Song For Martin

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A hundred years of advancement in cinematic technique haven't changed one simple fact: the most powerful image in movies is a meaningful close-up of someone thinking.

A Song For Martin, a new love story from Bille August, understands this maxim and builds a whole movie around it. This story of soulmates who find each other late in life doesn't attempt anything too fancy or self-conscious; there are no digital characters, no strobe-flash dream sequences, no pop-driven montages, no 12-minute tracking shots designed primarily to make you wonder how on earth they did that. But it accomplishes something much more elusive, difficult and valuable: it captures a convincing facsimile of human behavior, and gives you insight into what life is actually like.

It's all about two fiftysomething lovers-a symphony violinist named Barbara (Viveka Seldahl) and a conductor named Martin (Sven Wollter)-interacting within a series of simple, efficient close-ups and two-shots. Yet it's a tremendously exciting film. The excitement comes from getting to know this couple as they get to know each other-watching them as they go out, eat meals, make love, move in, compose music, argue with each other, dote on each other. She's reactive and reticent, but no wallflower; he's somewhat brusque and grandiose, as many powerful men are, but he's also funny, charming and vulnerable. By the end of the film, you've learned to anticipate their gestures, their expressions, their pet phrases and favorite jokes; you truly do feel as though you know them, and you care what happens to them because you feel as if it's happening to you. That's what drama is supposed to do; that's why it was invented.

Barbara, the middle-aged mother of adult children, falls for Martin, and Martin for Barbara; for different reasons, each probably should not be getting involved with the other, but love is love. Ignoring protestations from friends and family that the relationship is wrongheaded and very likely doomed, they embark on an affair that turns into a romantic second chance; they're like a couple of flowers written off as goners who unexpectedly blossom. Their sexuality is intense and real, and presented in a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner-as just one more part of life. Like Bergman-and like almost any serious, respected filmmaker who isn't an American-August doesn't find the very idea of older adult sexuality mind-boggling or subversive; she takes it for granted, and in taking it for granted, she ennobles it. The first part of the film charts the lovers' courtship; the middle stretch shows them forging a believably complicated, imperfect, happy marriage; the final stretch tests the outer limits of their bond, asking if love can exist without reciprocation. (If you don't already know the nature of the test, you should probably stop reading now.)

August, an Ingmar Bergman collaborator best known to Americans for her six-hour tv miniseries The Best Intentions (released here as a three-hour movie), gives realistic characters an unabashedly cinematic scale. She places them inside the rectangular widescreen frame, a format more often employed by directors of historical epics and big-budget genre pictures; she uses that vast horizontal space to suggest the distance that separates even people who truly love each other-the aloneness felt by all married people, even the happy ones. (Wollter and Seldahl, who appeared together in other August projects, were married until Seldahl's death last year, but you needn't know that to be impressed by the realism of their interaction. It's just one more thing that connects this movie to life.)

When Martin is afflicted with Alzheimer's, Barbara, transformed in the film's middle section from someone quiet, withdrawn and respectable to someone more assertive and bold, is transformed again, this time into a caretaker, a maid, a nurse. The tale's central irony isn't lost on August. Barbara was first attracted to Martin because he offered her a chance to think of herself as a free spirit and a sexual being rather than as a wife and mother; in other words, he helped her rediscover her own adult individuality. When Martin is stricken, slowly losing his ability to understand and appreciate music, art and his own marriage, she must reconnect with her maternal side-only now the person she's mothering is a grownup near the end of his life rather than a child at the beginning. Like last year's superb Iris-dismissed by many critics because it didn't offer a tutorial on Iris Murdoch's writing, and perhaps because it was about a woman-A Song For Martin dramatizes the tragedy of an artist losing his ability to think. And it dramatizes the predicament of a fellow artist (and loving spouse) struggling to remain committed, interested, devoted, even though the basis of the partnership is disintegrating hourly.

August and her actors are interested only in creating fleeting moments that suggest the astonishing complexity of human interaction. They do this by focusing on the minute, even banal rituals of love, friendship and commitment-a subject all viewers understand and appreciate, and a subject that shockingly few "important" filmmakers are interested in. Spielberg, De Palma and other pop giants have their cheerleaders (God knows I'm one of them), but they make movies that are, to one degree or another, bigger than life, or at least a few degrees removed from life; at their best, they make the extraordinary ordinary (which is to say, involving and credible).

Directors like August, Robert Altman, Alan Rudolph and relative newcomers like Steve Buscemi and Christopher Guest would rather make the ordinary extraordinary. They don't want Bigger than Life; they want Life, or something in the ballpark. They'd rather be messy than neat; they'd rather be quiet than loud; they'd rather be meticulous than flashy. I wish there were more filmmakers like them; I wish there were more films like A Song For Martin.


Creature comforts: Lilo & Stitch, the animated tale of a little outcast Hawaiian girl and her best buddy, a destructive alien robot monster who escapes his creators and heads to Earth, aims to be a funky, girl-centered cousin of E.T., about a couple of lonely, abandoned souls who find each other. It's wonderful in some ways and irritating in others. The look is distinctive, original and in some ways quite lovely; it's the first feature-length cartoon in ages that employs watercolored backdrops, yet the character design and super-fluid, computerized-looking animation suggests a merger of Disney and anime. It takes little Lilo's isolation seriously, its details of Hawaiian suburbia are unique, some of the domestic details of her life with her big sister are finely observed and, incredibly enough, Lilo's friendship with Stitch, while contrived and unlikely, actually works. (He's a hideously ugly little bugger, with retractable extra arms, a growly-babbly voice and a Muppet mouth full of serrated teeth.)

But Stitch's wacky-grotesque-chaotic behavior grows tiresome, and the film squanders much of its magic in a loud, overhyped, completely unnecessary action finale that smacks of a desperation to pander to impatient little boys whose parents have given them permission to squirm and complain during any film that does not contain flatulence, crotch-kicks and explosions. What a shame: Lilo & Stitch might have been a surprising, even great cartoon, but by the end, it seems more like a marketing memo with illustrations.

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