|by Peter Sobczynski
This column goes adults only this week (well not quite) with a quarter of films dealing with the pain and pleasure of erotic obsession. If that is too much for you, it also contains another Kate Hudson craptacular, the directorial debut of the wife of the guy who produced “League of Extraordinary Gentleman” and, perhaps inevitably, an art-house film featuring none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme.
It is easy enough, I suppose, to get people to take their clothes off in front of a movie camera--just stay up late to watch Cinemax for a couple of nights if you doubt me--but when it comes to examining the nuts and bolts of erotic obsession in a serious manner, things get a lot trickier. The problem is that while all people, whether they are willing to admit it or not, find certain things to be especially arousing, not everyone is turned on by the same things and what may strike one person as unspeakably tantalizing--small breasts, a visible clavicle or skin-diving fins (the latter being the result of having seen “The Deep” at an especially impressionable age)--may strike another as being simply unspeakable. Over the years, some brave filmmakers have attempted to explore the notion of erotic obsession and this week coincidentally sees the DVD release of two of the very best films of this type--Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” and Patrice Leconte’s “The Hairdresser’s Husband.” Both of the films are high-wire acts from start to finish--one false move and they could have easily become laughable nonsense--that never step wrong for an instant and are among the most powerful films dealing with human sexuality that I have ever seen.
Based on a true story and set in pre-war Japan, “In the Realm of the Senses” begins as former prostitute Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) takes a job as a servant in a bordello run by Toku (Aio Nakajima) in order to pay off her husband’s gambling debts. After observing Toku having sex with her husband, Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji), she pretends to be a prostitute and has sex with him herself. This kicks off an obsessive relationship between the two that is based entirely on sex in which they attempt to push the boundaries with every encounter and in full view of the other servants. As things progress, however, Sada becomes more and more obsessed with Kichizo, or at least one particular organ of his, and pushes things into darker and more sadomasochistic areas that culminates in one of the more shocking, if perhaps inevitable, scenes ever put on a film. Although the sexual material of display is graphic enough to be considered pornographic by many (even though the film was shot in Japan, it had to be shipped to France for development to avoid censorship from local authorities), this is not a pornographic film by any means. Like David Cronenberg’s “Crash,” it treats its depiction of sexuality seriously and not just as some airbrushed silliness to get from one scene to another--Oshima depicts it in such a raw, intense and uncompromising manner that it allows viewers to get further into the minds of his two main characters even as they retreat further and further into their own private world. The result many not be sexy per se (and this could well be the worst first date movie ever made, with the possible exception of “Hardcore”) but it is truly a singular experience--unbearably intense, brilliantly acted and even containing a few moments of wonderfully oddball humor (such as the ménage a trois with an older woman that goes spectacularly wrong)--and for those who can handle it, it is a film that will never be forgotten. At the very least, you will never look at a hard-boiled egg again in the same way after watching it.
Although far gentler in tone than “In the Realm of the Senses” (of course, that could be said about “Last Tango in Paris”), “The Hairdresser’s Husband” is no less serious or intense in its depiction of erotic fixation--it just does so in a manner so deceptively sunny and cheerful that you don’t realize how dark it really is until long after it ends. It tells the story of a man (Jean Rochefort) who became infatuated at a young age with the local hairdresser in the town where he used to spend summers with his family. Unlike most childhood obsessions, this one keeps at him for years and then one day, he meets the girl of his dreams in the form of a gorgeous hairdresser (Anna Galiena). He is so besotted, in fact, that within a few minutes in her chair, he is already proposing marriage. Sensibly, she turns him down but when he returns a few days later, they soon get married and find perfect bliss in each other--so much so that they rarely leave the confines of their salon or have contact with anyone other than their customers. What happens from this point should be discovered for yourself but I will note that Leconte, whose fascination with erotic obsession has fueled such equally brilliant films as “Monsieur Hire” and the jaw-dropping “The Girl on the Bridge,” has taken what could have been a creepy male fantasy (the story is, after all, seen entirely through Rochefort’s eyes) and transformed it into a hypnotic meditation on life, love and heartbreak that is as strong and stirring to see today as it was when it first came out. Beyond that, the performances from Rochefort and Galiena are wonderful--they make for a perfect on-screen couple--the cinematography is gorgeous and the soundtrack from Michael Nyman (which drives a couple of exuberant dances from Rochefort) is one of the best of his illustrious career. There have been many cinematic fables about the concept of true love that have been made over the years--some good, some bad and some indifferent. This one, quite simply, is one of the best ever made.
Over the years, “In the Realm of the Senses” has suffered on home video--the versions that have been made available have either looked terrible or were hacked to bits by censors--so it is a relief that this edition from Criterion marks its best presentation to date. For starters, it is presented in a fully uncut and uncensored version taken from a newly remastered hi-def digital transfer. As for the extras, they include an informative commentary on the film and its controversial history from scholar Tony Rayns, a new interview with co-star Fuji along with archival interviews featuring Fuji, Matsuda, Oshima and member of the production crew, deleted scenes, the U.S. trailer and a booklet including an essay from Japanese film expert Donald Richie and another interview with Oshima. Although the disc for “The Hairdresser’s Husband” prepared by Severin Films--an unusual break from their usual offerings of obscure exploitation films--it includes informative interviews with Patrice Leconte and Anna Galiena as well as the theatrical trailer. For those who are especially inspired by these films, this week also sees Criterion releasing Oshima’s 1978 follow-up “Empire of Passion,” an odd blend of sex and horror in which a woman and her younger lover kill her husband, dump him in a nearby well and suffer physically and emotionally as a result, while Severin presents Leconte’s 1994 film “The Perfume of Yvonne,” another erotic drama in which a young man begins a steamy affair with a gorgeous actress under the nose of her aging “mentor.” Although these two films aren’t the instant masterpieces as their predecessors, both are fascinating works on their own and if you are intrigued by “In the Realm of the Senses” and “The Hairdresser’s Husband,” you should definitely check them out as well.
IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES: Written and directed by Nagisa Oshima. Starring Eiko Matsuda, Tatsuya Fuji, Aoi Nakajima, Yasuko Matsui and Kanae Kobayashi. 1976. 102 minutes. Unrated. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95.
THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND: Written by Claude Klotz & Patrice Leconte. Directed by Patrice Leconte. Starring Jean Rochefort, Anna Galiena, Roland Bertin and Maurice Chevit. 1990. 82 minutes. Rated R. A Severin Films release. $29.95
EMPIRE OF PASSION: Written and directed by Nagisa Oshima. Starring Tatsuya Fuji, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Takahiro Tamura and Takuzo Kawatani. 1978. 105 minutes. Unrated. A Criterion Collection release. $29.95
THE PERFUME OF YVONNE: Written and directed by Patrice Leconte. Starring Jean-Pierre Marielle, Hippolyte Girardot, Sandra Majani and Richard Bohringer. 1994. 89 minutes. Unrated. A Severin Films release. $29.95
NEW AND NOTABLE
ALAIN RESNAIS: A DECADE IN FILM (Kino Video. $49.95): While waiting for the eagerly anticipated Criterion Collection edition of his surrealist masterpiece “Last Year at Marienbad,” fans of the acclaimed French director can bide their time with this collection of four films that he put out during his career resurgence in the 1980’s. The titles included here are 1983’s “Life is a Bed of Roses” (a multi-narrative tribute to fellow French filmmakers George Melies, Marcel Herbier and Eric Rohmer featuring Vittorio Gassman, Geraldine Chaplin and Fanny Ardant), 1984‘s “Love Unto Death” (a more conventional exploration of two time-honored subjects featuring Ardant, Sabine Azema and Andre Dussollier), 1982’s “Melo” (his acclaimed adaptation of the 1929 play about two lifelong friends who are also rival concert violinists) and 1989’s “I Want to Go Home” (a satire on French and American culture featuring a screenplay co-written by Jules Feiffer and a brief appearance from a very young Ludivine Sagnier).
BRIDE WARS (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): This dismal chick flick about two friends (Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson) whose weddings are inadvertently scheduled for the same day is so dismal and borderline sexist that it is hard to know what is more shocking--that a film in which practically every single female character is depicted as some form of monster could actually be made in this day and age or that the credits for the resulting monstrosity feature two female producers, two female co-writers and two Oscar-nominated actresses, all of whom were so inexplicably attracted to the material that they couldn’t wait to work on it. If you go out and rent this film, I will never forgive you.
THE HIT (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): This wonderful 1984 effort from Stephen Frears stars John Hurt and a then-unknown Tim Roth as a pair of hit men who are sent off to a quiet Spanish village to collect a gangster-turned-informant (Terrence Stamp) and deliver him to the people that he betrayed in court years earlier--the fact that their quarry willingly goes along with them in only the first of many surprise in store. Filled with a clever plot, smart dialogue and brilliant performances from Hurt, Stamp and Roth, this too-often overlooked films deserves a place alongside “Get Carter,” “The Long Good Friday” and “Sexy Beast” as one of the great crime movies in the history of the British cinema.
JCVD (Peace Arch. $19.99): Jean-Claude Van Damme, of all people, goes the Charlie Kaufman route in this bizarre meta-movie in which he portrays himself as a burned-out hack actor at the end of his rope who finds himself involved in a hostage situation straight out of his own oeuvre while confronting his own personal feelings of failure and inadequacy. In other words, it is a Jean-Claude Van Damme film that is aiming more towards the arthouses than the grindhouses and while the results are, not surprisingly, wildly uneven, it is so strange and intriguing that even at its lowest moments, it exudes the kind of strange fascination that keeps you glued to the screen just to see what could possibly come up next. If nothing else, the bravura sequence in which he interrupts the action to deliver an extended soliloquy about his life and career and how the collapse of both have left him at wits end is something so strange and audacious that it truly needs to be seen to be believed.
JETSONS: THE MOVIE (Universal Home Entertainment. $14.98): For reasons that currently escape my memory, the Sixties-era Hannah-Barbera animated series about the misadventures of a futuristic family underwent some kind of revival in the mid-Eighties and the good people at Universal decided to cash in on their new-found popularity by bringing them to the big screen. However, having recorded the vocal tracks with all the original actors from the show (including George O’Hanlon, Penny Singleton and Mel Blanc), the producers decided to replace the voice of original Judy Jetson Janet Waldo with that of then-popular teen singer Tiffany as a way of luring in younger viewers who weren’t as familiar with the show. Alas, fans of the program were outraged and stayed away in droves and by the time the film finally came out in 1990, Tiffany’s brief burst of stardom was already long over and her voice brought in nary a soul that wasn‘t a member of her immediate family. And with that, I have just spent my complete knowledge regarding this particular film, so let us press on.
LEGALLY BLONDES (MGM Home Entertainment. $26.98): To be honest, I haven’t quite gotten around to watching this direct-to-video spinoff of you-know-what that follows the heretofore unmentioned British cousins of Elle Woods trying to make it in an American prep school armed with nothing but pluck, good cheer and a lot of makeup. That said, it can’t be worse than “Legally Blonde 2,” can it?
MARTYRS (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.97) Following in the path of “Haute Tension,” “Frontier(s)” and “Inside,” this is yet another somewhat controversial and brutally violent horror film from France that has caused a sensation on the festival circuit. This time around, a woman who was brutally abused as a child teams up with a friend with a similar background to confront the couple that she believes to be responsible in order to get revenge--of course, as you can probably guess, things don’t go that smoothly or neatly for anyone involved.
NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): Despite a strong cast including the likes of Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, Vera Farmiga, Alan Alda and Angela Bassett, Rod Lurie’s drama, loosely inspired by the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame in print by a New York Times reporter who went to jail rather than reveal who passed the information to her in the first place, also faced difficulties getting to the screen when its distributor went out of business just before it was due to come out. Since it didn’t receive any award nominations (because there was no money to fund any sort of campaign) and since the home video rights had already been sold, no other studio demonstrated much interest in taking it on and a film once touted as an Oscar contender received only a token release in a few theaters before hitting DVD. It is a shame because while it may not be the masterpiece that some have suggested--Lurie (whose previous films have included “Deterrence,” “The Contender” and “Resurrecting the Champ”) is good at coming up with provocative story ideas but sometimes has trouble rendering them in cinematic terms--it is generally a strong and smart adult-oriented drama at a time when such things are at a premium. From a directorial standpoint, it is Lurie’s best work today and he gets great performances from virtually every member of his star-studded cast--the most valuable players being Farmiga as the outed agent, Dillon as the special prosecutor (based on Patrick Fitzgerald) and Alda as a lawyer who has somehow managed to retain a certain degree of idealism regarding his profession.
TINY TOON ADVENTURES: SEASON 1, VOLUME 2 (Warner Home Video. $44.98): I suppose that I should confess at this time that I was never the hugest fan of Steven Spielberg’s attempt to revive the glory days of Warner Brothers animation with this TV series following the misadventures of a new generation of characters inspired by the likes of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest (all of whom made occasional cameo appearances throughout the series as the staff of Acme University, where they were supposed to be training the young ones in the ways of the cartoon world)--the animation was muted, the new characters were very interesting, the older ones were shadows of their former selves and the humor relied too much on then-contemporary pop-cultural references that are utterly meaningless today. That said, the show was still a step above most animated television fare of the day and it did help pave the way for the infinitely more entertaining “Animaniacs.” This 4-disc set includes the final 30 episodes comprising the show’s first season and, unfortunately for fans of the show, absolutely nothing else. Other TV-related DVDs coming out this week include “American Dad!, Volume 4” (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98), “Fallen Angel” (Acorn Media. $39.99), “Hallelujah! The Complete Collection” (Acorn Media. $39.95), “Mission Impossible: The Sixth Season” (CBS DVD. $49.99) and “X-Men, Volume One” and “Volume Two” (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $23.99 each).
THE UNINVITED (Paramount Home Entertainment. $29.99): In this fairly lackluster American remake of the Korean horror hit “A Tale of Two Sisters,” a young girl (Emily Browning) returns home from the mental hospital that she has been residing in following the freak death of her ailing mother and a subsequent suicide attempt and discovers that her father (David Strathairn) is about to marry Mom’s former nurse (Elizabeth Banks), a woman who doesn’t appear to be quite what she seems. Of course, no one believes her but her oddly aloof older sister (Arielle Kebbel) and in their attempts to prove that the newcomer is no good, they unravel all sorts of spooky secrets. Although it isn’t very good by any means, this is admittedly better than most of the recent strain of remakes of Asian horror films--it has been made with a certain style and the performances by Strathairn, Banks and Browning are better than one might expect to find in a potboiler of this type.
WHAT DOESN”T KILL YOU (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke star in this gritty Boston-based crime drama about two lifelong friends who work as petty thugs while battling their personal demons and whose friendship is tested when one decides to pull one big score and the other has to decide if he wants in. The reason that you probably haven’t heard of this one is that it was caught up in the same bankruptcy mess that scuttled the release of “Nothing but the Truth” (in fact, Rod Lurie served as one of the producers) and it never really made it into theaters. While it is not quite as good as “Nothing But the Truth,” mostly because the material seems a little more familiar, the performances from Ruffalo and Hawke are good and the direction from newcomer Brian Goodman suggests that he could be someone to watch in the future.
WHILE SHE WAS OUT (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertanment.$27.97): In this barely released thriller, Kim Basinger stars as an abused housewife whose trip to the mall on Christmas Eve to pick up wrapping paper takes a violent turn when she runs afoul of a group of thugs (led by Lukas Haas, of all people) who kill the security guard who comes to her aid and chase her into the nearby woods. Luckily for her, she is armed with a new sense of resilience and a handy toolbox and uses both to defend herself against her aggressors. Because it has come to my attention that producer Don Murphy--the man responsible for such masterworks as “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,“ “Shoot ‘Em Up” and the “Transformers” films and whose wife wrote and directed this one--has been publicly lashing out at critics who have dared to suggest that this is anything less than a thriller for the ages, I am not going to offer up any sort of formal review here so as to avoid potentially getting involved in some kind of flame war. However, if you look hard enough on the internet, you are bound to find any number of reviews telling you just how bad it is and, if you are lucky, giving you the details of Murphy’s response to such notices.
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originally posted: 05/01/09 13:14:39
last updated: 05/08/09 01:06:38