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Cinema: Weird Trios and Fun Couples

6 minute read
Richard Corliss

MENAGE

Whack! Bam! Snipe! Antoine (Michel Blanc) and Monique (Miou-Miou) bicker like dogs in hate. The beleaguered husband and wife are about to kill each other, in front of everybody at their favorite Paris dive, when a stranger named Bob (Gerard Depardieu) joins in the fray. Changes their lives too. This pansexual thief takes the couple on his heists and woos them both before vacating the premises. He takes Monique to bed but pines indefatigably for mousy Antoine. Unashamed by his voracious sexual appetite, Bob overwhelms the poor little guy. Who could resist such declarations of ardor? They become lovers, then transvestites. But only one of them looks really fetching in a dress and pumps. And in beauty there is power.

Bertrand Blier (Going Places, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, Beau Pere) revels in treating romantic obsession as a frolic to the death. Recklessly assured, Blier keeps escalating the stakes here until comedy becomes love story becomes tragedy becomes megafarce. After an hour or so, Menage explodes from the exhaustion of possibilities, and the cast is left to pick up the pieces. They do so, handsomely, while the sardonic writer-director surveys the carnage with what he calls “my big shotgun smile.” You can see bits of flesh in his teeth.

DANCING IN THE DARK

When is a housewife a mad housewife? Perhaps when she tries so hard to be the perfect housewife. When she devotes virtually every moment to making her home a spotless museum of domestic art. When she scrubs a kitchen floor that already gleams like a Versailles mirror. When she obsessively dusts the TV set’s rabbit ears and the leaves on her rubber-tree plant. When she spends hours preparing nouvelle cuisine dishes as meticulous as a Magritte. When she finds spiritual and even sexual fulfillment in her dogged servitude. When she renounces friends and hobbies to remain the model prisoner whose keeper is a husband with a wandering libido. When, on learning that Hubby is fooling around with someone at the office, she waits for him to come home, stabs him dead with a kitchen knife, then cleans the weapon and replaces it daintily in its holder. Edna (the quietly spectacular Martha Henry) is a neat freak who freaks out.

Screenwriter-Director Leon Marr (adapting a novel by Joan Barfoot) is a neat freak with images. Every shot is composed precisely enough to win Edna’s approval. The cool, creepy, witty splendor of this Canadian psychodrama is that it resides simultaneously inside and outside Edna’s pristine, pathetic mindscape, from her daft rapture over the perfectly made bed to the moment when she hears of her husband’s infidelity and tears and saliva cascade down her face. Dancing in the Dark dares to be misunderstood as a case history; in fact, it is Heartburn with a haunting irregular heartbeat. It is also the yuppie date-movie nightmare. Men who see it with their spouses are advised to sneak out and buy some rubber cutlery.

DOWN BY LAW

“Hey, what’re you doin’?” Jack (John Lurie), a pimp, asks one of his girls sitting outside in the New Orleans dusk. “Just watchin’ the light change,” she exhales. But watchin’ the light change is the big payoff in a Jim Jarmusch movie. Stranger Than Paradise, a cult hit of 1984, cased its lowlifes with the metallic impassiveness of a closed-circuit monitor in a 7-Eleven store. You could find the proceedings funny or tedious; Jarmusch was too hip to care. He does have an eye, though, and aided by Cinematographer Robby Muller he makes Down by Law a ravishing shadow play. A canoe knifes through a tapioca swamp; the chiaroscuro that swathes a prostitute’s body shows her proud and pouting; the long, matching faces of Lurie and Co-Star Tom Waits catch the furtive light like desanctified El Grecos.

Do these pictures tell a story? Yes, a little one, about Jack and Zack (Waits) and the chatty Italian murderer (Roberto Benigni) they meet in prison. Planning their escape or simply getting to tolerate each other, they are three shaggy humans looking for a way out, and they communicate their anxiety through a kind of existential slapstick: Godot meets the Three Stooges. If you can get into the rhythms of Waits’ disk-jockey patter, Benigni’s fractured English and Lurie’s sullen explosions, you may find Down by Law mildly ingratiating. Otherwise you will sympathize with the jailbirds as they mark off the days in their cell. The markings, of course, are gorgeous: Chinese calligraphy, bayou-style.

SID AND NANCY

Fred and Ginger they’re not. On his best behavior, Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) pukes for pleasure, throws darts at idlers and smashes his head against the concrete walls of propriety. Then he meets Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), a pug- faced groupie from a Philadelphia suburb, and starts living up to his name. As the defiantly incompetent bass player for the Sex Pistols, Sid became the working-class hero and elitists’ toy of pre-Thatcher Britain. To the romanticizers of punk anarchy, Sid’s abuse of his body, his buddies and his music gave evidence of a rock Rimbaud. And squalid Nancy was plenty eager to share his psychopathy. Before long he was killing her loudly with his song: she died, apparently with his clumsy connivance, in 1978. He followed her a few months later.

To buy Sid and Nancy, you have to believe either that Vicious and Spungen were pathfinders of a new sensibility, only too frail to find profit or pleasure in it, or that their symbiotic degradation is in some way instructive or entertaining. But no. The twin evil geniuses of the Sex Pistols were Lead Singer Johnny Rotten and the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren. They defined the attitude of punk music; Sid and Nancy were just the creatures that lived and died under that rock. And since they begin in life’s gutter, their fall into the sewer is a boring given. Alex Cox’s movie (from a script he wrote with Abbe Wool) is a 111-minute moral limbo dance: How low can you go? Underground, if you want, but don’t expect anyone to follow you.

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