A Better Film Than Babel
By Noel Vera

Breaking And Entering
Dir: Anthony Minghella (2006)

I haven't liked an Anthony Minghella film in goodness knows how long. I agreed when critics dubbed "Truly, Madly, Deeply" (1991) as a far more intelligent alternative to "Ghost" (faint praise, considering, but there it is); I thought his "The English Patient" some five years later was one of the more passionate and less undeserving films to have won a Best Picture Oscar recently (let me put it this way--it actually seemed too good to win one of those golden doorstops).

"The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999) was stylish and amusing, only Matt Damon made for an unengaging Ripley, easily upstaged by the charming Jude Law; his "Cold Mountain" (2003) scraped bottom for me--Jude Law, so enjoyable in "Ripley," was lifeless in this, a Civil War drama set in a North Carolina that somehow manages not to look anything like the actual Carolinas (much of it was shot in Romania).

There's plenty to dislike in "Breaking and Entering," starting with the title--it's both literal (a gang of young thieves break into an architectural office) and metaphorical (people breaking into other people's lives, stealing a measure of comfort or pleasure, taking some kind of advantage from them). It's just the kind of sophisticated arthouse thesis viewers like to discuss over lattes afterwards (come to think of it, Minghella's always been the kind of refined filmmaker arthouse viewers love to patronize).

The film is too civilized--it raises troubling questions, treats them with kid gloves, and at the ninety-minute mark wraps them all up in a neat and tidy package--well, not too neat and tidy; Minghella even adds frayed edges Martha-Stewart style to give the whole thing a comforting rustic feel.

But but but but… Minghella's strength as a filmmaker has always been less his impeccable good taste (and we know what Godard always said about good taste) and liberal values and more his love for characters and the actors playing them; for the first time in a long while, without the distracting background of genre conventions (the noirish plot of "Ripley") or epic historical settings (the Civil War in "Cold Mountain"), that love has come out loud and clear.

Rafi Gavron (left) and Juliette Binoche.

More, Minghella's assembled a cast--Law again (a favorite of his, apparently), Binoche (another Minghella veteran), Robin Wright Penn, Vera Farmiga and Ray Winstone--to flesh out characters who respond to his affection with a warmth and glow of their own. This isn't a great film at all; but it is, I submit, a quite enjoyable one, modest in its ambitions, charming in its refusal to hide overt sentiment, unabashed humanism.

It's a far better film, I submit further, than Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's much ballyhooed "Babel"--here we learn that, yes, we're all interconnected, but the connections are more quotidian, less forced (Binoche's teenage son breaks into Law's office; Law finds out, follows boy, meets Binoche; Law is divided between loyalty to his wife (Penn) and growing attraction for Binoche; Winstone as the police officer investigating the break-in and Farmiga as an intruding prostitute watch from the sidelines with weary yet caring eyes).

The characters (as in "Babel") don't make smart decisions, but Minghella (unlike Inarritu) lingers over these people, dwells on their moments of decision, shows us, often with strong identification devices and careful preparatory details, how reasonably intelligent and compassionate men and women can do less than intelligent and uncompassionate actions.

Inarritu seems more concerned with maintaining some kind of edgy texture, maintaining his circus balancing-act of a plot. If there's a flaw in Minghella's approach, it's that it's a touch too cavalier with the plot (I mentioned a tidy resolution; maybe the better word is "optimistic"), but even that I understand--the plot's just bone structure on which Minghella hangs his beloved characters, working out their complex interrelationships.

Law is key to the picture, of course: he manages enough comic banter with Farmiga as the tough-talking prostitute that you buy the notion that a man would have such a beautiful woman in her car and just talk to her.

With Penn as his wife he has a more subdued relationship--Penn's daughter (Poppy Rogers) is autistic, concern over her care has taken over their marriage, and you spot a kind of puzzled grimace flit over his face from time to time as he gingerly feels with a metaphorical tongue the gap where their love for each other used to be. Perhaps his most exciting--and dicey--relationship is with Binoche: as mother of the felon he's supposed to turn in, his courting her has the feel of exploitation, no matter how noble the intentions; you see him shutting down his cognitive abilities before he walks in her door, just because the ethical implications of what he's trying to do are too complicated to work out.

Jude Law (left) and Robin Wright Penn.

Law has always seemed smart in a callow way, with a boyish need to please everyone, including his audience (which may be why he was all wrong for the remake of "Alfie"--Michael Caine's original interpretation always had this element of reptilian hedonism in it that made one's fine hairs stand on edge). He wants to please Farmiga, so he lets her into his car; he wants Binoche happy, so he tries to sleep with her; he desperately wants to love Penn, and has done so for so long he's gone numb with the effort, allowed her to drift away.

Minghella has the three women respond to Law in their own ways, according to their character. Farmiga is a knockout combination of creamy, pink-nippled body and quick-witted intelligence; with a glance she sizes up Law's character and knows just how far she can go, what she can get away with. Binoche's worried mother is a lonely wanderer who reaches out hungrily for Law's pity; the only complication to that situation is the fierce core of love she has for her wayward son.

Penn's is the most understated, and most difficult to appreciate--she displays a wonderful physical warmth towards her mentally handicapped daughter, and she's brave enough to show a constantly lined, careworn face to Law (and us)--a face that, at unexpected moments, just when you've about given up on the two (on them), can suddenly express affection for her husband, or remorse for the moribund nature of their marriage.

The film's had a lukewarm response from American critics. I suspect it's part of the times, when a reasonably intelligent and well-made picture isn't enough--movies have to be wilder, more intense, more novel, more relevant somehow; a somewhat feel-good film about middle-to-upper class adults and their complicated lives just seems inadequate. Can't argue with that sentiment--these are not happy times--but then I can't quite bring myself to disapprove of this ostensible failure.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 03/23/07.
Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@hotmail.com

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March 30, 2007