A Far Cry From Hollywood

Encountering Bertrand Tavernier's "Daddy Nostalgia" after a steady diet of high-decibel Hollywood films, you may experience cinematic culture shock. When was the last time you saw a movie that was quiet, intimate, tender? That let you explore your feelings about the characters without hanging moral signposts around their necks? That disregards plot in favor of nuance and sentiment, yet never becomes sentimental?

The director of "A Sunday in the Country" and "Round Midnight," working from a deeply personal script in both English and French by his ex-wife Coco Tavernier O'Hagan, has made a CinemaScope chamber piece for three superb players. The mercurial screenwriter daughter (Jane Birkin) of an urbane but selfish Englishman (Dirk Bogarde) and a French mother (Odette Laure) rushes to their villa on the Cote d'Azur when she learns her father has been hospitalized. She senses it may be the last opportunity she will have to break through to the man, a charming hedonist too caught up in his successful life to pay her much heed. The movie is about their belated reconciliation. Bathed in a lovely autumnal light, suffused with emotion, "Daddy Nostalgia" disdains melodrama for the hesitations and reversals of family feelings that can never be wholly articulated. In its understated way, Tavernier's warm, melancholy film gives us a glimpse of the sweetness of life and its terrible perishability.

The most highly acclaimed Chinese film in years, maybe ever--Zhang Yimou's gorgeously photographed tale of adulterous passion, "Ju Dou" - has never been publicly shown in China. The government, perhaps feeling the film failed to trumpet correct political values or objecting to its sexual content (modest by Western standards), even tried to get Hollywood to withdraw its Academy Award nomination for best foreign film.

"Ju Dou" is set in a dye factory in a small village in the 1920s where the owner, a cruel and impotent old man, beats his newly purchased wife for failing to bear him a son. She bears one nonetheless - with her secret lover, the old man's adopted nephew. This tale of festering lust, murder and grotesque retribution bears a strong resemblance to many a film noir plot. It's James Cain territory, with a bit of "The Bad Seed" thrown in in the form of the monstrous illegitimate child. But that may be only a superficial Western take on the movie. For director Zhang ("Red Sorghum"), radically departing from the Chinese movie tradition of heroic role models, "Ju Dou" illuminates the stifling traditionalism of Chinese culture, which forces his trapped lovers into a lifetime of hiding and deceit. Perhaps the cultural commissars detected a buried political allegory here. However you read it, there's no denying the classical beauty of Zhang's strong, clean filmmaking: even without subtitles, one would have no trouble following the primal emotions that charge this story, or responding to the stunning beauty of its star, Gong Li.

If it's easy to imagine a Hollywood remake of "Ju Dou," the same could never be said about Baxter, a French movie of bold and startling originality. The title character is a dog, a chunky, scruffy bull terrier who narrates the movie (gruffly, and in French). Anyone with visions of a cute pet movie is in for a big surprise. Jerome Boivin's fascinating, often unnervingly funny film, adapted from Ken Greenhall's novel "Hell Hound," uses the canine point of view to construct a vision of human nature as dark as coal.

"I am the dog who thinks," Baxter tells us, but he does not think in a way we would remotely consider humanistic. As he is shuttled from master to master in the seemingly placid Belgian suburb where he lives - and where he seeks the perfect master - we are privy to a unique and disturbing vision of both human and animal behavior. Baxter despises his first owner, a reclusive old woman (Lise Delamare) who first fears him, then dresses him in a tutu and forces him to share her bath. He longs for an owner who will command him, who will understand his dogness - like the vigorous young couple across the street, whom he gazes at yearningly from his window as they make love. When the old woman suffers a fatal fall (could Baxter have been responsible?) the couple across the street takes him in. He is happy for a while - until the arrival of their first child, a helpless creature Baxter regards with contempt.

Finally, he's taken in by his ideal master, an authoritarian boy who cultivates a creepy obsession with Hitler and Eva Braun. For a time - until events take a tragic turn - Baxter finds fulfillment with this charmless little fascist. Boivin directs this fierce, self-assured satire with crisp, mesmerizing economy. There is not a wasted motion. "Baxter" is a movie with a mind entirely of its own.

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