BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 7, 2010
A candle is lighted in the dark. This is the opening shot of The Eclipse, hinting at mystery. The next shot reveals that the candle is a taper on a table in a large hotel restaurant. Thus in its first few seconds the film suggests that it will inhabit two spheres, the mysterious and the diurnal, and that the two will virtually overlap.
This Irish film was adapted by the playwright Conor McPherson, who has directed several films, and by Billy Roche from Roche’s original story. As they surely knew from the start, they took on a difficult job. The story probes the possibilities of the supernatural, yet it is couched in the doings of the day. The makers’ task was to render the ghostly aspects credible without making a conventional ghost film—to embed those aspects in proximate life. Otherwise, the eerie matters would be trite without credible prosy context, and the context might possibly be a bit overly familiar without the ghostly touches.
The place is Cobh on the southern Irish coast, and the occasion in the hotel is part of the annual Cobh Literary Festival. We are there with Michael Farr, a local resident who is a volunteer assistant for the festival, a fortyish man who is a teacher but once dallied with writing and likes being around writers. Home we go with Michael after lunch to his two children and no mother. Michael’s wife died two years earlier, and her absence, as photos on the wall convey, is a continuing loss.
That night Michael has the first experience that suggests the presence of a ghost. The screenplay has made it clear, as has the actor Ciarán Hinds, that Michael is a mature and sensible man, and it is this truth that makes the occurrence all the more unsettling. It is almost as if Michael were thinking, “This sort of thing doesn’t happen to people like me.” No phantom figure is identified, but this apparition and subsequent ones seem to have some relation to Michael’s father-in-law, who is invalided in a nursing home.
The experience is in a way emphasized by the arrival at the festival the next day of a novelist whom Michael is to tend. She is Lena Morelle (played with no trace of an accent by the Danish actress Iben Hjejle). Lena is a thirtyish woman, lissome and taking, whose most recent book, in shadowy coincidence, is about ghosts and is called The Eclipse. (When she titled her book, Lena apparently was not referring to Antonioni’s 1962 film of that name.) Michael hears her read from her book to an audience. Later he confides in her about his spooky experience.
But, as if to keep the film poised between two spheres, the worldly world is kept at center by the arrival of an American novelist named Nicholas Holden—Aidan Quinn at his winningly insolent best—with whom Lena had an affair a year earlier. Nicholas is married (one almost adds “of course”) and, even though his wife is arriving soon, wants to resume things with Lena during the festival. She manages to agree and disagree. The relationship between Nick and Lena contrasts with her meetings with Michael, which are always warm but never romantic. The possibly supernatural events that happen to him are the presence of his past. He is even now more of a married man than Nicholas.
Still, the relations between the two men implode eventually, around Lena. There is a bit at the finish, typical of the film’s restraint, that hints at the way in which all matters will go, yet the ending doesn’t attempt to explain the story’s supernatural elements. The film-makers don’t want to explain: they simply want to put possibilities before us to disturb us a little—almost like intrusions of the timeless into such a topical matter as a literary festival. The ghostly incidents can possibly be explained through the psyche, if such an explanation is needed by the viewer. For the most part, it is as if we had simply looked around the corner of what we believe in general and are surprised to learn that there was or is such a corner.
Hinds, fairly familiar from some previous films and some Broadway appearances, is the main strength of the picture. He is one of those actors, like Humphrey Bogart and Walter Matthau, who are not at all handsome in the conventional way yet who are, oddly, more quickly credible because of it. Besides his looks, Hinds has intelligence, gravity, humor that is seasoned in travail. Hjejle never seems to be acting, a quality that is often—here certainly—desirable in an actor. On the other hand, Quinn is playing a man who is a performer, performing his life, and Quinn secures him down to his chromosomes.
The directing of this film seems to have been something of a tightrope act, trying to keep a balance between one basic element and the other, and McPherson succeeds thoroughly. Not a great deal of it is deeply moving (though the “spirit” moments are tense), but it is always compelling through its air of intelligent risk. A round of praise, too, for the cinematographer Ivan McCullough, who makes colors vivid yet true and whose shots of the town make me regret that, though four times in Eire, I have never been in Cobh.
The American director Bette Gordon, who made her first feature (Variety) in 1983 and has since been chiefly active in television, has now made Handsome Harry from a screenplay by Nicholas T. Proferes, who has chiefly been a cinematographer. The result is a notable picture, one that possibly pleases its makers especially because it may have turned out even better than they hoped.
Harry Sweeney, in his fifties, runs an auto repair shop and is a figure in his town, the kind of man who jokes with his friends and the waitress when he goes to the local luncheonette for his morning coffee. His story here consists of visits to five people who figured in his past. This plot structure has existed since at least as early as Duvivier’s Un Carnet de Bal in 1937, with Marie Bell as the revisitor, and was used again as recently as Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers in 2005, with Bill Murray in a comparable role. Jamey Sheridan, more familiar from television than film, is at least the equal of his predecessors in revisiting. Slim, grizzled, quietly convoluted, Sheridan makes us eager through his reality to know what Harry’s expeditions will disclose.
Just as his married son arrives for a visit, Harry, a divorcé, gets a frantic call from a former Navy shipmate of thirty years ago. Tom Kelley is on his deathbed and pleads to see Harry before he goes. Harry excuses himself to his son because, he says, Kelley was his best friend during his Navy days. Subsequently we learn that this is not quite true: still, Harry wants to go.
The dying Kelley has on his conscience a drunken brawl thirty years past in which he and Harry were involved and in which another shipmate was injured. He asks Harry to look up that injured man and the others who were involved and try to find out exactly what happened. Harry ultimately agrees—we sense that there is more to this story than the brawl—and sets out to visit their shipmates. The last man in fact does the visiting himself.
Through swift flashes of the past that recur during the odyssey, we soon see that homosexuality is involved in this past episode, with the young Harry’s full participation. In the course of the film we see present-day Harry in bed with a woman, but we also see his affectionate re-meeting with his partner of thirty years ago. At the last, Harry is able to acknowledge the past episode as part of the fullness of his self.
Steve Buscemi, Campbell Scott, Titus Welliver, John Savage, and (again!) Aidan Quinn play the former shipmates, all of them buttressing Sheridan’s central role with verities of their own. Intriguingly, the shape of the picture heightens its interest. If there is such a genre as the revisit picture and if the writing and acting are as good as they are here, this human spelunking is bound to fascinate.
Inevitably, the makers of the film have given us a concise sketch of the changes in American attitudes toward homosexuality during those thirty years. (As a further index of changes in such frankness during that era, compare Tennessee Williams’s earlier plays with his later ones.) The secret of youthful indiscretion that Harry has locked within himself becomes part of his self-recognized being. The conclusion doesn’t imply that his future life will be different from what it has lately been, but at least the idea of guilt has changed. Proferes has worked out his screenplay with considerable dexterity, and Gordon has directed with agreeable competence and, clearly, with closeness to her actors. Handsome Harry lives up to its title.
The new Catherine Breillat film is curious. This French writer-director has justly earned a reputation for uninhibited treatment of forceful sex, sometimes quite complicated, as in The Last Mistress and Anatomy of Hell. Now she has lighted on a famous fairy tale from Charles Perrault’s collection—“Bluebeard,” about a wealthy lord who murdered several wives. We are used to particularized versions of the tale, most notably Chaplin’s celebrated Monsieur Verdoux and Chabrol’s insufficiently celebrated Landru. Breillat, instead of intensifying the grue, as we might have expected, has calmed it. She has lavished loveliness on her picture visually, but she has left a bit limp the very elements that we might have thought would heat her.
She divides her screenplay between two pairs of young sisters, two in the 1950s and two in the Fairyland past. The more recent pair relish the original story, and as the younger one reads it to her sister, the fantasy pair intermittently act it out, sort of. Many scenes are beautifully shot by Vilko Filac and exquisitely costumed by Rose-Marie Melka, but the tensile interplay that Breillat presumably intended between the two time strands doesn’t quite register. Partly this is because Breillat treats the fantasy line—the wife-murdering line—like a school pageant instead of a drama. The ending, though we have seen some drastic data, leaves us hungry for emotional conviction.
“It’s not the story of the tale that is important here but its relationship with us as children,” Breillat has said. “Why? Bluebeard is The Man Who Kills Women.” Little of such terror is conveyed in this picturesque parade. Somewhere still in Breillat, we can sense from her past, is the Bluebeard that she didn’t make.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film editor of The New Republic.