It was doubly sad the other night to see Virginia Gay deliver a speech from her Covid-cancelled Cyrano on the ABC’s Q&A and no less so for the fact that she did it brilliantly: we can only hope and pray that in some unimaginable re-opened future the world gets to see Sarah Goodes’ production of this revamped version of this romantic French classic about the guy who writes the love letters for a mate. It was a strange coincidence to read in the obituary for Jean-Paul Belmondo, that rough French actor who took the world by storm when he made Godard’s Breathless, that when he went back on stage it was in Cyrano de Bergerac and that the great punk of the French cinema notched up 230 consecutive performances of Rostand’s tragicomedy which is an astonishing feat for a piece of classical theatre.
God knows what folly it was to say once to Pierre Rissient, the man who came regularly to Australia to select films for Cannes and who was an enthusiast for the work of Jane Campion who has just won the Silver Lion for best director at Venice for The Power of the Dog – that I thought Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest was superior to Breathless. The man who had a passionate interest in Australian writing looked at me and said mildly, ‘I did the edit on Breathless’.
Festivals, if they can be managed in the plague time, are a tremendous boon, and it’s cheering to see that the Venice Film Festival gave its best actor award to Penélope Cruz for her role in Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers.
Many years ago, that remarkable teacher of film criticism John Flauss used to declare that Marlene Dietrich was a great actress but only when she acted for von Sternberg. That seems to narrow the scope too much for that extraordinary woman who crystallised the Germany of the Weimar years in The Blue Angel but is also a gleaming presence in, say, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, even if the later von Sternberg films such as The Scarlet Empress certainly justify Flauss’s accolade. In any case, Penélope Cruz has always seemed to be a great actress when she acts for Almodovar even if Hollywood – apart from Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona – can make her seem ordinary. It’s weird too that Almodovar who started out looking like an erotic farceur, if a very accomplished one, became a director of such humane breadth in films like All About My Mother, Talk to Her and Bad Education.
The Venice festival was a reminder too of the fact that Almodovar has done a revamp of Cocteau’s The Human Voice with Tilda Swinton which has been done by all manner of great actresses from Ingrid Bergman to Anna Magnani and which Melbourne saw on stage many years ago performed by another actress forever associated with one director, the great Liv Ullman, the lover and collaborator of Ingmar Bergman.
In locked-down Australia Venice seems as distant as the moon but the city of Casanova, the city where we meet Othello, was brought to mind recently by watching several films with that fine actress Diane Lane. There was the offbeat murderously black Let Him Go in which she and Kevin Costner go in quest of their grandchild and fall into the hands of a Southern clan from hell led by that Mike Leigh veteran Lesley Manville in an almost terminally fearsome approximation to a Bette Davis part.
Then there was Lane as a woman of 50 or so playing the wife of Tim Robbins in Cinema Verité in which she plays a real-life woman who allowed her life and her family’s to be filmed by a documentary maker played here by The Soprano’s James Gandolfini. And then culminating this mini-festival of a fine actress there was that famous catastrophe of a film Serenity in which Lane has a handful of masterfully turned scenes in which she plays a mature woman, commanding and attractive, who pays Matthew McConaughey for sex.
Serenity confounded every audience which saw it: it’s a film-noir with Anne Hathaway improbably cast in what looks like a Lauren Bacall role as a woman who’s mistreated by a sadistic husband and has one of those wacko computer game rationales like The Matrix but it is also full of wonder and water and big fish, all shadowed by the spectre of willed murder. It’s by Steven Knight the man who made that riveting offbeat film, Locke, in which we see no one but Tom Hardy in a car as he drives from Wales to London, talking on the phone to all the women in his life (Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Alice Lowe) as he speeds towards the hospital where a girlfriend is giving birth.
But before we saw the cameos of Diane Lane in the riveting, flawed Serenity we saw her as a young teenager who falls in love with an equally young French boy and they decide they have to get from Paris to Venice and kiss under the Bridge of Sighs. A Little Romance is an exquisite tiny gem of a film by George Roy Hill, one of the Hollywood superhacks: he made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and in a neat bit of self-reflexiveness we watch the French boy watching Paul Newman and Robert Redford doing that film in dubbed French plus the anomaly of John Wayne speaking the language of Rostand and Racine.
It adds to the charm of A Little Romance that the two teen runaways –whose tryst is always presented as romantic not as an object for adult erotic voyeurism – are aided in their adventure by an aging conman played by Laurence Olivier, of all people. Larry said of Lane – who is a thirteen-year-old in the film – that she was ‘the new Grace Kelly’.
A Little Romance is a sweet archaic film and Lane is quite a princess. Olivier’s performance is more reminiscent of Maurice Chevalier than of his own classical peer, Jean-Louis Barrault.
Still, his Othello ranks with that of Paul Robeson in the estimation of James Earl Jones. And if you want a glimpse of him at his grandest, watch him again in Kubrick’s Spartacus (now on Binge). His cry of rage and terror, almost at the end, is staggering.
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