Better Film Than Babel
By Noel Vera
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).
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
First published in Businessworld, 03/23/07.
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