Complacent Comedies
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 4 2002 4:30 PM

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Dear Friends,

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Sarah, I never said contempt was the same as intelligence, and I take the point of Ghost World to be that Enid learns the difference and emerges from her shell of defensive solipsism into a greater awareness of the world around her. But thank you for reminding me of Together, another movie that struck me close to home, and Va Savoir, which ingeniously conceals its comic identity until it's more than half over. Elvis and I had many laughs about that pull quote. ("Hey, let's go see that Va Savoir thing, the Times says it's ephemeral." "Cool!")

Speaking of ephemeral pleasures, I can't believe this club is nearly over. This seems to me the ideal way to practice criticism, though perhaps not the easiest way to read it. Each of the past few nights (except when I was out getting drunk with David) I've lain awake reeling off lists of movies we haven't mentioned, or honing stair-spirit ripostes to various of your points. I like that we're ending with a parade of noteworthy performances since the work that actors do is so primary to the art form and so often slighted or overlooked.

I liked Gwyneth Paltrow a lot in both Shallow Hal and The Royal Tenenbaums, but the performance that really proved to me what a canny actress she is came in The Anniversary Party, a movie I found nearly unwatchable for its playwriting 101 conceit and its avalanche of actorly indulgence. Into that endless Hollywood Hills pity-party came the golden Gwyneth, playing a young actress on the rise (looked on with great suspicion by Jennifer Jason Leigh and slathering interest by Alan Cumming). Paltrow did with this role what nobody else in the picture had the wit to do with theirs, which was to show us an ordinary human being in an awkward social situation. She not only played the most likable and least self-consciously neurotic character in the movie, but also gave the most likable and least neurotically self-conscious performance.

Other performances that linger in my mind: Kerry Washington in Jim McKay's Our Song, a quiet story of three friends growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. (My eyes mist over whenever I think of the last shot of that movie, with Washington looking out the window of a subway train as it emerges into sunlight.) Brian Cox as the friendly suburban pedophile in L.I.E. Juliette Binoche and Daniel Autieul in The Widow of St. Pierre, Patrice Leconte's grand costume melodrama. And, though I mentioned her before, Charlotte Rampling in Under the Sand, which makes one realize (for the 800th time) how systematically the movies—including In the Bedroom—neglect or dismiss the sexuality of middle-aged women.

On—or back—to comedy. Va Savoir, Taste of Others, and a number of other recent French movies—not all of them comedies—unfold in an orderly bourgeois world of love affairs and dinner parties, where everyone lives in a lovely but not too lovely apartment full of books and is an actor or a philosophy professor or a violin teacher. It seems to be a world still rooted in traditional forms and courtesies, in which the class domination on which those forms were historically based has softened, leaving behind a residue of taste and manners that keeps life interesting enough for light comedy or domestic melodrama. (There is, of course, another strain in current French cinema devoted to dealing with poverty, exploitation, and the collapse of social cohesion in the harshest terms, but that's another story.) The world in Va Savoir does not seem far removed from the world of '30s studio comedy or 18th-century French or English stage comedy. Whether or not the Paris of Va Savoir actually exists—any more than the Paris of Midnight or Marivaux existed—is beside the point. They can be plausibly counterfeited.

Va Savoir depicts—and perhaps arises from—a society that appears fundamentally complacent, a word often applied post-9/11 to the pre-9/11 U.S.A. But the '90s felt to me like an era of dizzying, rushing confusion, of enormous changes in the nature of work, the rules of sexual conduct, conceptions of identity, political alignments, and on and on. I think what I was trying to get at in the final-exam-style question David quoted back to me was whether what we called "high comedy" (which used to be called "polite comedy") is possible in the happy (or horrifying, depending on your mood and point of view) social tumult of American capitalism. And the corollary question is: If such comedy is in fact made impossible by social conditions, is that such a bad thing? Built into the history of the words "polite" and "vulgar" (and implicit in the ideas of high and low) is a cultural elitism whose demise should perhaps be welcomed. Not only does the guy get the girl at the end of Shallow Hal, but democracy triumphs as well!

I must go now to prepare a longer version of this post for submission to The Journal of Marxist Aesthetics.

This has been an invigorating start to the year, which I hope brings you all good health and good movies.

Yours,
Tony

A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.