Those Who Love Me...
A Dream Bestirred "Our lives could be more inventive," says Francois (Pascal Greggory), a scowling, handsome art critic defining the failures of his set in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. They're a mean bunch?drug addicts, homosexuals, clinging wives, cheating husbands, cruel parents and crueler children?all traveling from Paris to Limoges for the funeral of a painter-professor, Jean-Baptiste Emmerich, who inspired or slept with but certainly intimidated them all. In this extended family gathering?alternately flirtatious and quarrelsome?sex and recrimination preoccupy the mourners' thoughts. Mixed with memories of the daunting Jean-Baptiste Emmerich ("He painted violence; he was obsessed with Francis Bacon") is their unarticulated need to revolt. It's an Oedipal compulsion, but director-writer Patrice Chereau gives it immediacy; he sees in it their desire to reinvent the mess of their lives. Chereau's dramatization is so daring and accomplished it single-handedly reinvents the contemporary cinema. Chereau's previous film, the 1994 Queen Margot, staged the intrigues leading to the 16th-century Huguenot massacre with mesmerizing opulence and high melodrama. (Critic Kent Jones said, "Chereau wants every movie to be Shakespeare, there's nothing wrong with that.") This contemporary pageant suggests a similar impulse?one amazing scene after another, fascinating characters dealing with love and death, plus a convulsive, winged view of life. More impressive than Chereau's historicism is this fearlessly complex acceptance of modern types. Queen Margot came with a booklet?a scorecard/family tree?and this time Chereau pitches the audience into hubbub, an emotional labyrinth, so that paying attention and identifying each character's quirk and twitch amounts to dramatic discovery. At first Those Who Love Me plays hide-and-seek among its characters the way Altman shuffled to-and-fro introductions and arrivals in Nashville and Short Cuts, but here the energy level is even higher. The opening movement?the 40-minute train segment?plays like the drug-haze sequence of GoodFellas. And Chereau sustains it for over two hours of total montage?cutting from Francois listening to tapes of an interview he did with Emmerich, his lover Louis (Bruno Todeschini) tagging along and getting awestruck by the waiflike Bruno (Sylvain Jacques). Other traveling mourners include Emmerich's junky nephew Jean-Marie (Charles Berling) hiding from his estranged, junky wife Claire (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi); Catherine and Elodie (Dominique Blanc and Delphine Schlitz), the wife and daughter of Emmerich's rough-trade porter Thierry (Roschdy Zem). And there are more, including Emmerich's past romances (Lucie, an elderly lady with an Akita-like face played by Marie Daems, one of Emmerich's few heterosexual conquests, calling herself "The Impossible Woman...the impossible dream") and assorted acolytes. This cross section of the middle-class art world, already grief-stricken, is unusually high-strung. The sober ones' emotions are as exacerbated as those who are stoned. Coping through decadence and near-exhausted sophistication, their highs are seen coldly, honestly (as hyper as the art groupies of High Art were enervated). They're tense and weary commuters, dissociated from standard etiquette but shaken by the simplest emotion. Chereau doesn't sentimentalize their travelers' blues; he transmits its electricity and fullness. Eric Gautier's breathtaking camerawork balances detail with virtuosity, giving as much care to startled, tired, excited faces as to the mid-morning light inside a train?superb! Chereau and Gautier use the widescreen as an enlarging, liberating space. As the mourners press past each other in the train's aisles, tight compartments and corridors, Chereau stays open to the world on its borders?agape at the fleeting scenery outside the train window (it's as exalted as the space outside the trolley car in Murnau's Sunrise). These complicated, shuffled relationships are not resolved in typical dramatic terms; they're bestirred. Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty was warmer about secrets and subterfuges among bourgeois snakes; but this stings. The luminous innocence Liv Tyler represented for Bertolucci has its sullied equivalent in Sylvain Jacques' wandering Bruno (he looks like the late Jeff Buckley) and Vincent Perez' showstopping appearance as Emmerich's transsexual son Viviane. But instead of celebrating the bloom into sexual pleasure and threat, Chereau chooses a not-quite-cynical view (thus exposing that heterosexual romantic convention). His darker scrutiny of parents and lovers is closer to the resigned quality in Visconti's Conversation Piece (where an elderly Burt Lancaster enacted a sage's bisexual benediction); it's reinvented here as a study on gay families. Two mature male figures bracket Chereau's panorama of human experience, Francois and Emmerich's twin brother Lucien (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who shows up at the cemetery. We've seen Trintignant's paternal idiosyncrasies and majestic reserve before (most recently in Kieslowski's Red) and he's remarkable here, too, greeting his angry, distant son Jean-Marie with caring, tentative touches. But Pascal Greggory's Francois, the intellectual scourge, is a quiet revelation. His shaved head and grizzled, gray facial growth (not quite a beard) suggest an authentic Right Bank mandarin cynic, a queen with the camp burned away. ("I think I'll go jerk off," he tells a pious mourner after the burial.) Greggory, first noticed as the sensitive brother Branwell in Techine's The Bronte Sisters and the naive young romantic in Rohmer's Pauline at the Beach, here shows gaunt cheek hollows that recall Trintignant's pawkiness, but he also, startlingly, has the face of gay age. Francois begins the film looking up, wondering and worried?a self-sufficient sensibility facing an unknown future. Death? Yeah, but life, too. Francois' arguments with Louis about Bruno?dark-eyed Todeschini (the scene-stealer of La Sentinelle) quivers emotion like a violin bow?are like pop music duets: hard and soft hearts speaking in harmony. Those Who Love Me moves into a gay world?but not in a doctrinaire way like recent commercial gay films. This isn't a gay film in that sense. Chereau and his co-screenwriters Daniele Thompson and Pierre Trividic convey the world through shifting, mobile metaphors that amount to a gay knowledge of living?California Split-style transient relationships and extended, temporary families. Today's pop gay films leap at that fantasy while Chereau dares examine its complications (the very feasibility of made-up relations); juxtaposing it with the primal, real thing. The Emmerich family?wealthy shoe manufacturers in a town known for its porcelain?attracts Jean-Baptiste's followers, but it is also a site of discord and strained histories: Lucien sustained the family business while his twin Jean-Baptiste escaped to high society and art; then Jean-Marie rejected Lucien for his worldly, indulgent uncle?a travesty that may recur in the next generation as it seems reflected in Thierry's own precarious domicile (the scene of Thierry alone, cackling at horror films, seems a doomed harbinger). The Emmerich family house, place of the travelers' final gathering, is a legacy everyone desires but no one dares to claim. Chereau tests out ideas about family and rebel identity matter-of-factly, as part of his stylistic bravery. He doesn't exactly use gay subtext, because his view is as forthright as Renoir's heterosexuality in Rules of the Game. Like Renoir, Chereau knows the world's emotional space is roomy and varied?something Vincent Perez' astonishing appearance and performance proves beyond doubt. Both touching and mercurial, Perez vivifies transsexuality while embodying the film's binary themes: Twin brothers, life/death, bisexual nature. Viviane's hopefulness about her new being is at constant war with her regret; she's believably courageous yet vulnerable. The only one in the Emmerich household who looks working-class Thierry in the eye, she's also the end of the family line. Equally amazing is Chereau's ability to convey these transgressive themes in a grand manner. His grasp of vast experiences and numerous characters suggests The Godfather?something riveting every scene. It's dynamic viewing: shots composed in parallelograms, diagonals and constant forward momentum. In an early high point the child Elodie spots her father Thierry driving alongside the train transporting Emmerich's coffin. This train/hearse sequence is equal to the raid in Stagecoach (actually a better comparison to social dissection than Rules of the Game, since Chereau's view matches Ford's skepticism about society). Scored to Jeff Buckley's "Last Good-bye," a song with a hurtling immanence, this sequence displays Chereau's uncanny sense of theater. As with the privately principled Francois, any campiness is burned away; Chereau connects to Buckley's piquant weirdness?which in this neurotic tale proves an unexpectedly right dramaturgical effect. Chereau knows what Griffith, Renoir and Altman all realized: there's no line between theater and cinema?at their best both forms share an essence: life enlivened. In Chereau's leave-taking finale, Gautier's camera glides over his disparate, desperate characters once more en route to their destinies. There hasn't been an ending so immensely cinematic since De Palma's The Fury. It has dreamlike omniscience, heartbreaking beauty. Even this year's best American movies (Cookie's Fortune, Election) look paltry next to the dazzling ambition of this year's French releases?Leos Carax's Lovers on the Bridge, Ducastel and Martineau's Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels, Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale and now Patrice Chereau's masterwork. Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train's frissons of clashing, dodging, repulsion/attraction keep building and stay moving. Few films have been this kinetic since the Soviet silents, yet music and image complement each other throughout, whether it's James Brown's "That's Life" scored to a hitchhiker pickup or Portishead heard in the sepulchral Emmerich estate. Bjork's "All Is Full of Love" underscores the cemetery sequence (Limoges is said to have Europe's largest graveyard, 185,000 dead to the town's 140,000 living citizens?an awesome sight). The music doesn't intrude, as in a Spike Lee film. Chereau respects pop; his use honors its resonance and inherent dramatic value. After all, Those Who Love Me is a melodrama, polemicized like Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant but with a sleek look and a richer sense of family dynamics. ("Loving people means putting up with their shit," Francois says.) And Fassbinder's style was never so elegant, nor his characters' self-deprivation so ironically graced. This is gay-conscious family philosophy as learned in post-Fassbinder years, beyond AIDS or bisexual chic. It may be the closest anyone actually comes to putting Tony Kushner's Angels in America on the screen. Most of Chereau's characters are not artists, but they seek to live their lives like artists?expressively with a passionate need to be understood. That urgency is the film's point, so when the key line ("Our lives could be more inventive") comes up, Francois and Louis' discussion about adopting Bruno to make a new family reveals the emotional needs of all three men and sketches their utterly radical potential. Chereau's final, magnificent shot dreams a revolution that doesn't end at the grave.
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