Joined: 19 Dec 2002
|Posted: Mon Sep 16, 2013 11:09 pm Post subject: MAD ABOUT THE BOY: "Asylum" and "2046."
|Title: MAD ABOUT THE BOY.
By: Lane, Anthony, New Yorker, 0028792X, 8/22/2005, Vol. 81, Issue 24
THE CURRENT CINEMA
"Asylum" and "2046."
It is a joke, of sorts, to take a love story of unquenchable ardor and set it in England. To set it in the England of the nineteen-fifties, however, may be stretching the joke too far. "Asylum," directed by David Mackenzie, is hell-bent on returning us to an era in which a low neckline on a cocktail dress was a threat to civil society. The dress in question belongs to Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson), who, with her husband, Max (Hugh Bonneville), and their young son, Charlie (Gus Lewis), arrives at the clanging gates of a mental asylum. Max has been appointed deputy superintendent, a post so prestigious that the Raphaels get a home of their own within the bounds of the institution. As if that weren't joyful enough, they soon meet the cadaverous Dr. Cleave (Ian McKellen), who treats the more elaborate cases, arriving late for a party and explaining under his breath, "Rather delicate moment with our new matricide." Also in his care is Edgar (Marton Csokas), who used to be a sculptor. "What did he do?" Stella asks. "Heads, I think," Max replies.
It's a wicked exchange, courtesy of the screenwriters Patrick Marber and Chrysanthy Balis, and the wickedness thickens once you learn that Edgar, unmanned by jealousy, decapitated his wife. Now he wanders the gardens of the asylum, doing odd jobs and patching up the greenhouse. I wish I could tell you that what happens next came as a blistering surprise, but if there's one thing that years of moviegoing teach you it is basic algebra, and the rule runs as follows: (Frustrated Wife ÷ Late-Fifties Lingerie) - √(Dull Husband) x (Demonic Yet Strangely Tender Hunk + Glowing Eyes) = Greenhouse Rock. I am not sure whether lithium is prescribed at the asylum, but, given that nobody appears to notice a fit young couple going flat-out in broad daylight, my suspicion is that both warders and inmates are doped up to the eyeballs. Much of the dialogue is scissor-sharp-you would expect no less of Marber, who wrote "Closer"-but he is up against blunt and obvious material. The moment you learn, for instance, that patients and staff are invited to meet at the annual ball, you know that Edgar and Stella will dance too close for comfort; and there they are, on cue, cheek to burning cheek.
"Asylum" began life as a novel by Patrick McGrath, who himself is the son of a superintendent of Broadmoor, the notorious British hospital that has long housed the criminally insane. The premise of the tale is thus grounded in an experience of some grit, yet the result, onscreen, is a loose compound of the predictable and the implausible. I was just about prepared to believe that our lovers might flee the asylum to be together; but the circumstances that allow them to be wrenched asunder and then brought nearer once more seem gothically wrong, requiring Dr. Cleave to mutate from a prim clinical observer into a pin-striped Svengali with a madness all his own. Ian McKellen enjoys the transformation, and you catch an impish amusement behind his gaze; for all his efforts, though, most of the picture feels blank of humor, offering us a baleful welcome to the wilder shores of love. It's the sort of film in which the characters glare speechlessly either at one another or, if provided with a mirror, at themselves, like stage actors praying for a prompt.
It must be said that "Asylum" is well accoutred as a period piece--Max's white Jaguar puts in a smooth supporting performance--yet the period to which it clings most needily is not that in which it takes place. There is, rather, a smack of the nineteen-sixties in its vision of the fruitful lunatic: the loner whose excesses, erotic and murderous, deliver a liberating jolt to the bourgeoisie. A touch of R. D. Laing, too, is detectable in the ease with which the movie allows those of unsound mind to cross into the domain of those who tend to them, and vice-versa; Stella, for example, gradually loses her marbles. Whether she remembered to pack them in the first place is another matter. From the start, Natasha Richardson is so low and haunted of voice (close your eyes and it could be her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, in full cry), and so glassy in her stunned demeanor, that her fate is, for all practical purposes, pre-sealed.
In fact, "Asylum" could even have been made in the sixties or early seventies. Little seems to have changed since the days of "Accident" or "The Go-Between," whose tasteful flayings of British hypocrisy were every bit as arch and purse-lipped as the society that they ventured to chastise. I wanted to be freaked or frightened by "Asylum," instead of which it slipped down as blamelessly as a BBC costume drama, and Marton Csokas's Edgar appears to be suffering less from homicidal insanity than from a stubborn strain of randy plaintiveness. You could imprison him for that, I guess, but then half the males on Earth would have to be locked up, too. Like many of today's soulful stars, Csokas doesn't have the voice to match his brooding looks-where the vocal coaches of old have gone is anybody's guess-and, instead of a vicious rasp or a molten croon, one hears nothing worse than flat wheedling as he talks to Stella about her husband and child: "Give them up or don't come back." He might as well be telling her to quit smoking.
The Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai has an abundance of fans, many of them verging on the obsessive. That is only fitting, because the majority of people in his films-from "Days of Being Wild" (1991) and "Happy Together" (1997) to his latest work, "2046"-display similar signs of loopiness. With a bewitching sleight of both hand and eye, he deals in the fragmentary and the fleeting as if they were aces and queens. "2046," which unrolls mostly in the Hong Kong of the nineteen-sixties, picks up where "In the Mood for Love" (2000) came to a close, or at any rate tailed away.
Once again, the picture stars Tony Leung as Chow, a freelance writer; scribblers everywhere will wince in fellow-pain as they see his nib poised above a page, followed by a black screen bearing the words "10 hours later," followed by the nib in exactly the same position. "In the Mood for Love"-the title covers Wong's entire field of operations-saw Chow entwined with Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung), who returns here with a flickering cameo. Now, just to confound matters, there is a second Su (Gong Li), a professional gambler who wears a lone black glove. Chow falls for her, as he does for Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), a call girl who lives next door, and for the teen-aged daughter of his landlord (Faye Wong), and a parade of other dames. I am not competent to judge whether Chow is really the type to make the opposite sex go weak at the knees, waist, neck, and other points of seizure, although to my eyes he looked, with his whisker of mustache, like a no-good rat in a George Raft movie. What I will say is that nobody who has the ungallant gall to inform us, in voice-over, that "I became an expert ladies' man" is a ladies' man at all. Ladies of every description will know him better as a creep.
Nevertheless, onward they swarm, and there is no denying the buzz of their amours. Wong is less abashed by the insanely beautiful than any other current director. Every shot is colored and composed to within an inch of its life, which may be another way of saying that "2046" is a near-death experience. So many pearls gleaming in the half-dark; so much creaseless ravishment in the high silk collar of a Chinese dress; so much smoke, and so much rain, though never enough to leave the characters cross or damp--merely enough to patter around them, like applause. When even the munching of a sandwich is glossed by slow motion, as if it were a sacred rite, should we kneel in awe, or could we be forgiven for suppressing a yawn?
There are multiple story lines coiled inside the film, although the result is too ropy to be hailed as a plot. From time to time, we are spirited into a tale that Chow is writing, entitled "2046," which envisions a future where humans zip around on superfast trains, heading for a place where they can, allegedly, recapture their memories. The trains are staffed by exquisite female robots, "androids with delayed reactions," who "may want to cry, but the tear won't well up till next day." It's a gorgeous conceit, but it rebounds awkwardly on the rest of the women in this picture, all of whom have a whiff of the erotic cyborg; only Faye Wong is allowed to wriggle free of the director's stylistic choke hold and rise to the status of a person. Wong's admirers, like those of Stanley Kubrick, thrill to his visual dictatorship, but in both instances the inquiry into passion can seem a weirdly impassive affair. When I think of a true purveyor of romance, like Max Ophuls, I think of lovers whose mood for love is not imposed from on high but caught as it flashes or flows between them. Ophuls's films are unfailingly alert, whereas "2046" mugs the senses like a blend of perfume and chloroform. As for the title, well, it made me think of Thomas Carlyle's wife, who read Browning's long poem "Sordello," enjoyed it, but still couldn't work out whether Sordello was a man, a city, or a book. So it is with 2046. A place? A date? A hotel room? A bar tab? You tell me.