Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Ripstein In Blood

And Wenders Looking for Directions

By Gerald Paery

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  The dedication for Arturo Ripstein's ghoulish Mexican crime tale Deep Crimson (opening this Friday at the Coolidge Corner) comes at the tail of the film: "To Raymond, Martha, and Leonard." Any ultra-extreme cultist knows that's a reference to the homicidal duo and the director -- Leonard Kastle -- of the magnificently morbid 1970 B-tabloid The Honeymoon Killers.

In that one (check your video store), an obese nurse joins up with a smooth little gigolo in a scheme whereby he marries hapless old ladies, then murders them for their money. The killings are shockingly nasty, but The Honeymoon Killers gets its undeniable power from the very odd protagonists' intoxicating l'amour fou.

Deep Crimson is The Honeymoon Killers transplanted to 1940s Mexico and moved from black-and-white to color, perhaps the better to display the blood. Raymond has become the migraine-tormented Nicolas (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who carefully pastes down his hairpiece before courting lonely widows. His soupy claim is to be from Spain, Don Quixote-in-exile seeking his Dulcinea.

Martha is Coral (Regina Orozco), an unhappy nurse whose helper duties include serving at the morgue, which is why she reeks of formaldehyde. She dreams of romance with suave movie star Charles Boyer. But the only movie personage she resembles is Petunia Pig. The old cliché about hugely stout people applies: she does have pretty features, but they're all above the neck.

It takes a while, but Nicolas and Coral connect. That's after he robs her and she doesn't mind, and after she thrusts her children into an orphanage so she can be only his. When his wig flies away, she weaves him another, out of her own hair. That's love!

But what cements their passion is, of course, the murders, and there are four of them, increasingly gorier. "Why did we do it?" she asks, in a rare moment of self-doubt. "We're accomplices," he says. "Eternal accomplices." "Yes," she agrees, a haunted Medea, "united in blood and death."

I appreciate Arturo Ripstein's directorial skill (he's Mexico's best), the way he plays with the tensions of three in the frame: Nicolas, and whatever woman he's courting, and the jealously homicidal Coral, as she pretends to be Nicolas's sister. As conceived by Orozco, who is also a Mexican opera singer, Coral is both terrifying and pitiable. But how about those killings?

I first saw Deep Crimson at a film festival, on one of those numb days of five movies in a row. I regarded it as an effective black comedy and didn't give a second thought to the violence, what Ripstein (a one-time assistant to Buñuel) calls "the savage poetry." This time I saw it solo, and I must admit that it gets upsetting. I watched it, in fact, on the day the Massachusetts House voted the death penalty back in by the tiniest margin. If the legislators had been confronted by the hideous final murders in Deep Crimson, the pro-death penalty vote might have been overwhelming.

"Haven't been on the road for a while. Good," says Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), the sound-man protagonist of Lisbon Story (at the Harvard Film Archive this weekend, November 7 and 8). Neither has the filmmaker, Wim Wenders, many of whose best pictures -- Kings of the Road, Alice in the Cities, Paris, Texas -- were old-fashioned, get-in-your-vehicle-and-drive movies. For the first minutes, as Winter tools from Berlin to Lisbon via Paris, Lisbon Story promises to be an exalted return to Wenders at his pre-Wings of Desire purest.

With Liza Rinzler's cinematography in the style of Wenders's '70s favorite, Robby Mueller, Lisbon Story starts as a thrilling montage of slices of highways, changes of skies, and shifts in weather, complemented by sound bites off the car radio of country-to-country music. Paris is the best: a one-second glimpse of the Eiffel Tower way at the end of a bicycle-lane-sized city street.

Then Winter drives into Portugal, his auto gets a flat tire, and Lisbon Story flattens out too, like a cold pancake. Winter has come to Portugal to reunite with filmmaker Friedrich Monroe, who has mysteriously run off. For a listless hour of Lisbon Story, Winter waits, picking up sounds in the city with his tape recorder, interacting with the neighborhood children. Never has actor Vogler been so annoyingly passive. The kids, talking incomprehensible pigeon English, are singularly uncharming.

More time is squandered with musical numbers by Madredeus, a just-okay Portuguese pop group. Then there's the ageless Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal's greatest filmmaker, who does a guest turn with a pompous philosophical monologue. Finally, Monroe (Patrick Bauchau) turns up, and it seems he's having an artistic crisis, unable to make films anymore. But Winter is there for an angel's pep talk: "Move your ass, finish your movie, with a little help from your friends."

The two characters are clearly Wenders in dialogue with himself, confessing his own filmmaking crisis in the '90s. But the sentimental "up" ending won't do. Lisbon Story shows, glaringly, that Wenders remains blocked.

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