Yawning From Art Film Apathy

About to give up hope over the hum- drum state of affairs known as summer at the megaplexes? Well, you might want to consider renting some good DVDs to watch, because you're probably not going to find any relief this week at our local nonmainstream venues.

Dull as most of the big summer movies have been, the momentum of the hype machine is now pretty much in full swing — a compelling siren's song for all cheerfully brainwashed consumers to spend every free weekend taking in Hollywood's latest product, regardless of merit. No wonder then that our local art film venues are playing it safer than ever, offering whatever they deem might be able to compete with the narcotic allure of the megaplexes in high summer.

Tampa Theatre plays it light and frothy with The Closet, a mild French sex farce that, despite the subtitles, is basically as conventional and forgettable as any similarly oriented project that might have slithered out of Hollywood. Meanwhile, the Beach Theatre is planning to open Songcatcher, a respectable but unexceptional turn-of-the-century, backwoods melodrama that debuted last week at Channelside (see Outtakes). Channelside, for their part, is holding over a couple of distinctly non-non-mainstream summer hits, while opening the fluffy Belgian comedy Everybody Famous, postponed from last week. The other major non-mainstream opening at Channelside this week is The Bride of the Wind, an infuriatingly flat bio-pic of one of history's most fascinating figures. As always, all of these openings are subject to last-minute changes, so call the venues to confirm.

The Closet is the latest effort from French filmmaker Francis Veber, and it's pretty much typical of the director's pleasantly silly but imminently disposable mindset. Although not exactly a household name here in the States, many of us, unknowingly, are familiar with Veber's style from the numerous Hollywood remakes of his French-language originals (including Father's Day, The Man With One Red Shoe, Three Fugitives, The Birdcage and The Toy). From time to time, Veber himself has taken a shot at translating his own Gallic goof-fests for the English-speaking market, although generally with results no more satisfying than those achieved by his American counterparts. Anybody remember My Father the Hero? Didn't think so.

The Closet is more of the same. Veber's premise this time involves an insignificant little man who pretends to be gay in order to keep from being fired from his dead-end job at a condom factory. Daniel Auteuil, known mostly for his brooding, dramatic roles in films like The Widow of Saint-Pierre and The Girl on the Bridge, plays against type as Francois Pignon, a mousy, uncomplicated accountant, abused by his ex-wife, hated by his teenage son, and ignored by the rest of the world. When Pignon gets word that he's about to be fired, he decides to throw himself off his balcony — a leap that's barely averted by a sympathetic neighbor with a plan.

That plan involves spreading the word that Pignon is gay, thereby averting our hero's ouster by a company fearful of being accused of discrimination. Veber's big joke is that the newly outed Pignon doesn't change his behavior in the slightest, but everyone's perceptions of him alter radically. Auteuil's performance is understated to the point of blandness, but Gerard Depardieu, as a macho co-worker, makes up for his co-star's subtlety by delivering a blustery, nearly hysterical performance that pushes every scene he's in way over the top. The movie is worth seeing for Depardieu alone, but, for the most part, the material itself feels more than just a little tepid and sitcom-ish. The Closet is relatively fast-paced, for what it's worth, but basically frivolous and uninspired stuff that never really transcends its slight, one-note premise.

More "substantial" but even less successful than The Closet, director Bruce Beresford's The Bride of the Wind is just the sort of historical epic about art and life that we might have expected from the filmmaker who gave us Driving Miss Daisy.

What Beresford attempts to do here is ambitious and even noble in the extreme: offering up a comprehensive guided tour of one of the most intriguing and important times and places in human history, fin-de-siecle Vienna. The story is nominally Alma Mahler's, but the real tale that Beresford seems to want to relate belongs to the 20th century in its entirety — the story of Old World values violently clashing with revolutionary new ideas — as embodied through some of that era's most creative individuals, several of whom happened to be Alma's lovers. It's a tall order, and Beresford simply isn't up to it.

Alma Mahler was by most accounts one of the more interesting women who ever lived. The wife of the great composer Gustav Mahler, and romantically linked with the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, modern architect Walter Gropius and novelist Franz Werfel (among others), Alma was also a gifted composer in her own right. Still, she apparently had to content herself with serving as a muse to the men in her life, constantly thwarted in her desire to nurture her own considerable artistic talent.

Bride of the Wind gives us very little sense of any of this. The movie simply introduces us to Alma (an oddly affectless performance from newcomer Sarah Wynter) and then parades a seemingly endless series of great artists, musicians, poets, painters and architects before us. Each character is given a handful of scenes and allowed to dutifully utter one or two memorable lines before departing. Beresford generally seems more concerned with the sumptuous costumes and decors of his film than making sure his characters come off as creatures made of flesh and blood and ideas that extend beyond sound bites.

Although Bride of the Wind clearly wants us to consider it as unique and even unorthodox simply because of the non-conformist proclivities of its characters, the movie is anything but, and commits many of the most grievous sins of the most conventional Hollywood bio-pics. The film spreads itself thin to the point of evaporation, functioning as little more than a pretty but often simplistic, blitzkrieg tour of notable turn-of-the-century personalities, and turning those vital human bits of humanity into mere thumbnail sketches. Alma and her friends deserve much, much more.

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