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Shame, Embarrassment, Fear 

Paragraph 175, The Taste of Others, Last Resort

Wednesday, Feb 21 2001
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If you think that the pink triangle was always a badge of gay pride, you ought to see Paragraph 175, a documentary about the persecution of German gays under the Third Reich -- and beyond -- that speaks so eloquently for itself, there‘s not much more for me to do than urge you to get over to the Nuart for the one week it’s playing in Los Angeles. Produced and directed by Rob Epstein, who made the wonderful The Times of Harvey Milk, and Jeffrey Friedman (who, with Epstein, made both The Celluloid Closet and Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt), together with Klaus Muller, a German researcher for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the movie (narrated by Rupert Everett) documents the harassment, imprisonment, torture and incarceration in concentration camps of more than 70,000 gay men -- and, to a far lesser degree, women -- made possible by Hitler‘s expansion of an 1871 sodomy law. Only a handful of them are still living, and by the time you’ve heard the testimony of these elderly men, and one woman, you‘ll marvel at how they endured so many decades of silence about what happened to them. For the sodomy law remained on the books in Germany till 1969, and to this day the government resists officially acknowledging gays as victims of Nazi persecution.

Lulled by the “homosexual Eden” that was Berlin between the wars, profiting even from various youth movements’ homage to nature and the body -- movements that would later be perverted into Aryan triumphalism -- gay men didn‘t see the clouds gathering until they were overhead. Even then, like the mostly assimilated Jews, many homosexuals also saw themselves as Germans first, and assumed that would save them. Those who weren’t also Jewish were spared the gas chambers, but nearly two-thirds perished in prison or in the camps, and suffered the appallingly inventive forms of torture meted out to the sexually different. One old Alsatian man, whose shame, for himself and for humanity, kept him silent until only a few years ago, splutters with long-suppressed rage as he tells of seeing a lover chewed to pieces by dogs. Gad Beck, a half-Jewish activist who‘s been openly gay since childhood, also seems more animated -- less hollowed out -- than the others, most of whom relive their terrible histories with a disconcerting calm. So much so that when one nonagenarian tells, with what seems like the ghost of a smile on his face, of the “singing forest,” you half expect it to refer to some wooded idyll he discovered during a getaway. Instead, the reference is to the shrieks of agony coming from a forest of poles to which the Nazis hooked their victims. “Beyond human comprehension,” whispers the old man, shaking his head. And if he, who witnessed this atrocity and others, can’t comprehend it, who on this Earth -- blighted for all eternity by the scale of such twisted, premeditated human cruelty -- ever will?

The Taste of Others, a Midsummer Night‘s Dream for the new millennium directed by French actress and writer Agnes Jaoui, opens briskly as a comedy of crossed manners. For a while, it seems obvious that the ass’ head will be worn by Castella (played by veteran actor Jean-Pierre Bacri, who is married to Jaoui and co-wrote the screenplay with her), a merchant so guilelessly philistine that, while interviewing the tutor he‘s hired to beef up his English skills for an upcoming international business deal, he demands to know whether she has a “fun method.”

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Uneasily married to a woman whose summary refusal to deal with the world on its own terms is signaled by her ferociously floral interior design and mad attachment to a psychopathic pet, Castella falls hard for his tutor, Clara (Anne Alvaro), when he sees her onstage in a Racine tragedy to which his wife has dragged him. Clara runs with an arty crowd, and if this were a different kind of French movie -- the kind that, ever since A Man and a Woman, has fed greedily off American fantasies about what it means to be French -- she’d be Isabelle Huppert or Charlotte Gainsbourg, moping around in leather and no hips, languidly pursued by sullen Gallic swains with bedroom eyes. Mercifully, French filmmakers seem to be abandoning such well-appointed fictions in favor of addressing the lives of people you might actually know. As played by Alvaro, herself an unsung heroine of the French stage, Clara has the same air of schoolmistressy dowdiness, laced with a promise of untapped appetites, that hung about Nathalie Baye in last year‘s An Affair of Love. Though troubled by the fact that she’s 40 and has “two minutes to find a man” and start a family, Clara is repelled by the advances of a bourgeois like Castella.

Much of the movie‘s comic drive draws off the incongruities between Castella’s world and her own. It dawns almost too late on Clara that differences of class and aesthetics may be a red herring when it comes to choosing a soul mate. In love, everyone in this movie is a rank amateur, from Clara -- a Titania with no Oberon -- to Castella, her Bottom the Weaver, to the walking wounded around them, whose untidy affairs weave in and out of their own. Castella‘s laconic bodyguard (Gerard Lanvin), who’s been badly burned by love, does his darnedest not to get too attached to the sturdy, dope-dealing barmaid (played by Jaoui) he meets through Castella‘s goodhearted, philosophical driver (Alain Chabat), a man so busy pretending not to lick one set of wounds, he can’t see more coming.

Jaoui, whose first feature this is as director, wisely plays to her greater experience, in tandem with Bacri, as a writer. Visually, The Taste of Others is a cautious collection of one-shot vignettes. It‘s the dialogue -- wisecracking and wistful in equal measure -- that plays out the tyrannical illogic of romantic attraction, and so endears us to this ensemble of bruised souls that when, as in life, not everyone gets what they have come to deserve, it feels, as in life, like an injustice. Still, there is justice in the Best Foreign Film nomination recently bestowed on this warm, funny and sage movie, which goes a long way toward making up for the five idiotic nods -- including, God forgive the Academy, Best Picture -- that, courtesy of an aggressive marketing campaign, were thrown away on that other Miramax movie, Chocolat, as soggy and saccharine a view of how the French live and love as you could hope to find on either side of the Atlantic.

Like the back-of-beyond American small town, the rundown English seaside resort, with its ruined gentility poking through its brassy pop bravado, has long been a favorite locale for filmmakers with a romantic yen for decrepitude. If you like this sort of thing -- and I do -- you will love Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort, in which Tanya (Dina Korzun, who has the freckly innocence of a Slavic Minnie Driver), a beautiful Russian children‘s-book illustrator with a habit of collecting unreliable men, drags her 10-year-old son, Artiom (Artiom Strelnikov), to just such a forlorn backwater in the hope of meeting an English fiance who never shows up. In desperation, she files for political asylum, finds herself beached in immigration hell in a high-rise building bleaker than anything a Soviet people’s architect could ever dream up, and falls into an improbable liaison with Alfie (Paddy Considine), a sympathetic amusement-arcade manager with his own history of failure to overcome.

Last Resort -- part of the Shooting Gallery Spring 2001 series, and preceded by The Heart of the World, a short film by the madly inspired Canadian director Guy Maddin -- was pretty much made up as it went along, which doesn‘t do much for the well-trodden saga of mutual self-discovery that follows. It hardly matters, for the movie’s a beauty. Shot in the has-been coastal town of Margate, a jungle of suitably tawdry bingo halls, arcades and porno emporia (a cyberpornographer who lures Tanya into stripping for the small screen is played with amusingly genial ineptitude by real-life porn purveyor Lindsey Honey), the movie juggles the sober documentary naturalism that is second nature to films of this kind with a woozy, hand-held expressionism that lingers, just because, on the bingo tables and curling gray waves of a world whose only claim to conventional prettiness is the plaintive cry of the sea gulls circling above its dreary roofs. In realist terms, the nobility that gradually brightens the faces of Tanya and Alfie may be a crock -- but in Pawlikowski‘s dreamy vision, it’s a crock you want to believe in.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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