Film Scouts Diaries

1995 Montreal Film Festival Diaries
Montreal Diary #5

by David Sterritt

August 29, 1995

"The Wife" was written and directed by Tom Noonan, who made the fascinating "What Happened Was..." a year or so ago, and once again the subject is a small number of people spending a generally rotten evening together. Only this time Noonan ups the ante, giving us four characters instead of two - an unhappy couple visiting New Age-ish psychotherapists at their home in the country - and he experiments much more ambitiously with editing and mise-en-scene as expressive devices that mirror the emotional confusions roiling up the story.

Whatever one's opinion of the film - most people I've talked with like it less than I do, although everyone agrees it has worthwhile aspects - it strikes me as exactly the sort of picture that serious-minded critics should vigorously support. Its flaws aren't hard to find, even for an admirer like me: Some of the dialogue is stagy, the performances are uneven, sometimes the characters are too transparent and other times they're as hard to figure out as the obscure motivations that drive them. Yet these shortcomings are functions of Noonan's willingness to take extraordinary risks, building a dramatic situation that's as murky and mercurial as life itself - just the opposite of what most movies do with their conventionally structured scenarios and calculated cinematic strategies, all aimed at guiding us through a story that meticulously avoids the human complexities and contradictions that Noonan is obsessed with. John Cassavetes was the greatest master of such high-risk filmmaking, and while his best films operate on a much higher level than "The Wife," it's exciting to find another artist who uses cinema not to gloss over the mysteries of human personality but to grapple with them before our very eyes. Three cheers for Noonan and the performers who join him in the film: Julie Hagerty as the other psychiatrist, Wallace Shawn as their grumpy patient, and Karen Young as his troubled wife.

Peter has done such an excellent job of drumming up interest in his movie by keeping after us critics every chance he gets - all part of the filmmaking game, which he plays with infectious enthusiasm. His storytelling skills aren't up to the complicated yarn he's chosen to spin, about a teenage boy who explores his evolving sexuality while feuding with his mean-spirited father, getting friendly with a pretty English teacher, and fantasizing about a rich girl who's busy getting an abortion in the movie's main subplot. The picture's best qualities are its admirably complex portrayal of adolescent sexuality, its ability to find a wide range of interests in an unpromising small-town setting, and its creative use of rock music (by Gang of Four, mostly) on the high-energy sound track. Hall himself has a realistic grasp of what works in the movie, what doesn't, and why, and shows every sign of being a young filmmaker to watch.

After these psychologically ambitious pictures, it was nice to round out the day with "Cold Comfort Farm" as directed by John Schlesinger, whose prolific career has ranged from the quirkiness of "Billy Liar" and "Midnight Cowboy" to the brooding moods of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Far From the Madding Crowd," among many other movies. True to its material, based on a Stella Gibbons novel that was also filmed years ago as a BBC miniseries that I like more than Schlesinger does, the new "Cold Comfort Farm" is a pure and simple romp, capering with engagingly high spirits through the tale of a privileged young woman who comes to live on the most dismal chunk of countryside in England, inhabited by sundry cranks and presided over by a crazy old woman who once "saw something nasty in the woodshed" and hasn't gotten over this in the several decades since. Schlesinger has directed the comedy very broadly, underscoring every important line and gesture in deference to the TV audience it was made for. It's not a great picture, but it has the classical lines and crisp production values of an old-fashioned "tradition of quality" entertainment - the kind of thing George Cukor and company used to knock off with ease and assurance in Hollywood's studio days. Schlesinger tells me he considers it the first "feel-good" film he's ever made, and sure enough, I found it refreshing fun.

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