The Triumph of Love; Changing Lanes

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Was Marivaux kitschy? That's not a pressing question in the Britney Spears age, but Clare Peploe's vivid film version of Marivaux's 18th-century play The Triumph of Love feels contemporary enough to make you wonder: How did Marivaux's 1732 audience react to his sexual interrogation and gender self-consciousness? Were they as amused by his toying with illusion and seduction as, say, Spears' audience is by hers? Or did he probe so deeply, so complexly, that while his plays entered the soul of French romantic discourse, they became less comforting, less well known than the works of Moliere, Racine, Beaumarchais?

Peploe adapted The Triumph of Love after seeing a performance of this obscure play at the experimental Almeida Theatre in London. In something of a cultural recovery act, she brings Marivaux into the popular light, but her play-within-a-movie conceit also recovers for the contemporary screen the heady and stirring romantic contemplation that lately has only been the province of Eric Rohmer. Peploe assumes Marivaux's particular style of argument and wit (called Marivaudage by French theater scholars) with the aplomb and insouciance we normally associate with pop music. It's a farce with sweep and rhythm. Unlike such genteel kitsch as Shakespeare in Love or the recent, stodgy Jane Austen adaptations, Triumph of Love's artifices come across with billowy, naturalistic ease and erotic intimacy. Using a sun-drenched Italian villa (the kind of setting Kenneth Branagh made insufferable in Much Ado About Nothing), Peploe transcends the longstanding pretenses that turn classical adaptations into kitsch. She pays homage to watching theater, but her almost subliminal shots of a contemporary theater audience remind us we're also watching life. We could be eavesdropping on an enchanted world, but the marvel of this picture?and it is the most marvel-filled movie this season?is that this world is an encapsulation of romantic psychology.

I can't lie about the film's complexity; that's part of its fun. A big term?emotional dialectic?describes the interplay when a Princess-in-disguise (Mira Sorvino) enters the hideaway of skeptical, loveless philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his maiden, scientist sister Leontine (Fiona Shaw). The Princess has fallen in love with their handsome young protege, Agis (Jay Rodan), but her sexual pursuit also has a political impetus; knowing the intellectuals are opposed to her sovereignty, she secretly plots to foil them all?through flirtation. Taking on further guises (as Phocion, a questing male student, and Aspasie, an ardent young lady), the Princess boldly romances each member of the estate. Like As You Like It's Rosalind, her strategies dissect every person's vanity as well as their political and social isolation. Forcing others into awareness of their suppressed feelings, she gets surprised by the depth of her own.

During a sly embrace, Agis teaches the Princess archery. The target is an effigy of herself with a big red heart; when pierced, the effigy opens its mouth. That's the play's organizing principle?the expression of wounded feelings provoked by deep-set longings. ("He's a combination of everything that makes grace worthy of love." "You have a heart in which reason is tempered by emotion." "A pure soul illuminates the body with the light of its intelligence.") Marivaux exposes/analyzes both high-flown and sentimental assumptions about love, friendship, trust. In his day he was commissioned by the Comedie Française, writing popularly, yet avoiding sentimentality. But if you've seen any serious French film this past century you can see its source in Marivaux. Peploe sees Marivaux's universality. She treats the play as a right-now daydream of how people act on their desires. Modern feelings are only dressed up in the swank and splendor of fable and farce. Timeless passions are heightened, thus made clearer, more buoyant, more painful.

At her most vulnerable and exposed, old maid Leontine gasps, "I'm trapped!" That's when Peploe's cut to the modern-day audience startles. Leontine's Blanche DuBois moment shows us the harshness of the Princess' jest, but that audience shot also provides proper distance on cruelty?the kind that never occurs in Les Liasons Dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos' tainted satire of human nature. Peploe latches onto Marivaux's greater insight. ("All is positive and negative at the same time.") Her co-screenwriters Bernardo Bertolucci and Marilyn Goldin reveal the play's pain while reveling in its artifices. Goldin was co-screenwriter of Andre Techine's French Provincial, another act of juggling form and emotion. Jason Osborn's score is a fitting pastiche of Mozart, Vivaldi, Respighi and Delerue with Dave Gilmour's guitar giving rock-era immediacy to the Princess' trysts with Agis. (Baz Luhrmann, the word is subtlety.)

The cast is in good repertory humor. Kingsley makes Hermocrates a perfect joke on pompous sexual philosophizing; Ignazio Oliva's Arlequin is a tribute to fun. As the maid, Rachel Stirling smiles with catlike amusement, and Shaw finally proves her reputation; Leontine's openhearted foolishness (evoking both Vanessa Redgrave in Agatha and Zasu Pitts in Greed) mixes comedy with genuine pathos. Sorvino's slightly goofy benevolence makes her an ideal comedienne. Her "classical repertory" voice blends Audrey Hepburn's moue with Joan Greenwood's purr; she's required to stress affectation yet still maintains the film's androgynous balance. This role's intricacy (as when the Princess asks forgiveness) recalls Magnani's tour de force in Renoir's similarly multilayered The Golden Coach.

Triumph of Love deserves such lofty comparisons (unlike the recent dreadful film of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, which looked like its director had never seen a movie before, having actors walk across the screen like ducks in a shooting gallery). Peploe explores Marivaux to show how the idea of loving motivates politics and ethics. You can't be more modern than that, and the astringency in this romp is what keeps it from being kitschy. Peploe first showed her farcical leanings in the gentle 1988 film High Season, but Triumph of Love is a full-blown romantic expression. Its ethics are apparent in Peploe's sexy entrancement. When couples talk?whether woman to man, woman to woman, man to man?their eyes and flesh overwhelm. Sparkle and texture fill the screen. In concert with Marivaux's speeches, these luminous duets bring to mind Scritti Politti's structuralist pop lyric, "How your flesh and blood became the word." No director has done romantic closeups this captivating since George Stevens. Peploe turns Marivaux's moral treatise into an erotic reverie. It may happen that the banal Shakespeare in Love attracts many more moviegoers. That will leave just a few of us to enjoy Peploe's breathless sophistication?but we're a lucky few.

Changing Lanes
Directed by Roger Michell

Forget about a level playing field. Changing Lanes can't even balance its dramatic scales when weighing Wall Street lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) against insurance salesman Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson), let alone keep the two New Yorkers' harried emotions on a parallel track. Intending social compassion, screenwriters Michael Tolkin, Chap Taylor and director Roger Michell wind up promoting the very inequities they set out to resolve. They fail by charging up their critique with meretricious action-movie ploys, cheapening their own misguided, liberal guilt.

The stars' roles are not remotely equal (were they even paid the same?). Affleck gets the moral crisis and the majority of screen time while Jackson, significantly, is like an evil djinn, popping up as an emanation of the white elite's worst fears: a threatening, inconsolable black. It's laughable to think that the filmmakers probably intended the opposite, bringing these two men together in a fender-bender on the FDR Dr. where the hasty white guy ruins the life of the righteous black guy. Trouble is, these filmmakers don't know how an average man has a bad day?or what made Doyle an alcoholic struggling to put his life in order. All we get is Affleck's white contrition and Jackson's black rage.

What's in the filmmakers' subconscious comes out in lines referring to Jackson: "Don't kill the dog, I just want the dog to settle down." "He's a spirit without a body" (when his bank credit is canceled). And Doyle's wife's definitive summary, "You went crazy like you always do, crazy like you always will go crazy and that's you!" No doubt Jackson was drawn to this familiar role because he feels justified playing bitterness?whether as Shaft, Jules or whomever. He's waging a lonely, deluded battle, as his frown at the recent Academy Awards suggested. But Affleck has industry favor on his side. Though he's just as inadequate an actor as Jackson, Changing Lanes' script gives Affleck a nearly full human portrait.

Better than I expected, Affleck faces an ethical quandary. Banek's trophy wife (Amanda Peet) challenges him, "What do you think the law is at this level? It is a big, vicious game. They understand how the world works. When a man comes to the edge of things, he has to commit to staying there." Affleck's tears are supposed to make Peet's proposal seem acceptable, but the dilemma actually looks like Hollywood self-justification (Peet could be a producer's wife rooting for the mansion, car and pool). "I came here for some meaning,"Affleck says in a confessional. "Sometimes God just likes to put two guys in a paper bag and just let 'em rip." This is sub-Paddy Chayefsky moralizing. Tolkin's always partial to it (Deep Cover, The New Age) but it took Altman's humanity on The Player to correct his cynicism. Pomposity vitiates Tolkin's "seriousness." As a result, Changing Lanes' audience suffers his sadistic tendentiousness. He's a hip ironist: "I believe in law, order, justice. I believe that people are by nature good," a naive lawyer quotes Anne Frank. And when put-upon Doyle rushes to save his schoolkids during a hoax, there's a frustrated father/child reunion scene?more stomach-turning than heart-wrenching.

Changing Lanes is based on too many simple fallacies about modern male stress. That's why Jackson goes into unaccountable racist rampages defending Tiger Woods or describes Affleck as having "some kind of computer voodoo." (The switch of villainy reflects the filmmakers' basic racist assumption.) When Jackson admits, "I was a horribly unstable father," it seems like what white filmmakers have been waiting to hear blacks say, because we never see how he was an unstable (or perhaps overly self-critical) father.

Cross-class interaction with William Hurt (as an AA mentor) supposedly proves brotherly commiseration?changing lanes?is possible, yet even he condemns Doyle with a speech that coincidentally sums up Jackson's career: "Your drug of choice is chaos. For some it's bourbon, coke. You got hooked on disaster." As long as filmmakers think black chaos is marketable, they might as well give up the insulting pretense of liberalism.

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