“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” said philosopher George Santayana. This saying has spawned many variants, including, now, director Robert Redford’s: “Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to have it shoved down their throats with only the teeniest dollop of aesthetic virtue to help ease the swallowing.”
It’s a pity that Redford, who mined the Good Old Days for such marvelous riches in 1994’s Quiz Show, should here squander what must have seemed a golden opportunity to help America understand her present by remembering her past. Imagine the goodhearted old liberal’s delight in the premise: in the aftermath of a national tragedy, sinister forces within the government seize the opportunity to flout the Constitution in the name of healing and closure. At least some of the accused are probably innocent and should at the very least be treated as civilians and not enemy combatants. But, hey, there’s a war on, and anyone who complains quickly comes under suspicion — aren’t you a patriot? Hello, 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror.
Except this time it’s 1865, and the national tragedy is the assassination of President Lincoln. The sinister forces are embodied by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline, enjoying the hell out of playing an old-timey neoconservative). And the accused is an American: Mary Surratt, owner of the boarding house in which John Wilkes Booth and his fellows met and conspired to kill Lincoln. (For Surratt, being Southern and Catholic stands in for being Arab and Muslim.) But here’s the best part: the guy doing the complaining about her treatment is her lawyer, a Union war hero named Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). See? Real Americans stand up for others’ Constitutional rights, even when those others are accused of monstrous crimes. (Apparently, real Americans also make good members of the Fourth Estate: a postscript informs us that Aiken went on to become the first city editor of The Washington Post.)
Readers who feel that I have spent too long hashing out the parallels will probably want to avoid the film, because the parallels are very much the point here. The result is something rather too earnest and not a little insulting: does the audience really need to hear a line such as, “Abandoning the Constitution is not the answer”? And despite the heavyweight cast, the politics tend to overwhelm the characters, with one wondrous exception: Robin Wright as the reticent Mary Surratt. Without using much more than her face and her bearing, she conveys nobility in the midst of deep suffering. And with one simple exchange in her prison cell, she renders both Aiken’s courtroom histrionics and Redford’s historical point-making moot. “Have you ever cared for something greater than yourself?” she asks Aiken. When he answers yes, she says quietly, “Then we are the same.”
Director François Ozon’s latest provides a happy counterpoint to The Conspirator, as it too is a political film that dips into the past: this time, late ’70s France. But before we get into that, we must take a moment to mention the film’s star. Why? Because it’s Catherine Deneuve.
Casting a ’70s screen goddess in a 2011 film that is not only set in the ’70s but shot and fashioned to look like it was made in the ’70s might have come off as just a clever, even precious bit of stunt casting. But this particular ’70s screen goddess seems so comfortable in her skin that she is able to slip into the role of an aging beauty without an ounce of self-consciousness and make it a triumphant salute to her heyday. Delightful.
Now, back to Potiche vs. Conspirator. The first good omen: Potiche doesn’t open like a political film. It opens like a domestic farce, everything so offhand and rapid fire that it doesn’t seem it could be serious. But it is: when we meet her, Deneuve is a woman without a place. An heiress who handed over her father’s factory to her husband when she married, she now finds herself superfluous. Her husband is no longer interested in her affections, her conversation, or even her cooking. Her daughter doesn’t want her help with the grandchildren. Her son is adrift — and now, so is she.
She finds new direction when her husband suffers a heart attack during negotiations with his factory workers who are on strike, represented by a positively ursine Gerard Depardieu. Ever the dutiful wife, Deneuve steps into the breach, bringing her feminine genius to the negotiating table. By the time her husband recuperates, the factory is flourishing, and he is the one who has become superfluous.
The power struggle that follows is charmingly complicated, but the business machinations are beside the point. Sex and power are the point (viz. the crucial scene between mother and daughter after the crisis). Deneuve’s final speech about a new Amazonian matriarchy may seem a bit off the wall, but it may help to remember that one possible etymology for “Amazon” is the Greek word for “without husbands.” See the film, enjoy the film, and then try this notion on for size: Ozon is claiming that older women should be in charge because they’ve gotten free of the whole sex thing, while older men have not. And sex, it seems, has a way of complicating human relations.
Super may dress itself in the costume of a cautionary tale about the bloody, horrible nexus of fantasy and reality that arises when a regular guy puts on a red jumpsuit and starts bashing bad guys with a monkey wrench, but don’t be fooled. Underneath the goofy mask, it’s a straight-up knight-errant story. Only instead of Sir Galahad, we get fry-cook Frank D’Arbo, a.k.a. The Crimson Bolt, played with muted abandon by Rainn Wilson. (He is eventually joined by sidekick Ellen Page, whose abandon screeches from the rooftops.)
All the moments of insanity — cracking the skull of a guy who cuts in line at the movies, the obscenely devoted sidekick, a God who borrows imagery from tentacle porn — must be viewed in light of our hero’s arguably sane quest. His wife has been taken by a bunch of very bad men, and it’s up to him to save her. And as the crappy comic book guy (and instrument of divine instruction) the Holy Avenger reminds us, “All it takes to be a superhero is the choice to fight evil.”
In between these two extremes lies the ambiguous, interesting middle, the realm of moral and religious uncertainty. Does the finger of God really touch our hero’s brain? If yes, then he’s a prophet on a righteous crusade, and God help you if you do evil in his sight. If no, then he’s an overzealous vigilante who is nevertheless on to something simple and real: “You don’t cut in line. You don’t molest kids. You don’t sell drugs. The rules were set long ago, and they don’t change...the truth was in my heart, and I followed it.” Again and again, it’s tempting to write him off as a nut. Except, is it really so nutty to envision devil heads on the guys using your wife as a pharmaceutical guinea pig?
The film, of course, is free to end without resolving that ambiguity. But the ending it goes with tries to weasel its way out from under, and in so doing, it winds up feeling painfully false to Frank's character. Galahad donating the Grail to Goodwill. For a movie that takes such delight in being transgressive and shocking, it’s both saddening and maddening to see it pull its final punch.
Reviewed in this week’s listings: Carancho and Rio. ■