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Women on the Verge 

Different kinds of wars come to the home front in two new films

André Téchiné's Strayed seems to be this summer's definition of a sleeper, foreign-language division. The French drama opened several weeks ago in a few major U. S. cities with little fanfare. And why should there be any hoopla? It's a modest, essentially conventional movie with nothing flashy or sensational about it. Set in the early days of World War II, the story concerns a widow with two children who accepts the assistance of an illiterate young delinquent while escaping Paris--and believe it or not, there's not even a mention of the Holocaust.

Yet, all its remoteness from current fashion notwithstanding, the film has emerged as a slowly building word-of-mouth hit. What's the draw? Well, its prospects certainly aren't hurt by the oblique love story at its center or by the sparks between its two leads, the famously beautiful Emmanuelle Béart and heartthrob du jour Gaspard Ulliel. What really sets the movie apart, though, is a combination of virtues that's hard to find in the French or any other cinema these days: subtle intelligence, enthrallingly deft storytelling and expert execution in every department.

Téchiné, who started out as a critic, has made a name for himself for his direction of grande femmes such as Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and now Béart (they did one previous film together, 1991's I Don't Kiss). Like George Cukor, Josef von Sternberg and other directors famous for their collaboration with actresses, he has a flair for sensual atmospherics and supple characterizations, as well as a way with the temporal details of period drama. That those strengths don't depend on formidable female stars was proved by his 1994 U.S. breakthrough, Wild Reeds, which concerned a group of adolescents during France's Algerian conflict of the early '60s.

Wild Reeds became famous in certain circles for the fact it was passed over by all of America's leading art-distributors, then, once little Strand Releasing picked it up and released it, it not only turned into a substantial indie-level hit but won what might be called the critical triple crown, being named the year's best foreign film by the National Society of Film Critics as well as the New York and Los Angeles critics associations. Distributors have not underestimated Téchiné since then, yet the fact that Strayed--which now bids to become his biggest American success since Wild Reeds--was so little heralded indicates again how understated his appeal is.

While some directors delight in ostentatious complexity, Téchiné pursues the kind of simplicity that looks far easier to accomplish than it usually is. As Strayed opens, people are desperately scrambling along the rural roads of France in 1940, and our attention gradually focuses on a car containing Odile (Béart) and her two kids, Philippe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and Cathy (Clémence Meyer). When German planes zoom in to strafe and bomb the refugees, Odile loses her car while others lose their lives. It's a scene that might have called for loads of special effects and hysterical agonizing, yet the clipped, restrained way that Téchiné stages it makes the episode's horror stunningly matter-of-fact and thus unnervingly real.

He displays the same economy in describing emotional dynamics. Odile and her kids, after fleeing the road and the burning hulk of her car, haven't been in the woods long when they encounter Yvan (Ulliel), a rough-mannered 17-year-old who seems to have escaped from a reformatory of some sort--he is and remains vague about his exact background. When he tentatively offers the family his help, Odile gruffly rejects it, and Yvan responds with a kindred prickliness. All of this only takes a minute or two of screen time, yet we're quickly led to see how very wary and needy both Odile and Yvan are. Of course, since need outweighs fear in this situation, they don't part company.

Instead, they forge onward and eventually find an abandoned, shuttered manor house which Yvan expertly breaks into. Here the drama's tone suddenly shifts. The feeling of being chased like an animal, vulnerable on all sides, gives way to stasis and a strange, very tenuous sense of security. The old house becomes a temporary home to an improvised family made up of a young widow, two children and a protective stranger whose role, of course, is oddly ambiguous--oldest child, substitute father, or perhaps would-be suitor?

No wonder Odile retains her wariness; Yvan's place is to be both comforting and potentially explosive. When she finds out that he has a pistol and a hand grenade, she buries them in the garden and refuses to tell him where. He is left to wonder what he'll defend her with if danger suddenly intrudes from without. It's a dilemma with no easy answer.

As much as the evolving dance between Odile and Yvan occupies story-center, Téchiné's skills are sometimes most evident in the care he expends on marginal incidents and secondary issues. Philippe, for instance, who is 13, is at once poised between childhood and adolescence and torn between his mother's natural protectiveness and the example of Yvan's masculine strength. The shaded way Téchiné describes the boy's shifting alliances, together with the superb performance he elicits from young Leprince-Ringuet, are chief among Strayed's distinctive subtleties.

You will have gathered that Téchiné's film is not out to deliver a grand statement on war or identity, or to dazzle us with its stylistic bravado. Like many great French movies of yore, it describes an éducation sentimentale in which the flickering emotional and psychological movements of its characters are sensitively evoked and minutely charted. And what's most compelling, finally, is not that the two main characters end up achieving the equally torrid and poignant romantic conjunction that you would expect, given that this is a French film.

Rather, the film's chief satisfactions lie in the elegant precision of Téchinés mounting. There are few films in which virtually every individual moment, scene and element seem necessary and perfectly pitched, but Strayed is such a sterling example of that rare breed that it could be used as a college textbook in smart, graceful filmmaking. Recalling the most lyrical of François Truffaut's films as well as such pre-New Wave classics as René Clément's Forbidden Games, this a modest film whose achievements are anything but modest.

Frank Oz's The Stepford Wives arrived after months of bad advance karma, thanks to the tabloids. The cast supposedly fought with each other and with the director; the studio ordered last-minute reshoots; etc. So much for the gossip. Auguries aside, Oz's film reminds us that comedies large and small end up judged by a single exacting standard, which might be expressed thusly: If it's funny, it flies; if not, it dies.

Fortunately for those looking for entertainment rather than schadenfreude, The Stepford Wives is alive and airborne, which is to say that it's funny often enough and consistently enough to leave most audiences coming out of the theater wearing smiles. It is nonetheless a rather strange sort of pop comedy for this or any other movie season.

It's based, first off, on a '70s movie that wasn't a comedy at all. Adapted from a novel by Ira Levin, the creator of Rosemary's Baby, the original Stepford was a dark, quasi-feminist satire cum horror film in which the women of a plush Connecticut town were revealed to be automatons.

This time out, the same story is played for yuks. Nicole Kidman stars as the sleek, granite-hard head of a TV network who loses her job when one of her reality shows verges from cruelty into casualties. Persuaded by her befuddled hubby (Matthew Broderick) to take their kids and start anew in suburban Stepford, our heroine is alarmed to find her new hometown populated by mindless Barbie Doll babes and their smug, weirdly controlling husbands. She tries to stay immune by wearing Manhattan black and hanging out with the burg's only Jew (Bette Midler) and flamboyant gay (Roger Bart). But such protective measures only delay what seems inevitable: Stepford's conquest of every new arrival.

Funny it is--at least more so than you might expect. Oz's storybook visual approach together with Paul Rudnick's biting dialogue and the actors' uniformly solid work (the cast also includes Glenn Close, Christopher Walken and Jon Lovitz) add up to a high-concept Hollywood comedy that works better than many of its overblown ilk.

But what's it up to thematically? Is it somehow an allegory for the post-feminist era? I think not. Rather, the film seems to contain two conceptual mainsprings, both rather questionable in that they hinge on validating different sorts of prejudice: first, Manhattanites' sense that all of America beyond the George Washington bridge is plastic and poisonous; second, the aversion of some gays to the sexuality of women in particular and heterosexuals in general.

If the latter element--which includes a comic misogyny akin to that in Pedro Almodóvar's overpraised Talk to Her--were reversed in terms of sexual orientation, it would no doubt draw complaints of homophobia. But when was a movie ever denounced as heterophobic? In fact, this is the way sectors of our pop culture have worked for a long time: Middle Americans are assaulted with entertainments that skewer and deride Middle America, and guess what? They love 'em! Some might say that's due to "self-loathing," but I'd suggest that it's in fact a kind of self-confidence that allows them to find flattery and reinforcement even in derision, and to put entertainment value above. If it's funny, it flies ....

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  • Different kinds of wars come to the home front in two new films

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