The Heart Has Its Reasons

Edith Wharton, one of the greatest American novelists, is also one of the sexiest, which is not the least of the reasons filmmakers have been gobbling up her books for the screen. While we wait for the anticipated feast of Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence," we have this American Playhouse production of her tragic love story Ethan Frome-a solid appetizer. Abandoning her usual New York high-society haunts, Wharton turned her exquisite eye on a doomed triangle amongst laconic 19th-century rural New Englanders. Ethan Frome (sensitive hunk du jour Liam Neeson), the strong, silent Massachusetts farmer, is trapped in a joyless marriage with his hypochondriacal distant cousin Zeena (Joan Allen) and falls in love with their spirited young housekeeper Mattie (Patricia Arquette).

Blanketed in New England snowdrifts, director John Madden's solid but somewhat prosaic film seems a little stiff in the joints at first. Screenwriter Richard Nelson's frame for the story, in which a young minister (Tate Donovan) tries to discover why the townsfolk shun the old, crippled Ethan, is little more than portentous drum-rolling. But "Ethan Frome" blossoms when the two lovers, left alone in the house, spend their first evening together. In this erotically fraught sequence, charged with inarticulate longing, the long wintry months of repressed passion briefly, gloriously thaw. Neeson and Arquette have a touching, lovely chemistry, and Allen, drawn and haggard, makes Zeena a complex passive-aggressive figure. Once the love story kicks in, the steel trap of Wharton's narrative descends; no matter how well you know this tale, it still packs a wallop.

In this generous serving of Mexican magic realism, taken from Laura Esquivel's acclaimed novel, the kitchen is the source of sorcery and passion. Tita (Lumi Cavazos), the youngest daughter of a stern aristocratic matriarch (Regina Torne), is expected to continue the family tradition of serving her mother until her death, which means that Tita is forbidden to marry the man she loves, pretty boy Pedro (Marco Leonardi). He marries her sister Rosaura instead, to be near the one he really loves. Confined to the kitchen of the family ranch near the Rio Grande, circa 1910, Tita transforms her passions into her cooking. She's a culinary magician-when she weeps into a wedding cake, all who consume it are overcome with tears and grow nauseous with grief When her hot blood accidentally mingles with her piece de resistance, quail in rose-petal sauce, her libidinous sister Gertrudis literally smokes with lust and runs naked through the brush, where she is scooped off her feet by an amorous revolutionary on horseback who's gotten a whiff of rose petal.

Directed by Esquivel's husband, Alfonso Arau, "Like Water For Chocolate" is an extravagant, playful romantic fable that celebrates passion, liberation and the spirit of women but never forgets that unbridled ecstasy comes at a cost. Tita's battle against her mother's repressive traditionalism drives her to a breakdown, but she recovers under the loving care of a Texas doctor who loves her more wisely than Pedro, but to no avail. The heart must run its combustible course in this ghost-ridden tale, which takes the epic fabulations of Garcia Marquez, adds a soupcon of "Now, Voyager" and mixes with a comic sensibility all its own. Call it Magic Realism Lite. In Arau's sensuous but ironic hands, the flames of passion that consume his characters are more apt to tickle than scorch. It's a Liebestod that makes you laugh.

It's hard to classify the latest film by Agnieszka ("Europa Europa") Holland and hard to shake it off. A haunting, sometimes harrowing film about the mystery of family, it begins as a study of an unstable French provincial mother (Brigitte Rouan) who so dotes on her 9-year-old son, Olivier, that it drives her husband (Francois Cluzet) into a rage. Then one day little Olivier rides off on his bicycle to take lunch to his ailing grandmother. He never returns. The ramifications are devastating: the grief-stricken mother becomes consumed with finding him; his older sister (who seems to have telekinetic powers) mutilates herself with guilt; the father, a veterinarian, takes a job in Africa.

Six years later the detective on the case arrests a 15-year-old street hustler in Paris (Gregoire Colin). Could it be Olivier? Or is he, like the title character in "Sommersby," an impostor? He seems to know things that only Olivier could know. He returns to the country home, and his provocative, enigmatic presence puts the family through radical convulsions-none more startling than when he seduces his skeptical sister. Is this incest or his admission that he's a fraud? The mystery is eventually solved (it's based on a true story), but Holland leaves many other riddles unresolved at the heart of this dysfunctional-family romance. Part fairy tale, part psychodrama, "Olivier Olivier" is strong, unsettling stuff. Holland is a filmmaker who looks deep into the twisted heart of love and won't settle for easy answers.