By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
WE'RE SPEEDING IN A HORSE-DRAWN COACH, keeping abreast of the sun as it sparkles through a high canopy of trees, privy to the exertions of a pair of noblewomen who are busily disguising themselves as men. The dialogue is from the 18th century, but the film grammar -- quick cuts, high-energy camera work, crisp sound design -- is pure 21st. A clever princess (Mira Sorvino), on the verge of becoming queen, has set out to put things right before ascending to the throne: Her father, a wise and just king, was nonetheless a usurper. The rightful heir to the crown is young Agis (Jay Rodan), sheltered since childhood in the remote countryside by his scheming uncle, radical philosopher Hermocrates (Sir Ben Kingsley), and his spinster aunt, madcap amateur scientist Leontine (Fiona Shaw). This high-minded pair have instructed the would-be king to despise all women, to say nothing of love in general, and to hate the princess in particular. (Agis uses an effigy painted in her likeness for archery practice.) Disguised as a man, the princess -- who, a short time ago, fell wildly in love with this castaway monarch when she spied him skinny-dipping in the forest -- means to befriend him to test whether their hearts, despite her masquerade and despite the treacheries of the past, can triumph over all. If later they can find it in themselves to fall in love, she reasons, then peace will reign and they'll both be free of the warring roles into which they were born.
It says everything about the lucid intelligence of Clare Peploe's direction that she's able to distill such a complicated setup into the bright brevity of the film's first few scenes. It also helps that the text is that of the 18th-century French farce The Triumph of Love. Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux was a master of narrative concentration, able to compress a wealth of back story into a few pithy exchanges, then move characters through obstacle courses of deceit and surrender whose breakneck pacing plainly left its mark on Hollywood's screwball era. His one-liners are elegant ("Spare your intelligence the mistake of insulting my own"), and dazzlingly top one another. Yet Peploe --who has directed such films as Rough Magic in 1994 with Russell Crowe and Bridget Fonda, and collaborated in various capacities with husband Bernardo Bertolucci on most of his films since the 1970s -- yields pleasures throughout that are more cinematic than theatrical. Her lively, lawless cutting -- sharp ellipses that occur even in the middle of a shot, eliminating any breath-space of dead air -- acts as a vital, unpredictable counterpoint to the antique, formal postures struck by the characters, re-introducing the same delightfully anarchic spirit that also informs the acting.
Kingsley and Shaw are (as might be expected) pitch-perfect anyway, whether storming about the spectacular Tuscan villa where the story is set or toppling from the high towers of erotic and romantic resistance they've taken lifetimes to build up inside themselves. The princess -- slipping in and out of her gender masquerade as the need arises, posing as a man to woo Leontine and then confessing her womanhood to the eagle-eyed Hermocrates, the better to flatter his intellect -- emotionally seduces each in turn. (Rachael Stirling, Ignazio Oliva and Luis Molteni knock about underfoot as the instantly likable crew of loyal and/or bribable clowns the princess enlists in her campaign.) What is surprising, and what one takes away most deeply and happily from Triumph of Love, is a refreshed admiration for Mira Sorvino. While she has always had a magnetic presence and a sure-footed comedic sense (that Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite was no accident), she has often seemed held back by a studied, self-conscious physical stiffness that filmmakers (particularly in the action scenes of Mimic and The Replacement Killers) so often appeared to be cutting around. Here, she is so agile in her transformations from female to male and back again, adopting a comically expert male walk in a merry eye-blink as she hurries from one seduction to the next, that she smoothly amplifies the larger transformations that are the comedy's true theme. She seems like one of Marivaux's witticisms made flesh.
Sandra cocked and loaded MIRA SORVINO'S 18th-CENTURY FRENCH PRINCESS and Sandra Bullock's 21st-century detective in Murder by Numbers would seem, on the surface, to have very little in common. Both, of course, are women. Both are trying against very steep odds to see justice done, and both films -- however clever and schematically plotted their story structures -- are at bottom preoccupied with the mystery at the center of these women's hearts. But where Sorvino's princess unabashedly believes in love, Bullock's homicide detective despises it with a rare fervor.
Why is a question director Barbet Schroeder and writer Tony Gayton shrewdly leave hanging for a good while. At first, Murder by Numbersworks up a spooky, compelling murder story. From the first, we're made aware that two "exceptional" high school students (The Believer's Ryan Gosling and Hedwig and the Angry Inch's Michael Pitt), precocious nihilists modeled on the 1920s thrill killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, have chosen a stranger at random and put her to death.
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