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.
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Why is a question director Barbet Schroeder and writer Tony Gayton shrewdly leave hanging for a good while. At first, Murder by Numbers works 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.
When the police follow the standard clues -- hairs, fibers, boot prints, estimated time of death -- they find themselves going in circles. Cassie (short, one would hope, for Cassandra), the chief investigator, argues that this blind trail fits no ordinary murder profile because the killer or killers seem to have read up on the conventional psychologies and to be deliberately taunting their pursuers with false clues. Her superiors (who call Cassie "The Hyena" behind her back, a reference to the female of that species' false penis) think her theory is far-fetched, and throw obstacles in her way when her hunches lead her to stalking the pampered sons of some high-powered locals.
So far, so traditional. Then the movie takes a welcome detour as Cassie breaks in her straight-laced new partner (Ben Chaplin), pulling him into bed with her at the end of their first day on the job together. This is such a surprising and pleasing departure from the puritanism that has afflicted relations between men and women in so many recent Hollywood movies, you might half-ask yourself, "Is this a foreign film?" And the answer would be yes, sort of. The Tehran-born, cosmopolitan, globetrotting Schroeder (from Uganda in the documentary Idi Amin Dada, to downtown Los Angeles in Charles Bukowski's Barfly, to Brazil in last year's Our Lady of the Assassins) is a natural to protect this most adventurous, and vital, dimension of Gayton's script. In the same breath that it turns the difficult partnership between Bullock and Chaplin into something like a relationship the viewer might actually remember from his or her own life, it advances the most interesting dimension of the film -- the riddle of this woman's personality -- with a force that feels effortless. We're less in suspense over how (or if) the killers will be caught than we are over the question of just who this tough, hedonistic detective is.
Unfortunately, as the preoccupation with catching the bad guys becomes more pronounced, this more fascinating potential is relegated to the back seat. Even as the psychological interdependencies of the two boys take the foreground, the movie gets more and more crowded with fun-house surprises and cliffhanging set pieces, when what might have served the story better is a moment in which the detective sees herself in either or both of the boys, even though she has to take them down. It says much in favor of Gayton and Schroeder's craft that these repugnant, cold-blooded young heavies do achieve a measure of poignancy -- one gets the sense that neither had much of a chance against the demons driving him -- yet that spark of insight never really jumps from them to the movie's heroine, and through her, to us.