The Movie Club

Asia Argento's Unforgettable Sex Scene
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2009 5:13 PM

The Movie Club

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Dear All,

Jessica's comparison of the post-intervention face of an unnamed European actress to "a freshly laminated ID card" may say it all when it comes to cosmetic surgery and the movies. Faces that have been flash-frozen by Botox injections and other procedures turn into representations of themselves: not Nicole Kidman's face but "Nicole Kidman's face," which reminds you of its familiar Kidman-ness while failing to go anyplace new. I've read that the first act of social cognition a baby is capable of is reading the expressions on a human face; it's a skill that's so primal, so necessary to our survival, that it precedes the ability to walk or talk. Little wonder that as moviegoers, we're disturbed when a familiar face (seen on a scale even larger than a mother must seem to her baby) takes on that inexpressive, masklike quality.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens
Jeannette Catsoulis writes about film for the New York Times, Reverse Shot, and Las Vegas CityLife. Lisa Schwarzbaum is a movie critic at Entertainment Weekly. Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic. Jessica Winter is the film critic and senior editor at O, the Oprah MagazineStephanie Zacharek is a senior writer and film critic for Salon.
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About Happy-Go-Lucky:As Mike Leigh was accepting a best director award for the film last night from the New York Film Critics' Circle, he referred slightingly to the critics who just didn't get the film's "elusive, fluid" quality, who expected it to hew to a more conventional trajectory. I'm afraid I may be one of those philistines. Delightful as Sally Hawkins was in the lead, and pleasurable as the movie felt scene by scene, I found Happy-Go-Lucky to be something of an artistic copout on the terms that Leigh himself set. The fantastic story line with the angry, racist driving instructor, which seemed to be building toward some climactic moment of psychic, if not physical, confrontation between Hawkins and Eddie Marsan, just sort of petered out in that penultimate scene in which (SPOILER ALERT) she defuses his rage and goes on her merry way. How does she do it? By being the same kind, compassionate, irritating kook she's been through the entire movie. So why, within the film's own logic of steadily increasing tension between the two, would Poppy's magic suddenly work this time? It's not that I was hoping for a bloody confrontation; I was grateful for any movie this year that didn't, in Jeanette's words, "draw all its energy from death." But treating Poppy's optimism not only as a life strategy but as a kind of healing panacea seemed a way of sanctifying the character. And people—especially characters as complex as those written by Mike Leigh—are so much more interesting when they're not saints.

One defiantly unsaintly example was Jacques Nolot, the writer/director/star of Before I Forget, which made Stephanie's 10-best list. This stringently unsentimental exploration of sexagenarian gay life did a far better job of evoking the cosmic indignities of the aging body than did Charlie Kaufman's grandly ambitious, occasionally sublime, but near-unwatchable Synecdoche, New York. As the HIV-positive ex-hustler reduced to paying for sex and sponging meals off wealthy friends, Nolot was self-pitying, calculating, irredeemable … and deeply, movingly alive. So, for that matter, was Jason Segel, standing naked and heartbroken in a doorway in the first five minutes of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And Ghost Town's Téa Leoni and Ricky Gervais, oddly matched though they are, (SPOILER ALERT) may have been the only romantic-comedy couple of the year who you could actually imagine having decent sex. Surely the Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson of Marley & Me would slide off each other like Teflon spatulas.

As for Jeanette's list of waterworks moments: The most unexpected one of the year for me came in Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress, when Asia Argento, in a thoroughly bizarre and unforgettable turn as a cigar-smoking Spanish courtesan, had wild sex with her lover as their child's funeral pyre burned beside them in the North African desert. It was so overwritten and lurid and absurd and yet … Niagara. All of Angelina's pious mourning for her lost boy in The Changeling couldn't touch the unhinged wildness of that scene of maternal grief. The Last Mistress was a whacked-out treatise on gender, power, and obsession disguised as a period costume drama, and I loved every perverse minute.

Lisa, you're up next: What made you cry in spite of yourself this year? What made you laugh? And can I get anyone to join me on the Clint-Eastwood-is-overrated train?

Curiously,
Dana

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