundrette is sweetness.

Hanif Kureishi’s nimble script takes its own time setting up characters and situations. And director Stephen Frears, that fine stylist (The Hit) who has spent most of his career making a score of films for British TV (unfortunately unexported), is in no mood to rush things along. The gentle pace and tone are underwhelming at first, but the cumulative effect is quite beguiling.

My Beautiful Laundrette was filmed for British TV, which explains its modest technical quality. It’s been such a hit at film festivals, including this year’s Seattle fest, that it’s getting play all over the United States. That’s a happy event, but it makes you wonder: Are all British TV movies this good? If they are, those of us without transcontinental-power satellite dishes have been missing a lot.

First published in the Herald, June 18, 1986

This felt like the beginning of an interesting moment for a group of Britain’s most talented filmmakers, some of whom were coming back to big-screen work after doing TV for a while (Ken Loach and Mike Leigh included). I’m not sure I would call Frears a “stylist” exactly.


The Hit

June 13, 2011

In the first scene of The Hit, we see a criminal (Terence Stamp) turning informant on his partners. They swear vengeance in a novel way: by breaking into a chorus of “We’ll Meet Again” as Stamp is led away to freedom.

Ten years pass. Stamp is leading a new life, in a village in Spain, when he is suddenly kidnapped and thrown into a car with two hired gunmen (John Hurt, as a cool professional, and Tim Roth, as a young hothead). Clearly, his old pals have finally caught up with him; as it turns out, he’s being transported to Paris to see his former boss before being executed.

Okay, the ingredients for a good crime movie are there. But at this point The Hit—which recently premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival—takes a decidedly nontraditional turn. That’s because Stamp is a criminal-turned-existentialist. His attitude toward his impending death is just as sunny and unperturbed as the Spanish countryside through which they travel. His philosophical acceptance of fate starts to get on the nerves of the two hit men.

The tone established by British director Stephen Frears and his superb cast is a weird mix of comedy and suspense. To my mind, it works brilliantly. If Jean-Paul Sartre had adapted Hemingway’s The Killers, it might play like this.

And in fact, The Hit does resemble the 1964 version of The Killers, directed by Don Siegel, which is known today primarily as the last movie of the actor who played the villain—Ronald Reagan. In that film, the victim’s calm acceptance of death sends the hit man into a search for some kind of explanation.

But the droll, bizarre approach of The Hit is completely new. The men pick up a girl (Laura del Sol) in Madrid. When she’s alone with Hurt, he tries to shut her up by sticking his hand over her mouth, and she bites him. When the other hit man returns, he wonders if they should get some food—maybe the girl is hungry. “She’s already eaten,” Hurt says dryly—allowing himself a small, private smile.

Hurt is good as always, but the acting honors truly belong to Terence Stamp. I’m not exactly sure how Stamp has kept himself busy the last few years—he seemed to disappear into a long period of low profile during the ’70s. But his face is now lined with character, and he projects exactly the kind of unruffled calm of the man who is at peace with himself.

Director Frears, whose previous claim to fame was a quirky Albert Finney movie called Gumshoe, in 1971, has also been out of sight for years—apparently, he’s been directing extensively for British television. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another decade before these men decide to do something worthy of their talents.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

Not only did Stamp and Frears go into gear after this movie, but newcomer Tim Roth managed pretty well too. There’s something slightly dreamy about The Hit, and Terence Stamp floats along in that mood just perfectly. The moment he realizes the jig is up, and pauses in resignation to look around the countryside before he is taken, is a wonderful piece of acting, and captures the general vibe of the film very nicely. Over the years I had chances to interview Stamp and Frears, and they are both engagingly odd: Stamp very kind, ultra-sensitive, and with a sort of zen air about him, and Frears padding around barefoot in his hotel room, a director content to reside in the form of a bus driver.