Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Awakenings

By Hadley Hury

APRIL 20, 1998:  La Vie En Rose is a small Belgian film with an unexpectedly large appeal. Ostensibly the story of 7-year-old Ludovic, a boy who believes he either is or soon will be a girl, the film turns out to be at least as much about Ludovic’s family and his neighborhood community in suburban Brussels. Director Alain Berliner, working from a script he wrote with Chris vander Stappen, has fashioned – from what, at first blush, might seem merely an eccentrically charming comedy – a thoughtful exploration of innocence, individualism, social values, and childrearing.

Perhaps the greatest success of Ma Vie En Rose is its evenhandedness. Although the call to tolerance and respect is unmistakable, there is nothing polemical about it; Berliner enables the audience to see the situation, by turns, from various characters’ viewpoints. And in those passages when the director involves both the audience and the adult characters in Ludovic’s prepubescent perspective of the world, the effect – in terms of both the film’s seriousness and its sheer entertainment value – is masterful: we’re in a child’s world of endless promise and inexpressible pain; of freshness and fear; of life lived as an unfolding storybook miracle, predictable, though somehow never before written; of never knowing what may happen next. During a viewing of Ma Vie En Rose, one is aware of the smiles raised, the thoughts provoked. It may be only later, however, that the full scope of the film’s originality and intelligent imagination is appreciated.

As Ludovic, young Georges du Fresne seems perfect: He’s alternately a wide-eyed child, wide-open with the wonder and joy of living, and a shrewd observer, a natural outsider who is already beginning to learn the ropes of survival in a world that would subvert his dreams. His parents, Hanna and Pierre, are beautifully played by Michele Laroque and Jean-Philippe Ecoffey. Laroque, particularly, reinforces the rich psychological and emotional range of the film; her Hana loves unconditionally – up until the point at which the family begins to suffer socially and economically. (After Ludovic dons a dress once too often, questions about his behavior produce a chain reaction of destabilizing events: Pierre loses his lucrative job, Ludovic is expelled from his school, and the family must leave its upper-middle-class neighborhood for a townhouse tract development.) Adding to the familial mix of perplexity and affection is Helen Vincent, who portrays Ludovic’s festive grandmother with age-defiant worldliness. When Ma Vie En Rose arcs from almost fabulistic comedy to a more probing, naturalistic consideration of la comedie humaine, it doesn’t lose its exhilarating unpredictability or its buoyancy: the film accrues seriousness and depth without sacrificing its energetic insistence that we see with fresh eyes. Repeatedly, as the story takes on more layers, throwing tougher questions into the family’s path and upping the ante of audience sympathy, director Berliner superbly juxtaposes lyrical fantasy with the harsh, mundane compromises of reality. One of the subliminal texts of the film might be that a true sense of joie de vivre is not achieved by an overly cautious editing-out of human experience but by inviting all of our differences to the table.

Georges du Fresne as Ludovic in Ma Vie En Rose.

City of Angels is probably about as close as a big-budget Hollywood movie is likely to come to a consideration of spiritual life. That it opened on Easter weekend shows a divine grasp of “concept marketing” if not, perhaps, a sense of appropriate religious respect or even good taste. Much of the same audience that keeps returning to Titanic may react somewhat similarly to the somewhat similar key ingredients of this film – love and death. Finding something larger than yourself in which to believe is a lot more palatable and involves less hard work (whether alone or with a $90/hr. professional) if you can just go get it for seven bucks at the local cineplex. And when it’s Leonardo DiCaprio who’s telling you – or in this case, Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan – to look to an inspirited eternity beyond this brief, corporeal fling, well, how can you stay away? Just as some folks have responded to a shadow theme behind the cardboard characters of James Cameron’s movie, many will undoubtedly find a resonance in the fuzzy theology of this remake of German writer-director Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire. Just as cheap sentiment is frequently more popular than the ardors of actual human loving, so bathos somehow often seems preferable to an understanding of human tragedy. And (God knows) many of us would pick listening in to clever movie-star dialogue over actually talking with a fellow human being about life and death any day of the week.

City of Angels will probably be a commercial success; it’s a Love Story for the millennium. Like both Love Story and Titanic, this film is about doomed love. Unlike those blockbusters, Angels layers its subject with high-concept musings on the afterlife, and does not require viewers to sit through a two-hour Ali McGraw performance, or watch repeated examples of James Cameron’s talent for turning 30-second action/suspense scenes into numbing, five-minute, seemingly time-lapsed stretches of water-logged redundancy. Also, to its credit, and for all its vague philosophizing, City of Angels at least raises some important questions for viewers. The film’s claim to success is its function as a cautionary tale, a reminder that eternity is now and that love must never be taken for granted.

The film has a lot going for it, beginning with the cast. Meg Ryan is Dr. Maggie Rice, an extremely skilled and extremely driven heart surgeon. When she loses confidence in her technique after losing a patient through no medical fault or discernible reason, she is forced to confront the possibility that doing everything right does not always put you in charge, that there are larger mysteries and designs than may be found in science. Cage plays Seth, an angel who is sent to the operating room to accompany the patient Maggie loses. Seth falls in love with Maggie and eventually learns that angels, like human beings, have “free will” and may choose to “fall” from their bloodless but celestially eternal life to live a mortal existence. The majority of the film is concerned with the differences between things corporeal and spiritual, angels and humans. Seth’s decision-making and Maggie’s awakening eventually lead the two to meet halfway. (It may not be St. Augustine, Paul Tillich, or Kierkegaard, but it’s not as offensive as seeing half the bins at every bargain store in America crammed with tawdry “angel ware.”)

Cage’s performance is mannered but, in the end, winning. At first, Seth’s tentativeness and innocence in trying to comprehend the human experience seem stagy, a bit affected; but, like his similarly stylized, and similarly fine, work in Moonstruck, the portrayal accrues credibility and passion as it builds. The subtlety and quiet confidence of this performance, its capacity for shifting elegantly from real gravity to delicate humor, proves that Cage is one of the most intelligently adventurous actors in American movies today.

Ryan is as watchable as ever. In Dana Stevens’ script, Maggie’s spiritual birth is fill-in-the-blanks at best, and a less appealing actress might not have skirted the appearance of shallow self-absorption. Ryan, quite simply, is a movie star. She is talented, though her range and depth are still in question; but it is her love affair with the camera that, almost always, can carry a film. In Angels, Ryan and Cage strike a fine balance between their styles and rhythms that seems almost, well, ethereally right. (Something about their scenes – he doing a slow burn and she all no-nonsense – feels like a postmodern channeling of Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn.) The supporting cast – especially Dennis Franz as one of Maggie’s patients and Colm Feore as her hospital colleague and suitor – is also excellent.

Brad Silberling, in only his second directing venture, does a marvelous job of sustaining a tone resonant with the merging wonders of the flesh and the spirit. In working with the actors, both the comic timing and the pacing of the dramatic scenes are impeccable, and the film as a whole is an admirable synthesis of unhurried, almost circular narrative and elegant efficiency. John Seale’s characteristically eloquent cinematography enhances the film’s moody contrasts with its shadowy interiors and artfully burnished twilights of southern California. Rounding out these strong production values are the wittily articulated production design by Lilly Kilvert and Gabriel Yared’s unobtrusive but engaging score. (The soundtrack album includes recordings by U2, Peter Gabriel, Paula Cole, Alanis Morissette, and the Goo Goo Dolls.)

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