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It may be an advantage not to be an X-File-o-phile. If, like me, you have seen no more than a handful of episodes from the nine-season TV series, and you have only the vaguest recollection of the mid-run movie from ten years back, then the present resumption, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, will be somewhat protected from the whammy of ridiculous repetition. (Any long-running series can scarcely avoid running into self-parody.) No less will it be protected from the second whammy of excessive expectations. The six-note whistly musical motif at the top will induce no Pavlovian salivation, let alone a Svengalian trance, and the movie can be judged on its merits. Whether or not it still holds the Zeitgeist in captivity is beside the point.

Six years after the show’s cancellation, we find that Mulder the Believer and Scully the Skeptic have cut all ties to the FBI, the latter now a practicing physician at Our Lady of Sorrows, the former in retirement as a bearded hermit. (I have no idea where the show left off, and frankly the birth of Scully’s and Mulder’s child, to say nothing of its death, was news to me.) The case that draws them back into the fold — only Scully knows how to get in touch with the paranormal apologist — is not all that far out of this world, not all that far out of the workaday police procedural. It begins, in intercut but not concurrent sequences, with an abducted female FBI agent and a pedophiliac defrocked priest who might or might not be psychic. He, chummily known as Father Joe, claims that the missing agent is still alive, and he has led a search party to a severed male forearm buried in the West Virginia snow, an arm that matches DNA found at the presumed scene of the abduction. But does that positively mean he’s psychic or merely guided by guilty knowledge? Then again, if he’s not the real McCoy, how does he come by his tears of blood?

The scope of the crime grows exponentially when another woman goes missing and the psychic uncovers a major cache of body parts preserved in ice, and the trail will ultimately lead to some macabre mad-scientist experiments well worthy of allusion to Dr. Frankenstein. Yet we’re still a long way short of manifestations of extraterrestrial life or supernatural entities. And that’s a relief. This modest summer entertainment, under the authoritative direction of series creator Chris Carter, freed from some of the murky mannerisms of the original formula, has plenty of speed and stamina; it has palpable suspense; it has honest shocks; and it has a unifying and a resonating theme of perseverance: Mulder in his lifelong pursuit of the Truth that, in a watchword of the series, Is Out There (way, way out there), Scully in her quotidian treatment of a terminally ill child, Father Joe in his quest for redemption, and even the villains in the lengths to which they’re prepared to go in their self-serving villainy. (New watchword: Don’t Give Up.) And lastly, a special blessing in this particular summer, it has no superheroes to put up against those villains, only vulnerable mortals who inspire less and less confidence as they forge ahead.

Though you might almost wish that the movie had wiped the slate clean and started over with baggage-free characters (assuming it could have raised the financing for such an enterprise), the passing years have added an attractive weariness, a romantic Weltschmerz, to the two lead actors, especially to Gillian Anderson (“I’m done chasing monsters in the dark” — done, too, covering up the beauty spot below her left nostril), who was always the more attractive to begin with. But even the supercool David Duchovny — an odd temperature for an ardent believer — appears to have gained a deeper layer of awareness, or else dropped an outer layer of vanity. Their mutual mission now looks like more a curse than a crusade. Where once their lodestar might have been Prometheus, today it’s Sisyphus.

* * *

The Last Mistress, at the Ken Cinema for the following week, would be better translated An Old Mistress. (Une Vieille Maîtresse, in the original.) Not that the mistress is in any sense elderly, but simply that she has been mistress to the hero for quite a long while, ten years on and off, starting when the young man was a fledgling libertine of twenty, and fully expecting to continue in her capacity beyond his pending wedding. The time is the first half of the 19th Century, identified as the century of Choderlos de Laclos, and although that author’s signature work, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, dates from well back in the foregoing century, the ruthless strategizing of courtship is strongly reminiscent: “This marriage will be my masterpiece,” grimly vows the bride-to-be’s grandmother, who looks back on Laclos’s era as the Good Old Days. The novel, however, on which the movie is actually based comes from later in the 19th Century and from Barbey d’Aurevilly, not a name you often run into anymore (I had a turn with him in my exploratory youth), one of the bellwethers in the corruption of the Romantic Movement, the depletion of the heroic individualist and the ascendance of the femme fatale, the man-eater, the succubus, the vampire. The titular mistress, a native of Spain, land of Carmen (her literary contemporary), will be seen literally licking the blood from a bullet hole in the hero’s chest.

This is a juicy role, perhaps the juiciest to date, for the snaggle-toothed, baggy-eyed, crow-voiced Asia Argento, the role of a woman whose charms are not outwardly obvious. She not only fits that criterion (charms, yes; obvious, not so much), she fits additionally the classic pattern of the dark temptress set in opposition to the blondness and blandness of the paragon of virtue. If her evident breast implants and her glimpsed tailbone tattoo argue against her usefulness in a period piece, she nonetheless brings to the role what it wants most, a threat of danger. The cigarillo, the spit curl, the gypsy garb can do only so much on their own; the actress convincingly ties them together into a pathology.

Of course the director, Catherine Breillat, brings a threat of danger herself. But even as the de rigueur sex scenes are moderately explicit, they’re a marked retreat from the envelope-pushing extremes of the filmmaker’s Romance and The Fat Girl (not to mention what was apparently felt to be too sticky for public consumption in the provinces, Anatomy of Hell, available on DVD), and they’re also in short supply. Breillat, a bit bogged down in talky exposition as well as in a disproportionate and ill-placed flashback, is plainly in no hurry to assault any barriers or to generate facile sensation. She demonstrates herself to be completely committed to the period, the costumes, the settings, the sentiments, in short the total sense of reality, recorded in crystalline photography and unadorned with meddlesome background music. Her societal portrait has almost a documentary instructiveness. Certainly there is nothing radical, only something coldly historical, in the exposure of the Biblical sexism of the wedding ceremony. The extremes in the movie — a Romantic work with a capital “R,” however tarnished that letter might be — are those of the human heart, not the human flesh. Argento’s nakedness is the matter of least concern when she’s sitting astride her lover, cowgirl-style, and howling with grief rather than ecstasy, at the funeral pyre of their infant daughter in the Algerian desert. That, and for that matter the movie as a whole, is something to see.

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geneven Aug. 22, 2008 @ 1:51 p.m.

It's always a pleasure to read Duncan's reviews, whether I agree with them or not. When I worked in Manhattan or lived in Moscow, I always turned to them for a distinctive point of view. Now that I'm back in the USSA, they are equally useful. Thanks!


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