The Widow of Saint-Pierre and In the Mood for Love: Two Good Romantic Movies

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Two current romantic movies?Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love and Patrice Leconte's The Widow of Saint-Pierre?are marked by restraint. Wong's film is about amatory attraction between a man and woman who are married to other people, while Leconte's concerns a couple's obsessive caretaking of a prisoner condemned to death?love as the highest state of humanism. Since neither film goes all the way to consummation of the romantic impulse, leaving both couples' ideals unfulfilled, these may seem to be strange interpretations of "romance." But Wong and Leconte create an unusual tension between characters' restrained behavior and their own extravagant visual styles. They reimagine romantic temperament as something sensuous, almost tactile, definitively cinematic.

It's said that pop esthete Wong Kar-Wai took his inspiration for In the Mood for Love from Bryan Ferry's 1999 As Time Goes By. Anyone who has really heard that album understands Wong's enchantment?and his rush to immediately capture its mood on film. (The album came out in the fall of '99; the film premiered at Cannes, still wet from the lab, in the spring of 2000.) Ferry interpreted standard love songs as if recorded in 1930s nightclubs and radio stations, adding his own modernist aura. An otherwordly version of Rodgers and Hart's "Where or When" employed an ondes martenot (according to critic Edward Crouse, a theremin-like string instrument named after its inventor). Wong's elliptically paced 1960s-set love story replicates Ferry's eerie romanticism down to its dulcet score, the heart-stopping effect of repeated camera movements and softly percussive editing.

For people who need movies to tell a linear story, In the Mood for Love has just enough of one. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) is a journalist recently moved into a bustling Hong Kong apartment building. On the same day a secretary, Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), moves next door. With their spouses constantly away, Mo-wan and Li-zhen are drawn together. When it's discovered that their spouses are having an affair, their closeness is doubly complicated by their own compulsion to repeat infidelity. Wong welcomes the charm of this hackneyed plot, but it's just a premise. In the manner of David Lean's Brief Encounter?even the candidness of Sydney Pollack's very similar Random Hearts, where the cheating spouses were also unseen?Wong accentuates romanticism. He takes sensuality as far as it can go short of pornography.

As in his previous love movies Chungking Express and Happy Together, Wong is interested in the modern experience of romantic longing. That explains his moody, atmospheric emphasis. The score by Michael Galasso and Umebayashi Shigeru uses cello for melancholy emotional texture a la Ferry's album, but Wong's modern interest is also in the suite of Spanish songs by Nat King Cole. These phonetic curios illustrate the global relevance of the couple's emotions. In the Mood for Love essays restive feelings that are universally recognizable. ("California Dreaming" served the same purpose in Chungking Express.) When critics praise In the Mood for Love for its exoticism (i.e., chinoiserie), the joke's on them. Wong's romantic antennae pick up and send signals everywhere.

All this is cool?supremely chic?but there's a larger pop truth. When Mo-wan says, "I want to write a martial arts serial," and Li-zhen agrees to this chaste form of collaboration, Wong poignantly dramatizes these proper persons' need to fantasize and break out of thwarted lives. Their "cheating" happens only by sharing melancholy. This may seem morally old-fashioned and puritanical, but it works a strong romantic spell. Movie and pop music history have confirmed the effectiveness of sustained, frustrated desire?from Brief Encounter with its tidal Rachmaninoff score to Jacques Demy's Lola. And Wong knows such incessant seductiveness (as in Godard's Masculine Feminine) is timeless.

What's fascinatingly contemporary about Wong's style is his facility for the pop language of desire: fashion. Mo-Wan, the sad little man in gray silk suits, and Li-zhen, prudent yet glamorous in her upswept pageboy and hot wardrobe, become eternal embodiments of yearning. The most profound filmmakers never portrayed passion with lusty thrashing, but with sublimation. That was the secret of Josef von Sternberg's mastery of style and behavior, whether in Morocco or The Shanghai Gesture. So while Wong records Mo-wan's and Li-zhen's reticent demeanors, they're also his peacocks flaunting sensual colors. Li-zhen's dresses match the balanced tones by cinematographers Mark Li Ping-bin and Christopher Doyle. In a scene of Minnelli-like delirium, Li-zhen is seen pacing a room, ignoring the ladies playing mah-jongg. A yellow flower display matches floral drapes, and when she leans out a window, Wong cuts to an exterior view where the vines and bushes synch with her patterned dress! Sternberg orchestrated no finer display of absolute rapture. Her wardrobe, like her character, is startling: Li-zhen's high-collared mandarin dresses have saucy, shoulder-cupping sleeves; even Mo-wan's green sharkskin suits show a red iridescent sheen. The effect isn't strictly symbolic; it's expressive of their quiet, radiant passion.

In the Mood for Love is best appreciated as proving Wong to be one of the great self-conscious romantics of pop culture?at last, a movie equivalent to Ferry. When Mo-wan corrects Li-zhen's emotional outburst ("It's a rehearsal!"), the moment is a jest by Wong. He's aware that music and color?and time paused for what feels like eternity as lovers stand in the rain?are just approaches to human longing. He saves passionate intensity?intimate secrets?for a final, mysterious sequence summoning humankind's accumulated longings. The tableau coordinates faith, music and cinema. Behold it in awe.

The Widow of Saint-Pierre must be the most visually striking movie ever made about capital punishment, but Leconte's real subject is the stubborn idealism of a military Captain (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Madame La (Juliette Binoche). Their guardianship over Neel (Emir Kusturica), a man convicted of wantonly killing a fisherman, reveals an unexpected fidelity to the principle of forgiveness. They let Neel out of the guardhouse to tend flowers, do handiwork, fall in love with a local woman and eventually become a hero in the community. Although Neel's rehabilitation justifies the Captain and his wife's trust, it is the 19th century, and French justice is still tumultuous. ("The Republic is sensitive," the Mayor says of the latest news from Paris.) Both Neel and the Captain are subject to the hypocritical needs of bureaucracy. The townspeople of Saint-Pierre may not want Neel executed (they promise to boycott the arrival of a used guillotine and the hiring of an executioner) but the men who keep the rule of law insist upon its unwavering, if brutal, practice.

Saint-Pierre is a desolate town, the seacoast and horizon visible from any point as if life there were godforsaken?or always cruelly spied upon. Like Claire Denis in Beau Travail, Leconte plays up the irony of ludicrous social order in the midst of breathtaking nature. With cinematographer Eduardo Serra, Leconte features dynamic, tilted sky-and-land shots. His volatile cinemascope frame turns everyone into an unmoored, haphazard figure. A startling shot of a black stallion being hoisted into the air and onto a ship is harmonized with succeeding images of the Captain's swirling blue cape, picking up on the cerulean sky and the blue-green water. This torrent of sensual imagery contrasts dark, still interiors with Madame La, conveying the couple's complementary sensibilities.

The Captain and his wife's fidelity surprise the town?and maybe some viewers?who expect a typical temptation once they invite the swarthy prisoner into their home. They care for Neel out of private virtue. For Leconte, the Captain and his wife are not just human-rights paragons but a romanticized ideal. From the opening shot of Madame La (posed like one of the Bronte sisters) at a window viewing an execution, Leconte works out of a storehouse of classically mournful images to support his tale of inhumanity and valiant principle. He slightly alters the conventions of the Gustave Courbet setting.

If not for its tony atmosphere and superb lead actors, The Widow of Saint-Pierre would seem crackpot. With their perfectly composed, dark-eyed responsiveness, both Auteuil and Binoche have the gift of quiet, subtle expression?watching them is like reading a page of a novel. The Captain and Madame La seem a Balzacian odd couple, so righteous, proud and potent the town should probably resent them. There isn't enough explanation of their high moral standing; they're like the last leftists in a town of craven capitalists. Leconte simply offers images of them gamboling in a field, resting in each other's arms in the huge shadow of a cross. (He never exactly admits the romance of political commitment?always Godard and Wong's specialty.) Mostly, Leconte uses Auteuil and Binoche's faces to idealize the stand their characters take, to make us feel romantically ambivalent about Neel's crime and rehabilitation.

In Lasse Hallstrom's meretricious Chocolat, Binoche was reduced to playing an all-smiling life force?an endorphins-dealing camp-counselor-psychotherapist-new-age-guru-and-sexual-liberator. That film is a sanctimonious, message-mongering mess. Leconte just does it with more class. It's unignorable that Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica's casting as the sympathetic, misunderstood outsider is intended to have political resonance. The way the Captain and his wife sacrifice their social standing and future to exonerate Neel has a wild, romantic defensiveness intended to override political complications?or such ethical considerations as "After all, he is guilty!" (A point never raised by the dead fisherman's friends or family.) Instead, Auteuil's stern, misted profile is photographed like an oxidized coin of the realm, and Binoche is always the image of gentle compassion. Kusturica, meanwhile, symbolizes contemporary Europe's guilt. That's a politically loaded notion, touching on controversies of punishment, complicity and judgment. But Leconte's romance distances it. Attempting a Balzac tone poem, he disguises the story's modern relevance while dazzling the senses.

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