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Mommy Dearest 

Oedipal dreams in The Deep End and The Others

Wednesday, Aug 8 2001
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Jim Sheldon

In 1947, the Ladies’ Home Journal ran an abridged version of a suspense novel by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, which subsequently became a best-seller. It’s easier than you might imagine to see what made The Blank Wall’s lurid plot — a mother hides the corpse of her daughter’s no-good lover, then spends the rest of the story doing desperate damage control and reluctantly falling in love with a man who’s out to blackmail her for her trouble — so attractive to that stately mag’s readers, many of whom were being drummed out of the factories and offices they’d propped up for the duration of World War II and sent back home to be the wives and mothers that nature intended. What finer consolation than an unassuming housewife who not only finds her humdrum life transformed overnight into the stuff of melodrama, but manages to turn around a lowlife and, better yet, have him fall in love with her — not in spite of her domesticity, but because of it.

In 1949 Max Ophüls adapted The Blank Wall into The Reckless Moment, an alluringly menacing slice of Hollywood domestic noir with Joan Bennett and James Mason as the unlikely lovers. Now, in a fetchingly improbable match of material and directors, here it comes again, worked over with a gay subtext by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose last film was the stylishly chilly 1993 thriller Suture. For all that the source novel was written by a woman, it also speaks to a male oedipal fantasy — part wish, part fear — of an absentee father (a naval officer who spends months at a time at sea) and a can-do mother whose reason for being is the overprotection of her children. Ophüls himself tacitly realized the story’s power as a gay-male fantasy: The Reckless Moment sports a peripheral younger son who runs around vamping like an overachieving drag queen in training.

Still, The Deep End is a diligent remake of The Reckless Moment. Chunks of dialogue and key scenes are almost identical, and both films are spiked with some discreet goofing around. Yet the new film’s style is coolly contempo: As anyone knows who has seen Suture, noir, in McGehee and Siegel’s painterly scheme of things, is blue. Blue-green for the eyes of the mother, Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton). Gun-metal blue for the Reno nightclub where, as the movie opens, she has gone to warn the sleazy manager (Josh Lucas) to stay away from her son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), a dreamy musician who’s about to fly the coop for college. Bright blue for the sky that frames the mountains that frame the deep blue of Lake Tahoe. And showoff royal blue for the Corvette in which Alek Spera (played by ER heartthrob Goran Visnjic) shows up, carrying a softcore videotape of Beau and his now-dead lover, and charged by his infinitely more vicious senior partner (Raymond Barry) with bilking Margaret of $50,000. Even the protagonists are color-coded: a tall, black-haired latter-day Heathcliff confronting a tall redhead with skin so translucent it almost fades into the film stock. Swinton, who often as not has been excused from acting in order to function as a mummified Presence (Orlando, Female Perversions), is for once deglamorized into an ordinary woman enlarged by extraordinary circumstances, and the role animates her wonderfully. As the two lonely and compromised souls begin to open themselves to each other, the movie turns redder, and warmer, until — as all self-respecting noir must — this strange and beautiful love story sinks back into the cold, shadowy angst in which it began.

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If you think The Deep End is one for the oedipal archives, consider The Others, a World War II ghost story featuring Nicole Kidman as a no-frills Freudian hysteric with a militantly Victorian parenting style. Looking like the classic ’40s star she is to the core, Kidman plays Grace, a buttoned-up young matron who, while waiting for her husband to return from the front, cares for her two young children largely by having them recite gobs of scary and punitive stuff from the Bible behind locked doors and drawn curtains in a spooky cavern of a mansion on the Isle of Jersey, from which the occupying Germans have recently fled. There’s a secret, and a mystery surrounding the unsolicited arrival of three ominous-looking servants headed by the alarming Fionnula Flanagan, along with some inventive acting by a little girl named Alakina Mann. Otherwise the movie, which is written and directed by the young Spaniard Alejandro Amenábar (he made Open Your Eyes, a small thriller currently being remade by Cameron Crowe into Vanilla Sky, starring a Cruise and a Cruz), isn’t much more than a proficient gothic mystery with a final twist that offers a satisfying little frisson before you start counting how many times it’s been used before. But set The Others next to The Deep End, track both back to The Reckless Moment, and you will see how little 50 years of feminism have done to take the sting out of America’s fearful ambivalence toward maternal power.

THE DEEP END | Written and directed by SCOTT McGEHEE and DAVID SIEGEL Produced by ROBERT NATHAN, LAURA GREENLEE, SIEGEL and McGEHEE | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | At Sunset 5, Landmark NuWilshire, Rialto

THE OTHERS | Written and directed by ALEJANDRO AMENÁBAR Produced by FERNANDO BOVAIRA, JOSÉ LUIS CUERDA and SUNMIN PARK | Released by Dimension Films | Citywide

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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