Sex Education

THE SCHOOL OF FLESH
Directed by Benoit Jacquot

The love affair at the heart of Benoit Jacquot's The School of Flesh has to be the longest shot on the board. Pairing a woman of the world with a boy of the streets, it is fueled by sexual obsession and casual cruelty, by the same huge contrasts in temperament and experience that will inevitably destroy it. While it lasts, the affair is a fascinating high-wire act, full of daring, folly and, occasionally, great tenderness. It's at once a beautiful and a terrible thing to watch.

Dominique, played by the timeless French star Isabelle Huppert, is a sophisticated fashion executive with her career and life seemingly in order. But the moment she locks eyes with Quentin (newcomer Vincent Martinez), a self-absorbed street hustler and part-time boxer who scrapes by selling his body to the highest bidder -- male or female -- something unravels in her. Quentin's raw carnality plays havoc with Dominique's sense of reason, if not her unflappable cool. She stirs something in him, too -- not only lust, but a sense of material and spiritual possibility that he's never felt before. She's not just lover but mentor. Soon, they slip into an enthralling and dangerous symbiosis -- the ever-appraising sugar mommy and the sullen, beautiful boy-toy.

In a French movie of an earlier era (or, for that matter, an American one), the roles and genders would be reversed, of course. But director Jacquot, who distinguished himself in A Single Girl and Seventh Heaven with his insights into the feminine mystique, doesn't hesitate to explore new territory.

He's got some powerful allies along for the ride. The able veteran Jacques Fieschi (Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud) is the screenwriter here, and his source is the legendary Japanese novelist (and famous suicide) Yukio Mishima. Mishima's book is set in postwar Japan, and transplanting it to present-day Paris must have been a daunting task. But the filmmakers have retained its essence beautifully. Mishima's great subject, he once revealed in an autobiographical essay, is the tension between mind and body that he believed lay at the core of modern civilization's ills. That tension is everywhere evident in Flesh, particularly in Dominique, a woman of intellect who finds herself inexorably drawn to a young man whose only asset, only survival tool, has always been his body.

For Huppert, who in her prodigious career has portrayed everyone from the simple country heroine of The Lacemaker to the father-killer of Violette to Madame Bovary, this is another opportunity to delve deep into the mysteries of life, and she doesn't disappoint. Every gesture, from the way her Dominique holds Quentin's face in her hands to the barely concealed rage in her step, transmits character. For the simmering, mercurial Martinez, who is making his film debut, Flesh is an opportunity to learn from the best, and he's made the most of it. Defiant but vulnerable, his Quentin is a memorable manchild and an embodiment of symptoms common to the day.

What Jacquot observes most carefully here are the sacrifices, large and small, that his lovers must make to maintain a kind of equilibrium, and the little bargains and betrayals they enact trying to bridge the unbridgeable gulfs between them. Quentin may be the younger member of the couple, but both are students in The School of Flesh. Their education is less sentimental than searing, charged with friction, cloaked in doom. By the end, when the opposites that first attracted begin to repel and Dominique finds herself burning incriminating photos of the lover she will now reject, they've both been through the mill. We learn a few things, too, or have at least been reminded of things we know. For instance: Despite our best efforts, mind and body seek to be separate provinces, and wherever passion and knowingness violently collide, it's never easy to pick up the pieces.

Too little known in the United States, Benoit Jacquot, in the company of a sublimely talented pair of actors, has explored these issues with fluency and verve, transforming Yukio Mishima's old obsession into a new vision for our time.

In French with English subtitles.
Opens April 30 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Bill Gallo

SLC PUNK!
Written and directed by James Merendino

The "SLC" in SLC Punk! stands for Salt Lake City, but it might as well stand for Some Lucky Chump. The filmmaker, James Merendino, has stated that this tale of two punk buddies trying to spread anarchy through the Utah capital in 1985 reflects his own rebellious teenage years there. Part of his strategy for calling this youth-runs-wild, semitragic farce SLC Punk! is to rouse curiosity about the Ramones' followers partying and punching out "rednecks" near the world headquarters for the Church of Latter-Day Saints. But judging from the movie, Merendino never took too long or close a look at the mainstream scene before he decided it wasn't for him.

Of course, the film slaps away mightily at the Mormons' moral hegemony. In a typical digression, our heroes journey to Wyoming to buy "real" beer, because private stores in Utah can sell it with only half the normal alcohol (and the state-owned stores that sell the real stuff are punk-unfriendly and have bad hours). But there are no Mormon characters. What the setting mostly does is provide an apt picturesque backdrop -- full of great swaths of "nothing" -- to the tear-it-down shenanigans of the blue-haired Stevo (Matthew Lillard) and the Mohawked Heroin Bob (Michael Goorjian). Heroin Bob, who somehow got his nickname because he refuses to use drugs, has a girlfriend named Trish (Annabeth Gish) who summarizes their point of view succinctly: "The police -- what an untidy group of little fascists. What do you expect in a town of God? Mormons run the state, and that is the state of things, I'm afraid." And I'm afraid that the friction between them and everyone else rarely gets more specific than that.

On its frenetic surface, the film offers a burlesque Baedeker of the mid-'80s youth scene in Squaresville, U.S.A.: Brit-inspired punks vs. Yank-inspired punks vs. Nazi punks, mods and rockers, and cowboys. What it offers at its shockingly sappy core is a familiar view of adolescent rebellion as a goofy but inevitable phase. Stevo wants to break out of the trajectory plotted for him by his Harvard Law-schooled father (Christopher McDonald, who appears in TV's Veronica's Closet), a Vietnam protest veteran who insists he hasn't "sold out" but "bought in." Heroin Bob fears that he'll grow up to be just like his paranoid, reclusive old man (and also worries that he somehow let the fearsome old coot down). As their season of protest winds down, these conflicts get resolved in the most shameless, heart-tugging way. Even punks get the blues.

When I was growing up, anyone who dressed weird or threw a tantrum was said to be "acting out" -- externalizing some psychic blip or primal urge that couldn't be expressed otherwise. Stevo and his friends aren't even acting out -- most of the time they're acting, period. Stevo is obsessed with unveiling poseurs (or, as he says, "posers"), until he finds that everyone he knows is one, including himself. But does writer/director Merendino know how shallow Stevo really is? Stevo keeps talking about "anarchy" when all he and his pals aspire to is an addled pop nihilism that finds beauty in "the end" and connection in dance-floor punch-outs.

If there were any depth in Merendino's script, his ensemble's collective performing style -- wild mood swings rendered in seriocomic mugging or ostentatious deadpan -- wouldn't find it. And if there were any resonance to their acting, Merendino's directing style would obscure it. Despite its free-form storytelling and hyperactive editing, the movie has an unsettling slickness. Stevo narrates straight to the camera, whether introducing (or reintroducing) characters or delivering a cheerfully useless little essay on the unknowable roots of punk violence. The result is as presumptuous as a standup comic pretending to be a monologuist. Stevo's punk worldview doesn't encompass a vision of America's future; this film does not engender hope for the future of American movies.

Opens April 30 at the Tivoli.
-- Michael Sragow

ENTRAPMENT
Directed by Jon Amiel

Sean Connery has always been a terse, minimalist actor, spitting out his lines in tight bursts of Scottish brogue. But in Entrapment, the kingly Scot goes beyond minimalism to the point where he's practically doing semaphore with his eyebrows.

As the legendary art thief Robert MacDougal, Connery isn't just reserved, he's comatose. The picture opens with MacDougal scaling a New York skyscraper in order to steal a priceless Rembrandt. Or at least we think it's MacDougal. At any rate, the heist catches the attention of a foxy agent with a prestigious New York insurance company. Gin (Catherine Zeta-Jones), it seems, has been on Mac's trail for some time. She tells her boss (an unusually sedate Will Patton) she's sure Mac is the only man alive with the moves smooth enough to have pulled off the Rembrandt job and begs him to let her go after him. The boss, who has a little crush on Gin, is skeptical. He already sent two of his best agents after Mac, and they vanished without a trace. Yes, she says, "But they were men."

Indeed, the one thing Gin is not is a man. Mac notices this, too, and, before long, the two have partnered up to steal a precious gold mask. Up to this point, nearly every aspect of this phenomenally dull movie is phenomenally routine. As expected, there is a bit of sexy banter between the male and female leads, most of it barbed and all of it designed to make it look as if the two can't stand the sight of one another. But there is not even the slightest trace of freshness or originality in either the script -- which was written by Ron Bass and William Broyles from a story by Michael Hertzberg and Ron Bass -- or in Amiel's stodgy direction.

As an actor, Connery has established great reserves of goodwill with his audience, but he seems determined to do nothing except cash in on it. The problem is, he has been doing that so long now that he's just about emptied the tank. (When was the last time he was actually good in a film?) And, first with The Mask of Zorro and now this, Zeta-Jones seems to have proved that her talents extend to the decorative and no further.

Her best scenes here are the ones in which she gets to put her athletic ability (and her pert bottom) on display. It would be impossible to say that she and Connery generate any heat together. Throughout most of the picture, the partners have played by Mac's rule, which is, "Nothing personal." And to convince themselves that they are making the right decision, they keep telling themselves, over and over, "Alone is good. Alone is good." And if that's not bad enough, the dialogue further sabotages Connery in his big romantic moment with his co-star by having him stammer out the line, "My situation is so ... complicated." Never before has this great actor seemed so unmanned.

The finale of the picture takes us to Kuala Lumpur, where they keep the world's tallest building and the really big money. The amount? A cool $8 million, which we get to see our heroes download as one millennium gives way to another. In addition to being anticlimactic, this last section has the added feature of being entirely incomprehensible, both in its action and in its relationships. Ving Rhames has a small part (mercifully) as (we think) Mac's good friend, but, ultimately, everything is left so scrambled that we don't know exactly who is allied with whom. What we're left with, finally, is a maddening feeling of frustration. We are told what the title means, though. "Entrapment" is what a cop does to a crook. Maybe. But it's also what you feel watching a woefully unremarkable movie.

Opens April 30.
-- Hal Hinson

PIZZICATA
Written and directed by Edoardo Winspeare

Documentary filmmaker Edoardo Winspeare's first feature takes its name, its rhythm and much of its spirit from the musical tradition of his birthplace, the Salentino peninsula of Southern Italy. The pizzica is a folk dance that comes in three highly symbolic variations, each continued on next pagecontinued from previous pageof which is seen in the film and mirrored in its tragic, romantic story. In the first, the pizzica de core, a man and woman circle each other suggestively but are never allowed to actually touch. The second, the danza della scherma, is a mock sword battle performed by two men. Whereas these two dances have their counterpart in other folk cultures, the third dance, the pizzica tarantata, is a strange ritual with an almost primitive history, dating from a time in which women suffering from a variety of mental or emotional disorders of the sort that used to be labeled "hysteria" were believed to have been bitten by a poisonous spider. Possessed by the creature, they were encouraged to perform a convulsive, exorcising dance for days at a time while praying to St. Paul for release. Every year on June 29 the tarantate of the Salento villages would re-create their possession in the town square.

Pizzicata takes place in the summer of 1943. World War II is dragging on, adding more hardship to the lives of the already struggling peasant farmers. An American plane is shot down, and the surviving pilot, Tony Marciano (Fabio Frascaro), is found and nursed back to health by Carmine Pantaleo (a fine performance by Cosimo Cinieri, the only professional actor in the cast), a widower who lives with his three daughters. Tony, who was born in a nearby village and moved to the U.S. as a child, is introduced to villagers as a distant cousin of the Pantaleos and soon finds himself falling in love not only with the country of his ancestors but with Carmine's engaged daughter Cosima (Chiara Torelli, whom the press notes say has since become a dentist, brings a proud, natural beauty to the role).

As a celebration/re-creation of Italy's peasant culture, Pizzicata joins -- and is perhaps overshadowed by -- the films of Francesco Rosi, the Taviani brothers and others, though Winspeare's portrait of rural life is motivated more by an emotional affinity and less by ideological interests than his predecessors. Similarly, it could be said that his sympathetic depiction of wartime Italy shares with Bernardo Bertolucci's Novecento (1976) (and to some degree Life is Beautiful) an interest in reclaiming the country's cultural past from the nightmare of 20th-century history. The fascists, villains in Bertolucci's film, are barely seen, and the war itself, although much discussed, is only a vague, distant threat. The villagers mourn the loss of their young men but seem indifferent to the outcome. Having no faith in either side, Carmine tries to protect his daughters from Tony's rosy description of a prosperous New York, loudly insisting, "In my family, nobody needs America for work."

Surprisingly, this wartime Romeo and Juliet never quite becomes the melodrama you keep expecting. Though the elements are there, Winspeare is more interested in sensuality than in pathos, filtering the story of the growing love between Cosima and Tony through the latter's hesitant discovery of the country and its customs. There is a sense of distance in Winspeare's handling of their story, a feeling that the young lovers are being helplessly carried along by the predetermined motions of the pizzica. The film avoids the pitfalls of melodramatic cliche by following its more intense and timeless rhythm.

In Italian with English subtitles.
Plays at 8 p.m. April 30-May 2 at Webster University.
-- Robert Hunt

IDLE HANDS
Directed by Rodman Flender

The most surprising thing about the new teensploitation horror film Idle Hands is the lack of masturbation jokes. It is a movie about a 17-year-old boy who loses control of his right hand to an evil demon, yet there's only one such obvious crack. As the gloriously lazy hero, Anton (Devon Sawa), prepares to slice off his possessed paw with a bagel guillotine, he explains why he's attached to his other hand: He needs it for channel surfing, lighting up his bong and "relieving tension." And when his friends (both zombies back from the dead) leave to get a first-aid kit -- "And burritos!" -- it's obvious that the film is answering to a higher power, that it's not a metaphorical trip into teenage sexuality or tedium or toilet humor. This, horror fans, is a good old-fashioned monster movie.

Amid a frenzy of films pitched at the wallets of today's teenagers, we're seeing young stars crammed into dozens of well-worn plots and genres, with mixed results. But this shot at the good old days of gory, over-the-top horror flicks -- '50s werewolf movies, Sam Raimi and Roger Corman stuff from the -'80s -- nails the mood of the moment: Enough, already, with that aging-Gen-X-irony-and-self-reference-Scream thing and the tedious stalking of Jennifer Love Hewitt. This wry and surprisingly high-gloss production brings back the good stuff: zombies, latex body parts, screaming women on altars, errant eyeballs and guys with no necks trying to eat burritos. Director Rodman Flender, a Corman disciple, revels as much in the mundanity of the teen years as in the biology of the dismembered. But the script keeps these disturbing images behind such a smart layer of detached humor that the whole thing comes off as a lively, if empty, romp in the plasma.

Somehow -- and who cares exactly how -- Anton's right hand becomes possessed by a demon that forces him to kill and kill again, starting with his parents and his basement-dwelling stoner buddies (Seth Green and Elden Henson). All this happens without his leaving the house or even putting on pants. His pals, too lazy to trek through a bright afterlife tunnel surrounded by "uncool music -- like Enya," return, and crash on the sofa, as zombies with makeup right out of Night of the Living Dead, one with a beer bottle stuck in his temple and the other holding his own head. The hand then goes after a nubile next-door love interest (Jessica Alba), while Anton searches for answers about "evil" from a metal-head neighbor wearing a Quiet Riot muscle shirt.

The possessed-hand metaphor has seen a good run in horror films but usually as a serious psychological device: Tortured pianists lose control of their digits in both Mad Love (1935) and The Beast with Five Fingers (1947), and Oliver Stone's The Hand (1981) tells of a flawed cartoonist. Anton is just lazy. That's all. The metaphor is simple. There's something grotesquely fascinating about a man who can't stop his own hand from performing unspeakable acts, and Sawa stretches this extreme bored-evil duality into some great slapstick moments.

Just about nothing in this film is original, but it borrows so well from the classics that it seems almost natural for George A. Romero's blue-faced zombies to go to the school dance with the cast of Dazed and Confused. Fans of Raimi's Evil Dead movies, perhaps the best examples of latex/slapstick horror, will feel right at home in the landscape of vaguely silly terror. And instead of simply updating an old story with a young cast -- as the bland, very-Stepford Disturbing Behavior did last year -- Idle Hands slyly swipes and parodies, skewering, for example, the cliched high-school-dance finale featuring some hot band. (The Offspring! Squeal!)

But this fun comes at a price. The characters' total disregard for the living, the dead or the undead can get under your skin, especially when coupled with their constant puffing of pot. Anton doesn't notice that his parents are dead for days, and one zombie passes the time throwing Cheetos into the mouth of his buddy's lopped-off head. But the, um, lovable Seth Green (Oz on Buffy and Scott Evil in Austin Powers) pulls off a cool little asshole zombie so lackadaisical and chummy that you kind of want to sit in his basement smoking weed and eating Cheetos, too.

You still don't care when he dies, though. Or when anybody dies. They all deserve it, or maybe they don't. Nothing's clear, nothing matters, and the outrageous violence is only slightly quelled by the kids' postmodern detachment from it: It's not really happening. During the climactic battle against evil (we're not giving anything away here, believe me), the hand just quietly disintegrates. No explosions. No squealing. No coming back for more. Green's zombie protests: "What -- is that it?" He's watching the movie, too, and he's just a little disappointed.

Opens April 30.
-- Glenn Gaslin

HUMAN RIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL: PROGRAM 5
The Human Rights Film Festival at Webster University concludes this Tuesday with two distinctly different works: a cliched East German fictional film paired with an insightful, 60-minute nonfiction video. Showing little originality and bogged down by a sluggish pace, Coming Out melodramatically chronicles social prejudice against and personal struggles with homosexuality. Promoted as "the first and last East German film about gays," Coming Out remains superficial and banal. By contrast, Crossroads explores new territory, thematically and geographically, interviewing refugees in and neighbors of Benaco, a West Tanzanian boomtown. This 1997 documentary from the Netherlands marvels at human adaptability while never minimizing the devastating impact refugees have on receiving communities.

A 1989 production that shows its age, Coming Out begins with 19-year-old Mathias Seifert whisked to an emergency room where he bemoans his homosexuality as the cause of his overdose. In flashback, his and lover Philipp Klarmann's story unfolds. Philipp, a newly hired high-school teacher, initiates an intimate relationship with a female colleague. Determined, Philipp denies and resists but, eventually, can't repress his attraction to men despite having to face his mother's and societal disapproval.

Unfortunately, writer Wolfram Witt and director Heiner Carow focus on trite bar scenes of casual sex and outrageous transvestites, exploiting the voyeuristic aspects of what they otherwise fail to explore in any meaningful way. The handsome young Philipp fights his demons through tedious, dull dialogue punctuated with boring pauses. The predominance of long shots keeps us at a distance -- not contemplating the bewildering predicament and rampant injustice, but impatient for the inevitable capitulation. When Philipp finally makes a heroic stand before school evaluators, the film elides the important, confrontational moment. A half-hour shorter with much less studied reserve, Coming Out may have personalized one man's struggle. Instead, it reinforces the negative, tortured gay stereotype in thoroughly unimaginative ways.

In striking contrast, Hillie Molenaar and Joop Van Wijk's Crossroads particularizes repercussions of the Hutu-Tutsi tribal war from a novel perspective: the country inundated with refugees. After briefly establishing the precipitating horror, including the thousands of corpses (many mutilated) clogging the local river, the focus turns to the refugee camp and its dichotomous micro-society. In addition to creating numerous business opportunities for local Tanzanians, the refugees severely alter the physical environment: denuding the landscape, exhausting food supplies and occupying all available spaces in hospitals, schools and empty houses. Criminals strain local police and judicial systems while a woman who ran a beauty parlor in Rwanda rents optimistic brides the one good wedding dress she's salvaged.

Through first-person interviews and camp footage, a complex picture emerges of this lovely land sustaining cataclysmic changes. Letting the Tanzanians and the refugees speak for themselves (from an insurance salesman to orphaned children), Crossroads calmly but powerfully delineates the ripple effect of any such forced mass migration. This glimpse behind and beyond the headlines brings this year's festival to a fitting close, encouraging us to demand more analytical media coverage of all such issues.

Coming Out, in German with English subtitles, plays at 7 p.m. and Crossroads, in Swahili with English subtitles, at 9 p.m. May 4 at Webster University.

-- Diane Carson

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