Tuesday, May 21, 2024 May 21, 2024
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The filmmaker Bill Forsyth is nothing if not a romantic. In the endearing Gregory’s Girl, he came out foursquare in favor of young love. In Local Hero, he made a lovely, lyrical case for dreamers and dreams (dreams of all kinds-of unexpected riches; of a quiet, simple life; of wonders in the night sky). Forsyth’s marvelous new movie Housekeeping (he wrote the script based on the novel by Marilynne Robinson) is about eccentricity. Not surprisingly, he’s for it.

At the center of the movie is Sylvie (Christine Lahti, in a superb performance), who has inherited two young girls and a rambling house in the small Northwestern town of Fingerbone. She has not inherited her image as a nonconformist; that, she has earned. She pins interesting newspaper clippings to her jacket; keeps fish in her coat pocket; spends afternoons wandering among the local hobos; peeks into neighbors’ windows to watch TV; insists on dining in the dark; and doesn’t mind at all if the girls skip school (not just for a day, but for weeks).

At first, both girls-Ruthie (who is the narrator here) and her younger sister Lucille-are happy Aunt Sylvie is around. But then, they’re happy anyone is around. They have no memories of their father, and their mother drives a borrowed Dodge off a cliff soon after depositing the girls at grandmother’s house in Fingerbone. Ruthie and Lucille spend the next seven years surrounded by their grandmother and other white-haired men and women (“The paperboy was the only one under sixty we saw regularly,” Ruthie says) and trying to keep each other’s spirits up-playing cards in their moonlit bedroom, skating on the snowy lake.

After the grandmother dies, Sylvie arrives. The girls are elated-and terrified they’ll be abandoned again. When Syivie takes a stroll to the railroad station, Ruthie and Lucille follow her, convinced she’s going to ditch them. She doesn’t; when the girls catch up with her in the waiting room, Sylvie settles for a stray newspaper, and the three then head back home. Forsyth is a master of the memorable, telling moment-the indelible scene, the unforgettable line of dialogue.

“I love to travel by train-especially the passenger cars,” Sylvie tells the girls the first morning the three of them are together. When one of the girls mentions her birth date, Sylvie says, with genuine good cheer, “Really? That was my cat’s birthday.”

When the ground floor of the house floods, Sylvie flings her coffee into already-brown water. She sleeps on park benches, her face covered by a magazine. For an outing with Ruthie. she borrows a rowboat that belongs to a local fisherman. When he gives chase. Ruthie tells Sylvie, “It must be his boat.” To which Sylvie replies, straight-faced. “Either that or he’s some sort of lunatic.”

On the same adventure, Sylvie and Ruthie stay out in the boat all night. As the fog rolls in across the black water, they trade wishes (Sylvie votes for pie, Ruthie a hamburger) and sing a sweet, plaintive “Goodnight Irene.” It’s a remarkably affecting scene, beautifully photographed by Michael Coulter, who also worked with For-syth on Gregory’s Girl.

In Sylvie, Ruthie (played by Sara Walker) finds a soulmate, someone who is always ready for a game of Crazy Eights, someone who finds delight in the ordinary. Sylvie’s life may look like chaos, but to Ruthie, it’s a comforting kind of chaos.

But Lucille (Andrea Burchill), who initially is intrigued by Sylvie. grows to dislike her. Lucille fears that, unless she escapes, she too will be consigned to a life of musty newspapers and dinners in the dark. Lucille wants to have Cokes with kids from school, to go to dances, to eat with the lights on. At a very young age, she has to choose exactly what sort of life she’s going to lead and how she’s going to lead it. Lucille’s searching lends the movie some heartbreaking moments.

“I just want the best for you,” Lucille says to Ruthie, desperation in her voice.

“Don’t worry,” Ruthie says quietly. “I can’t explain it, but everything’s fine.” And for Ruthie, everything is fine-the exhilarating ride in a boxcar, the goofy game of hide-and-seek on a crisp night, the giggles and songs and secrets shared with Sylvie on dark but magic nights on the lake.

All of Bill Forsyth’s movies cast a glow that stays with you long after you’ve left the theater. Housekeeping is incandescent.

Claude Berri’s Manon of the Spring, the second part of the story begun in Jean de Florette, is perfect to see after a long day at the office: it’s a martini of a movie, pretty, transporting, and very neatly tied up at the end. In Florette, the devious Cesar Soubeyran (Yves Montand) and his doltish nephew Ugolin {Daniel Auteuil) drove the sweet but not too savvy Jean (Gerard Depardieu) to an early grave by tricking him out of the valuable spring on his land-a spring the Soubeyrans needed for a flower-growing business. In these concluding two hours, Jean’s now-grownup daughter. Manon (Emmanuelle Béart), attempts to get even. This is not without its complications. First she has to spend a lot of time tending to her goats. Then she has to dance naked while playing the harmonica, putting on a show that attracts the attention of Ugolin.

“Attracts” may be too mild a word here- the guy goes ga-ga. Soon, Ugolin is pursuing her over hills and valleys, ostensibly hunting rabbits while actually spying on her. But he’s never a match for the gentle school teacher Manon has come to admire for his kindness to her herd. Romance and revenge build slowly here. As we wait for Fate to do its stuff (and it does, it does), we watch Cesar eat some appealing meals, listen to him philosophize and foreshadow-’Good-for-nothings always blame fate”-and admire Bruno Nuytten’s photography. Though we don’t get the grandeur and sweep a two-part saga would seem to suggest, Manon is skillful, satisfying moviemaking.

Bonk! Ooh, my head hurts. Bonk! Bonk! Ooh, there goes Alex Cox, clobbering our noggins again with the thunderingly obvious. This seems to happen every five minutes or so in Cox’s new movie, Walker, which deals with American intervention in Nicaragua (Cox is agin1 it). Ostensibly the story of William Walker, the American who declared himself ruler of Nicaragua in the mid-1800s and reigned for just one year, Walker is really a screed against Manifest Destiny, imperialism, abuse of power. To make sure we get the parallels between then and now, director Cox and his screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, throw in some deliberate anachronisms. Walker (Ed Harris) tells his men he will not “dissemble” with them; we see a Mercedes sedan racing by Walker’s carriage; and, sprinkled through the film, we glimpse a number of items from what could be called the Contemporary Americana Cinema Statement Collection-Coca-Cola, Marlboros in the flip-top box, a People magazine with Walker on the cover (headline: “Nicaragua’s Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny”). To make sure we really get it-ouch!-the final scenes feature present-day American forces, complete with whirring helicopter, rescuing some of Walker’s soldiers.

The plot here, such as it is, chronicles Walker’s change from sensitive, idealistic proponent of democracy to power-crazed nut case. In the beginning, he assures his deaf fiancee, Ellen (Marlee Matlin, in a small role), that he opposes slavery. Toward the end of the movie, he’s proposing it as a solution to Nicaragua’s trouble. All of this is about as subtle as one of those interminable sketches that show up in the last half-hour of “Saturday Night Live.”

Cox’s Repo Man was dark and sharp, a comic, cosmic chase movie; his Sid & Nancy was a clammy, claustrophobic account of two void-ites who loved each other but didn’t seem to have the slightest idea why and, as it happened, didn’t know how, either. Those movies pulled you in: they offered surprises, small revelations, rewards around just about every corner.

But with Walker, Cox doesn’t seem as keen on storytelling as he is in shaking his finger at jingoistic American imperialists. As a scold, he’s a bore.