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Jane Austen at the Montreal Film Fest

By Gerals Peary

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  With Mansfield Park, which has now been adapted for the screen and directed by Canada's Patricia Rozema (I've Heard the Mermaids Singing), Jane Austen is all used up for the movies.

Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility (1995) stands tall among the recent Austen entries (though I haven't seen the PBS Northanger Abbey); but Rozema's version, which provided a classy opening-night world premiere at last week's 23rd Montreal World Film Festival, has its moments. The best involve playwright Harold Pinter in a powerful acting turn as Sir Thomas Bertram, who lords it over Mansfield Park.

It is Sir Thomas who insists that the story's heroine, Fanny (Frances O'Connor), take seriously the marital offers of an obvious scalawag (Alessandro Nivola). When Fanny resists, drama ensues. Unfortunately, that's deep into the narrative. "I find the recent films . . . too light-hearted, like a garden party," Rozema has complained about the other Austens. Yet Mansfield Park the movie also spends time in the trenches, in the novelist's languid world of tea-and-whist afternoons.

As a viewer, you can feel Rozema becoming impatient with Austen's British Empire complacency, so she punctures it with a nude-in-bed sex scene and an up-to-date dyke-PC agenda. There's what the director describes as "lesbian innuendo" between several of her females. This last is positive stuff as opposed to the sordid Heart of Darkness bio Rozema concocts for Pinter's patriarch: he maintains his family's genteel lifestyle by working as a cruel slave trader, the kind who forces kneeling black females into his waiting crotch.

Is that the Jane Austen whom the world adores? Rozema was a hired gun: she was recruited for Mansfield Park by Miramax's Harvey Weinstein. Her ambivalence shows.

I left the Montreal Fest midweek, with Mansfield Park a contender for Best Picture in Competition. (The jury this year was extraordinary, with internationally important directors and, as its chair, that Ingmar Bergman immortal, actress Bibi Andersson.) My favorite Competition work was the melancholy French picture Un pont entre deux rives, which is co-directed by and stars Gérard Depardieu. It's called The Bridge by its North American distributor, Lion's Gate.

In this 1962-set film, Depardieu plays a gentle man who has lost his confidence from chronic unemployment and now squanders hours at the tavern. His wife (Carole Bouquet) escapes by obsessively attending movies. Weeping at West Side Story, she meets a man there, and soon they're having an affair. Her husband begs her to come back to him. To come back to their son. No use.

"But isn't there a loss?", I asked the glamorous Bouquet at a press conference. "Your character says she goes skiing with her new man, but she also sees fewer movies."

"She was living through cinema," Bouquet replied. "But when she feels more alive, she doesn't feel the need to go that often. I know for myself that, between 12 and 20, I was lonely, and that movies kept me company. I still go a lot, it's my job, but not as before. But I do agree with you: I'm not sure the best life is skiing."

Will The Bridge, sober and uncompromised, get released in the USA? What of Cathal Black's Love and Rage, another downer of a film that I saw and admired at Montreal. It's about the doomed mad love of a British landowner (the best role for Greta Scacchi in years) and a pathological Irish worker (Daniel Craig, Robert Mitchum-like). Black described his movie as "a romantic story told unromantically" -- which is probably why Love and Rage, a handsome costume drama, hasn't got an American distributor.

More and more, the place to see pessimistic movies is at a film festival! But I'm not a total black hole. I was made blissfully happy at Montreal by Aviva Kempner's documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a fabulous tribute to the greatest Jewish slugger who ever played baseball.

Finally, Montreal was terrific because of hosting the Maurice Bessy Awards. Invited French and American film critics (the Globe's Jay Carr was also there) pay tribute over lunch to a living writer whose work about cinema has been seminal to us. The 1999 winner (there's also a $5000 check) was, in absentia, Manny Farber, who's revered among critics for his amazing essay book Negative Space. In the late '40s and '50s, writing in the New Republic, Farber championed B-movies and "noir" directors whom nobody on earth had heard of, and he wrote about them in a jazzy, explosive, Action Painter prose long before the Beats.

"For the last 20 years, he's been primarily a painter," I was told by New York Magazine's estimable Peter Rainer, who knows Farber. "He lives in Lucadia, California, and he likes to talk about movies to a point. But he's a film critic as a painter, since so many of his paintings, with titles like Mann of the West and The Wild Bunch, have movie themes.

"And there's something very cinematic about reading him. He was probably the first film critic whose prose takes off from the excitement of the movies. He's an American original. He can describe some shitty movie with such incredible visual flair that the film invariably disappoints. The way Manny sees a movie is much more interesting than the way the director saw it!"

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