Monday, September 2, 2013

Anne Fontaine tweaks social conventions yet again in her most entertaining ADORE

Golly, that French gal's doin' it again! Yes, Anne Fontaine, she who has given us those movies that shove conventional bourgeois attitudes against the wall and then push just a bit more until -- whoops! -- the wall falls (I'm talking Dry Cleaning, Natalie, The Girl From Monaco) is back with a new movie that perhaps most aggressively of all her films flouts conventional society and conventional wisdom. (Even her Coco Before Chanel did this via -- not so much the movie itself but -- the character of Coco, who was nothing if not a woman who challenged convention.)

In ADORE (formerly titled, and for the better, I think, Two Mothers), Fontaine (pictured at left) and her writing collaborator Christopher Hampton take on Doris Lessing's novella, The Grandmothers. In the film two women, best friends who have grown up together since early childhood and have now seen each other through the death of one's husband and the upcoming separation from the other's, begin affairs with each other's adult son. This happens fairly early in the film and you cannot discuss the movie intelligently, I think, without also giving away at least this spoiler. How and why each couple's affair begins, however, is quite different, and that difference is what makes the film work--and very well indeed.

The cast could not, I think, be better, down to the smallest roles, though it is that front-and-center quartet -- plus one -- that nails the movie. The two women, Roz and Lil, are played respectively by Robin Wright (above, left) and Naomi Watts (above, right), both of whom are at the top of their game these days. They are partnered surprisingly well by two young hunks who can also act -- Xavier Samuel (below, right, as Lil's son, Ian) and James Frecheville, (below, left, as Roz's son, Tom) -- both of whom prove adept at double duty, playing at once sons and lovers. We expect this sort of skill from actors as seasoned as Wright and Watts, but Samuel and Frecheville, though called upon to feel and understand less, due to their callow youth, match the women in precisely the right way.

What makes the movie work so well (and what will probably drive the more bourgeois moviegoers crazy) is the matter-of-fact quality the film imparts, when dealing with this unusual four-way. After the press screening TrustMovies attended, one of his compatriots noted that, although the premise here is "melodramatically subversive, the actors are at times tasked with uttering lines better suited to a toss-off on whether to fix eggs sunnyside up or down." Exactly.

Once the affairs take hold, rather than give in to the expected melodrama, this crew treats it -- among themselves only: They realize they must keep this sort of thing "in the families" -- as expected behavior, which it quickly becomes. I found this smart, liberating and actually quite believable, given both the history of the two families and the location in which the film is set: a vastly beautiful and underpopulated Australian seaside town where no one locks a door and neighbors are few and even further between.

The fifth wheel here is Roz's husband, Harold, played by the fine Ben Mendelsohn (above, right), who acted opposite Mr. Frecheville in 2010's Animal Kingdom. Harold's acceptance of a better job in Sydney gives the foursome the space and freedom they need to further bond. Only when son Tom is also offered the opportunity to do some theater in Sydney do cracks begin to form in the quartet's little slice of perfection. (That's Jessica Tovey -- below, right -- playing a late-comer to our little group, and it's a mark of how extreme the situation and provocation of Ms Fontaine's film that it is an actress who begins an affair with her theater director who acts as our stand-in for conventional society.)

How things change and what these four do to keep somehow "on track" makes up the remainder of the film, which grows more intense and interesting as it moves along. Aging and age difference rear their heads, as does the need for procreation among the younger generation. At heart, though, the film is about passion and how to handle it when its strength trumps all convention.

I don't see how the performance of either Ms Watts or Ms Wright could be bettered. Mr. Samuel (shown three photos below), who starred in one of the best shark movies of the new millennium, Bait, and had a nice supporting role in Anonymous, registers here as strongly as I've yet seen. As for Mr. Frecheville, right, you'll hardly recognize him from either Animal Kingdom or his odd-but-effective turn in the under-seen The First Time. I suspect this young actor is a lot more versatile than we first imagined.

You can expect huge discord from the major critics a propos this film, which should have an effect on our more conventional male critics -- and some females, too -- in a similar manner as that ground-breaking film The Ledge had on those who must insistently believe in the existence of a god.

Ms Fontaine's films often end badly for those who go up against societal norms. The woman is a realist, after all; unconventionality has a price to pay. This time, however, we may have a kind of tie, or maybe stalemate. In the final moment, as the camera draws up and up, we see that our friends are exactly where they want to be. But at the same time, they are utterly cut off from the world.

What Ms Fontaine has given us here is above all else an "entertainment" (as Graham Greene might have called it): a movie that is sensual, sexual and surprising, featuring beautiful people in a setting gorgeous enough to take one's breath away. For this alone, it's must viewing. And all those thoughtful provocations? Think of Adore as a lovely, fresh-fruit cocktail laced with Aquavit.

The movie -- via Exclusive Media -- opens across the country this Friday, September 6, in theaters and on VOD. Click here, then scroll down, to locate the theater nearest you.

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