Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Darkness At Heart

By Hadley Hury

JULY 13, 1998:  To say that Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man is a sensuous thriller would be absolutely accurate and rather uselessly trivializing. Sensuous thrillers have, after all, in recent years become a dime-a-dozen phenomena. American filmmaking today represents a near-classic example of a decadent period in art, and the rush to re-mine the rich genres and styles of our cinematic past is one of its chief characteristics. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong in that, it can prove a fatal formula for filmic imagination when coupled with the current lemming-like attention span of Hollywood commerce.

The revival of interest in film noir – which began to manifest on screen during the 1980s and thus far shows no signs of abating – can be attributed, as much as anything, to this jejune copycatting. The really fine ones have been few and far between (The Grifters, arguably, first among them), but there have been just enough to fuel the retro-noir trend as one of the few low-budget, safe-bet alternatives to blockbusterdom. Most of our leading directors, even those with sensibilities fundamentally at odds with the genre, have, at least once during the past 15 years, tried their hand at it.

What an unexpected and satisfying pleasure then, at this late stage of an old game, to have an American master remind us that we have more interesting reasons than the current failure of imagination for enjoying these dark studies of people of low degree – reasons that have to do less with our cinema’s self-cannibalization and more to do with who we are and how we live today. Adapting his screenplay (pseudonymously credited to Al Hayes) from an original screen story by John Grisham, Altman has fashioned a dark jewel of a film in which the use of noir elements is not the usual matter of a few stylistic (quite often, extraneous or misapplied) flourishes. Like the great, vertiginous, post-WWII noir, The Gingerbread Man is a window on a seductive, unsettling, psychological state – the classic noir state of the center not holding, of the threat of disunity from within – a window which, though of no useful perspective to the threatened protagonist, provides the viewer the comfortable distance of framing. We are able to lose ourselves completely in the world of the film because Altman creates a complete world, one in which style and substance are indistinguishable; and yet, even as we identify with the noir characters’ bad behavior, their brazen weaknesses, corruption, and the mess they make of things, we shadow their missteps without falling into the void with them. The Gingerbread Man is a authoritatively conducted walk on the dark side; it is moviemaking that leaves you with slime on your heels, some fine points of moral ambivalence to chew, and a grin on your face at Altman’s still-developing capacities to entertain.

In this character-driven hejira through paranoia and human failing, Kenneth Branagh plays Rick Magruder, a self-indulgent but successful Savannah attorney, who has made a name – unpopular with the local law enforcement – in defending cop killers and other dicey, high-profile cases. He seems something of a sexual addict. He loves his children but usually picks them up late at his ex-wife’s home and never seems to have enough attention for them. He drinks a little too much. He’s arrogant. He’s charming. It’s as hard to take a barometric reading of his moral center as it is for the meteorologists to gauge whether Geraldo, the off-shore hurricane that threatens Savannah throughout the film, will indeed make landfall. In the end, both tensions break and ciety at large, confuses data and real information; he is often on his cell phone but rarely in the conversation that most matters. In the postmodern colors, tone, and temperament of our era, Robert Altman recreates in The Gingerbread Man the noir narrative as a quest for authenticity, and posits a hero whose fragmented values and attention span seem maddeningly familiar.

Cousin Bette

Cousin Bette is the film debut of Des McAnuff, a stage director noted for brash theatricality, and his flamboyant treatment of Honore de Balzac’s classic novel is a feverish exercise in gilding a lily. Balzac’s uniquely rich canvases of le comedie humaine neither require nor invite the sort of overheated cinematic flourishes and over-italicized archness with which McAnuff has chosen to goose up his interpretation. (The necessarily stripped-down, but serviceable, screenplay is by Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr.) The result comes close at times to subverting an authoritatively low-key, and wickedly sly, performance by Jessica Lange in the title role of an embittered spinster, appearing waxenly pale but steely in a black wig of late-19th century sausage curls. She makes this version of the classic tale of a poor relation who quietly sets about getting back at the self-involved Parisian relatives who have treated her with arrogant dismissiveness all her life. The film’s dissonance might have been avoided had McAnuff trusted this already lusty potboil of great material from one of the world’s greatest novelists as self-effacingly as Lange did her character. The film is entertaining enough, just too eager; it simply doesn’t jibe with the integrity of its source or of its central performance.

We’re off on a juicily foreboding note when Lange, at the deathbed of her rich sister (Geraldine Chaplin), promises to fulfill the last wish of the vain woman who has forever treated Bette with thoughtless disdain – that she take care of her family. With a setting of lips and a curdlingly controlled tone not heard since Faye Dunaway scratched the ice of Joan Crawford, Lange purrs: “I’ll take care of them all.” Her long-fused revenge is then tweaked yet again when her brother-in-law offers her the job of housekeeper instead of a proposal of marriage which she had expected.

Lange does a fine job of tracing the emotionally threadbare fabric of Bette’s lonely existence as a talented seamstress in the theatre district. The woman has pride, strength, and a measure of dignity despite the callousness with which life has treated her. And she has no illusions until, heartbreakingly, she takes up an impoverished Polish sculptor (Aden Young) who lives in the next garret and whom she perceives as a sort of last possibility for real human connection. At first, she tries to believe she is nurturing him for reasons of art and the spirit, but Lange – with her superb capacity for portraying people who are risking a final gamble out on the margins, and her sinewy physicality and vocal technique – reveals that this tightly coiled, undeluded observer of the worst of human nature, is exposed, out, quite humanly, for love. When this last chance is whisked out from under her by her spoiled niece, the long-banked fires roar into a conflagration of revenge.

Given Bette’s demeanor and long-tested will, even this plot to get back at the pack of them is assiduously machinated; the seamstress becomes a black widow of sorts, stitching her plot quietly, with an attention to detail that aids her scheme of bringing about the downfall of all who have abused her. She plays the sculptor’s vanity off against the individual foibles and collective, effete self-absorption of the relatives. And she involves the services of Bob Hoskins (delightful in a small role as the rich mayor and ladies’ man manque) and Elisabeth Shue as a deliciously vulgar follies star. It’s malicious fun, and would have been more so had McAnuff not felt compelled to frame it all with such punched-up, cutesy fervor. Fortunately, as he goes into overdrive for the final stretch, Lange seems to take on extra gravity and manages, in the end, to leave us with a quietly memorable portrait of Balzac’s sorely put-upon woman, severe and drawn very near to breaking, who decides she will no longer be overlooked by life. Finding love unreachable, she turns to making – like her costumes for the follies – the only magic she can from the materials at hand.

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