The Truth About Charlie
Reviewed in October 2002
Director: Jonathan Demme. Cast: Thandie Newton, Mark Wahlberg, Tim Robbins, Joong-Hoon Park, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Ted Levine, Christine Boisson, Stephen Dillane, Simon Abkarian, Frédérique Meininger, Sakina Jaffrey, Charles Aznavour, Anna Karina, Agns Varda, Magali Nol. Screenplay: Jonathan Demme and Steve Schmidt & "Peter Joshua" (Peter Stone) & Jessica Bendinger (based on the film Charade (1963), screenplay by Peter Stone).

8 Women
Reviewed in October 2002
Director: François Ozon. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Danielle Darrieux, Isabelle Huppert, Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine Sagnier, Emmanuelle Béart, Firmine Richard, Dominique Lamure. Screenplay: François Ozon and Marina de Van (based on the play by Robert Thomas).

Photo © 2002 Universal Pictures
I happened to see Jonathan Demme's The Truth about Charlie and François Ozon's 8 Women on the same day, and though the pairing was unintentional, it was not intellectually unfruitful. Both films are globally miscegenated genre exercises, each split between the initiatives of reviving cherished forms from the past and of applying revisionist sensibilities to those revivals. Charlie wants to update Stanley Donen's Charade, an old American movie that always aspired to European modishness, and relocate the plot and overall stylishness into the rambunctious multicultural flow of contemporary Paris. Whether Demme's strategy for doing so is exactly "modern" is complicated by his explicit incorporation of tricks and conceits of the French New Wave, an aesthetic movement nearly contemporary with the original Charade.

8 Women, meanwhile, is a French movie with American attachments, besotted with the moods and colorisms of mid-century American musicals by Minnelli and (another connection!) Donen, as well as the American-by-way-of-Berlin melodramas of Douglas Sirk, whose influence has popped up everywhere lately from Far from Heaven to 8 Mile. Of course, François Ozon is not the first Frenchman to try his hand at a New World musical, and 8 Women has large debts, too, to Jacques Demy, who cast Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux in his candy-colored but melancholy Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Demoiselles de Rochefort nearly 40 years before both actresses now appear in 8 Women. Ozon's thrushy update of Sirk seems to push the chansons themselves into doing the same ironic work as the colors, costumes, and soapy predicaments. All of these are vehicles of pathos, and often of superficial merriment, but they nonetheless open a window onto social strictures and domestic double-binds that entrap the heroines and make their circumstances implictly political.

Neither Demme nor Ozon, then, is a slouch in the ambition department, but for all the avidity of their imaginations and sophistication of their references, both directors plunge so intently into the heady, film-buff dimensions of these movies that they omit entirely a crucial element that made the originals so popular. What I refer to is a lightness of touch, the fact that a lion's share of what's to be admired—admittedly to different degrees—in Charade, the nouvelle vague, the Minnelli musical, the Sirkian melodrama, and the Demy experiments is that they balanced so many formal and thematic projects without showing the strain. Charade, of which I am no fan at all, seems like it could have used a little flexing, since the movie has always played to me with an incredibly smug complacency in the inherent charm of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn; question for a moment whether their characters are at all sympathetic, or whether the "complicated" plot is really worth following, and the whole chignon unravels. But, for those who remember Charade fondly, it shares in common with Magnificent Obsession or Singin' in the Rain the unexpected, unpretentious craft of delightful entertainments that don't boast wear their formal credentials on their Givenchy sleeves. Even Breathless, so purposeful in startling 1959 audiences with the brash iconoclasm of its rhythms and types, doesn't hock its aesthetic agenda at the expense of showing us a fleet-footed good time. This isn't just a courtesy to the popcorn chompers: it's part of all these films' philosophies that craft, depth, and "meaning" are implicit in populist artforms and marginal or domestic milieus.

In other words, it seems like a measure of at least partial failure that neither The Truth about Charlie or 8 Women is all that much fun to watch. Charlie starts out promisingly but crashes decisively. There doesn't seem to be much to the film in its opening half-hour beyond the jazzy bebop of jump cuts, sleek outfits, and ubiquitious music. But even if the techniques are old, the impressions they conjure are fresh enough that the movie works. Indeed, Demme sounds justified in his interviews in claiming that modern Paris has remained virtually absent from American screens and even European ones; anyone who thought the plastic caprices of Amélie offered too anodyne a vision of the city will likely be pleased to see the medley of idioms, communities, and arrondissements that Demme and longtime cinematographer Tak Fujimoto whirl us through.

But it's almost tangible when the movie runs out of gas. Say what you want against Amélie, but the visual and especially sonic cheekiness never abandoned its audience until the closing scenes, when the protracted romantic union and that creepy man with glass bones became a little too important. The equivalent juncture for The Truth about Charlie happens about an hour earlier—in fact, pretty much when the proper plot gets going. Not content to make Charlie Lambert's death a convenient premise for capers and couture, Demme and his screenwriters (including a pseudonymed Peter Stone, Charade's original author, and Bring It On scribe Jessica Bendinger) labor hopelessly to resurrect the particulars of his thieveries and treacheries. Which means that, suddenly in the middle of a movie about Thandie Newton's eyelashes and Afro-Brazilian tango joints, we're watching fake-looking recreations of Sarajevo battlefields. Peripheral characters like a butch French policewoman, the gaggle of baddies hunting Charlie's cash, and Tim Robbins' top-secret U.S. embassy agent all oscillate wildly between registers of slapstick, threat, and Sidney Lumetish urban grit.

And, valiantly as Thandie Newton tries, the script won't allow her to make us care about any of the things her character cares about: not the location of the missing money, not the mysterious stranger (Mark Wahlberg) who may or may not be her ally, and certainly not her growing urge to flee Paris, when the only pleasure Charlie has extended to us is a reminder of how much swankier a time we might be having if we were there right now, instead of at this wheezy movie. The closing sequences of The Truth about Charlie cynically parse its perceived audiences into two factions: the filmgoing masses, whom it expects to content with a late-hour chase and an arbitrary gun standoff, and the cinéaste contingent, embarrassingly flattered with cameos by Magali Nol, Charles Aznavour, even, in queasy homage, Truffaut's own gravestone. Neither group is likely to be snowed into thinking they've received what they paid for. Remarkably, the recent flick The Transporter, a toss-off Continental martial-arts picture midwifed by Luc Besson's company, mounted a much tighter, funnier entertainment—and an anti-smuggling pretext of about equal weight—with the same camera operator, Pierre Morel, and at least as rewarding a panorama of present-day France. The truth about Charlie is that, in pretending to please so many demographics, it takes a shape only its own director could love.

Photo © 2002 France 2 Cinéma/Canal+/USA Films
8 Women will probably entice the art-house crowd that already smells a stinker in the barely-released Truth about Charlie, but Ozon's movie is only slightly less hamstrung. One of the film's big selling points is its meticulous mise-en-scne of party colors, pillbox hats, and plush visual stereotypes. Leopard-wearing trophy wives, aproned French chambermaids, black nannies, miraculously "cured" cripples—they're all here. The other ace in Ozon's hand is actually a royal flush: he has famously amassed not just Deneuve and Darrieux but six other denizens of the French Actress Firmament to animate a story that seems shockingly inauspicious, adapted from a 1950s parlor-mystery play called 8 Women that no one seems to remember. I suspect on the evidence of the film that the play's fate was deserved, but let's get back to those actresses. Deneuve, Darrieux, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Béart—these are real coups. But Virginie Ledoyen is sort of a Gallic Charlize Theron (lovely, lite), and who in the heck are Firmine Richard and Ludivine Sagnier? Maybe it's my own Yankee ignorance rearing its head, but am I wrong that 8 Women's cup, just in terms of casting, seems only half full?

A bigger question is whether the prodigious capabilities of even the brightest lights have been given much to work with. Plus, they seldom seem confident of what they're here for. The plot is simple: as snow piles high outside the bucolic cottage where these femmes are all residents, employees, or itinerant guests, the man who unites them all—as husband, father, brother, in-law, or boss—is found dead, and the mutual inquisitions begin. It's a built-in danger to the material that scene after scene must hew to the model of "Did you do it? Did you? Did you?" It's an added burden that each of the 8 women, amidst their various accusations, epiphanies, and weepy disclosures, sings a song indicative of her particular manias or sorrows. And the signs of desperation only accrue: the tunes are more often pallid than poignant (Béart's heel-kicking breakout is a lead balloon, and only Richard gets a tune worth regifting); Catherine Deneuve keeps itching under her wraps and looking sideways, as though waiting for a cue, or a cut; and stagy wide shots repeatedly conclude amidst a second or two of dead air, with everyone groping for meaningful postures and reactions.

What 8 Women at least has over The Truth about Charlie is that, given the Sirkian and Minnellian resonances, there is room and reason for its atmosphere to be gripped by desperation, discomfort, and the sadness of missed opportunities. Isabelle Huppert and Fanny Ardant, respectively playing the most highly-strung and most liquidly relaxed of the lady suspects, are by far the most successful at rising to the fizzy highs promised by Ozon's conception while remaining faithful to the grasping panics motivating both characters. Huppert, in fact, almost explodes the movie when she turns the discrete actions of passing out, sitting before a mirror, and walking down a staircase into stunning tableaux of comedy and grief. This is because Huppert's resourcefulness in these moments eclipses by many degrees the thin campiness and awkward posing that stultify even the most sensational gestures of most of her castmates: Deneuve in an erotic tussle with Ardant, Darrieux leaping up spryly from her wheelchair, Ledoyen revealing two secrets the audience has already guessed, Richard confessing suppressed allegiances and, later, crumpling dramatically to the floor. In other words, the argument that 8 Women's pervasive unease with itself is the key to its meaning seems too quick to indulge how seldom 8 Women achieves any contrasting tone of finesse or dexterity, even when the material seems desirous of them.

François Ozon is not, like so many directors, insensitive to the complex work of melodrama, but he may be so indoctrinated to these complexities that he's insensitive to the genre's joys. His work was much more assured in Under the Sand, which, with the expert help of Charlotte Rampling, evoked a portrait of disavowed mourning in sharp, unfussy strokes of psychological acuity. Reaching for similar acuity through the fetishized surfaces of 8 Women suits Ozon much less, because he's drawn so quickly to the pain beneath the fetish that he forgets—as Jonathan Demme forgets about atmospheric filmmaking in general—that before it's anything, it's supposed to be pleasurable. Who killed the fun in 8 Women is the real blame game. Start nominating your suspects now. Grades: Charlie: C–; 8 Women: C+

Awards for 8 Women:
Berlin Film Festival: Outstanding Artistic Contribution (Ensemble Cast)
European Film Awards: Best Actress (Ardant, Béart, Darrieux, Deneuve, Huppert, Ledoyen, Richard, Sagnier)

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