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Heroes and horndogs 

Two men chase the sweet life, with comic and tragic results

click to enlarge Romain Duris as Xavier and Kelly Reilly as Wendy in Russian Dolls - PHOTO BY JEROME PLON, COURTESY OF IFC
  • Photo by Jerome Plon, Courtesy of IFC
  • Romain Duris as Xavier and Kelly Reilly as Wendy in Russian Dolls

The experience of watching Cédric Klapisch's Russian Dolls is something like leafing through an extra-thick issue of Vanity Fair. While the articles are top-notch dispatches from the world's best journalists, what the magazine really has to offer is class. Not only can you read crackling accounts of carnage in far-off lands, but in between there are the profiles of elegant human thoroughbreds like Cate Blanchett, and then there are the ads of beautiful young people wearing clothes that most of us can't really afford, and even if we could we wouldn't wear them with any confidence.

And though Vanity Fair is an American magazine, it doesn't feel very American (even if you include the magazine's reporting from New York and Los Angeles). Instead, the book exudes lust for all things European. And that brings us back to Russian Dolls, an account of a hack writer and commitment-phobe who responds to his impending 30th birthday by having sex with an impressive succession of beauties in three different nations. Ordinary life isn't good enough, and it's that fear of the quotidian that prevents him from working on his novel and keeps him chasing sensual gratification from France to England to Russia. Life can't really be lived like this, but Russian Dolls makes you believe it could be so, just like that issue of Vanity Fair.

Russian Dolls is the sequel to L'Auberge Espagnole, a hit from 2001 that told the story of a multinational group of post-collegiate kids hanging out in Barcelona. That mélange was seen through the eyes of Xavier, a naïve Frenchman and aspiring writer. As Russian Dolls opens, Xavier (played by Romain Duris, recently seen in The Beat My Heart Skipped) is still our tour guide. He informs us that five years have passed, and that the members of the old crew are barreling into their 30th year. At present, Xavier is patching together a living by ghostwriting memoirs by non-literary, sub-literate celebrities. He's also living platonically with Martine (Audrey Tautou), who has a young child and an endless line of failed relationships. In fact, the only man the fetching Martine can't lure to her bed is Xavier, whose indifference to her charms would be impossible to swallow anywhere outside of this movie.

In Xavier's voiceover narration, he informs us that the occasion for this film will be a wedding in St. Petersburg between two minor members of the clique. As it turns out, it is the promise of that day of happiness that provides this film's slender momentum. Xavier yields to temptation again and again, prostituting his alleged literary gifts for soap opera producers and a world-famous model who is producing her autobiography at the age of 24. Along the way, Xavier puts the moves on a Senegalese shopgirl (Aïssa Maïga) and a fiercely charismatic lesbian (Cécile de France, similarly cast in last year's High Tension). When true love beckons in the fair visage of colleen Wendy (Kelly Reilly), she proves to be a little too plain for our dreamer.

It may be difficult to work up much sympathy for Xavier, particularly when he makes a nearly unpardonable error late in the film, but Klapisch knows how to shoot his actors and how to frame his images--his film has real beauty in it, and some marvelous scenes. (De France and Reilly, in particular, each have well written moments in which they really shine.) Klapisch's vision of Europe may be that of a travel brochure, but it's still a place we want to visit. However, Russian Dolls may leave Americans feeling somewhat inferior--and left out. While we fight our grim religious wars at home and abroad, the European continent keeps the party hopping with its master race of liberal, affluent people who are statuesque, mobile and multilingual.

In its depiction of a young writer hopelessly besotted with the feminine ideal, Russian Dolls is only the latest in a venerable tradition made most famous by François Truffaut and Federico Fellini. As the aesthete-lover, Duris even bears a faint, archetypal resemblance to the equally shallow Jean-Pierre Léaud, Truffaut's alter ego. While Klapisch grants his women more autonomy and intelligence than the 1960s director heroes did, the bottom line hasn't really changed: The world is full of beautiful women, and life cannot begin until one has bedded as many as possible. As the slogan on the T-shirt worn by the African beauty reads, "Que serait le monde sans les filles?" What would the world be without girls? Even the righteously politicized Jean-Luc Godard wouldn't conceive of a bleaker scenario.

Russian Dolls opens Friday in select theaters.

Hollywoodland is a movie the world has not been dying to see. A cheesy has-been actor, George Reeves, gets famous for a time as the television Superman. A few years later, with the show cancelled and a career in professional wrestling just around the corner, Reeves kills himself. The bored cops shown wandering around the crime scene at the film's outset have it right: "Faster than a speeding bullet," one says with a roll of the eyes.

What follows is the latest version of that most durable genre, the story of burnout, failure and death in Hollywood. The talented writers who began working in Hollywood in the 1930s--F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, Clifford Odets, James Cain and Raymond Chandler, to name a few--were all fascinated by the Hollywood dream factory and the desperate people who arrived daily to hurl themselves at the gate. Some great work has been created from this desperation, especially The Day of the Locust by Nathanial West and What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg. One of the best of the more recent books is James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, which has been adapted by Brian De Palma and is being released next week.

But those are just the novels. Hollywood has made many fine films about its own corruption and rot, including The Sweet Smell of Success, In a Lonely Place, Mulholland Drive and the film that most clearly inspires Hollywoodland, Sunset Boulevard. But Hollywoodland will not be long remembered after the coming and going of a likely Oscar nomination for Diane Lane, who plays Toni Mannix, an over-the-hill temptress who keeps company with Reeves through his Superman glory years while also being married to the big man at MGM. Lane, the onetime teen movie diva (The Outsiders, Streets of Fire), is now undeniably middle-aged, the period in which women known primarily for their beauty begin to be taken seriously as actors, à la Virginia Madsen. Lane's performance is indeed touching--if derivative of Gloria Swanson's swan song--and it's the best and virtually only reason to see Hollywoodland.

As the man at the center of it all, Ben Affleck plays Reeves as the hapless lug he apparently was. He approaches the role with the lack of seriousness it deserves, but it's difficult for all but the most dedicated fanboys to muster up much feeling for the guy. The film, written by TV scribe Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter, attempts to solve this basic deficiency of drama by ginning up a mostly bogus controversy about whether the Reeves suicide was in fact a murder. Hence, Adrien Brody is summoned to play a fictitious private eye who takes the case at the behest of Reeves' semi-crazed mother. Brody is the usual cheapie private dick who spies on men's wives, and he has an ex-wife trying to cope with their young son who is bereft and angry over Reeves' suicide.

However strenuously the film contrives to make us feel the deep gravity of Reeves' death, the feeling remains that the expiration of his life was somewhat akin to a punctured balloon.

Hollywoodland opens Friday throughout the Triangle.


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