Two movies, America and France
Just finished reading/skimming the Holiday Films adjunct to the Sunday NYT's Arts & Leisure section. I was Arts & Leisure editor for four years, and tried my best to make these advertising-driven supplements into real, serious film journals, in content if not in format. After a discouraging vulgar spell under my successor, Jodi Kantor, the current film editors (the key person being Ann Kolson, whom I hired in the job and who has managed to hang on all this time and who is a good friend) still manage to turn out a quality product: they get good writers, they pick good movies to preview and hence the sections are well worth reading.
That said, I stopped reading several of the articles about upcoming releases when the writers started telling me the plots at a level of detail I didn't want to know. Do movie writers do that because they truly believe that what's important about a film are the niceties of the directing, the writing and the acting, and that the mere plot is something you might as well know in advance, anyhow? Like, we know the plot of Hamlet but we still might want to see a new production. Or maybe they think you need to know the plot in order to decide wkether you want to see the movie. Or are the writers just lazy, falling back on recounting the plot to fill up space?
So here I am going to pontificate about two movies with a very similar, buried secret. That's it from me, plot-wise. Maybe already you feel you've found out more than you want to know. But what really interests me is what these movies tell us about their respective countries' film cultures.
Rachel Getting Married is about a family reunion and the dark secrets that emerge in the course of it. It's directed by Jonathan Demme, an auteur I've long admired but one who has seemingly settled back of late, maybe too comfortably, into documentaries, especially documentaries about the music he loves (he has excellent taste, meaning it corresponds with mine).
The acting in this new movie, starting with Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt as sisters, is top notch. But the film combines two genres I mostly despise: family reunions in which dark secrets emerge and addiction traumas. A film critic friend whose taste I admire loved this movie; she saw it twice. I found it crippled by the sit-com/Broadway predictability of too many American films, even those that try to transcend industry cliches.
I've Loved You So Long is a French film, and it too conforms to national stereotypes sometimes. Another family drama, it's long, it's talky, it's so discursive it drags. It too has wonderful performances all down the line (deeper into the cast than in Rachel Getting Marrried), starting with Kristin Scott-Thomas (in French; she's bi-lingual, though apparently she has a slight English accent I can't really hear, since a character remarks upon it in the movie) and Elsa Zylberstein as, again, sisters.
But the director, Philippe Claudel, who seems to be a literature professor late to film direction, has made a real grown-up movie here. It's serious, it's cumulatively intense, it's deeply emotional. I lived in France for nearly three years and have my reservations about the French and some aspects of their culture, especially their latter-day-defensive culture. But they're grown-ups, and they make grown-up movies. So do we, occasionally, but to my taste Rachel Getting Married isn't one of them.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.