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Hooking, Breaking Friendships, Cross-Dressing and, Above All, Delphine Seyrig

by BEN SONNENBERG

Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, depicts three days in the life of a middle-class Belgian widow (Delphine Seyrig) with a teenage son (Jan Decorte). In as much as Jeanne supports herself by part-time prostitution in an otherwise routine life, this is a realist movie in the sense that Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a realist play; and like Hedda Gabler, Akerman’s peculiarly suspenseful movie concludes with a shock. Delphine Seyrig was a great and intelligent actress. She could play with equal conviction in farce (Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), in drama (Renais’ Muriel), and in straight and musical comedy (Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses and Akerman’s Window Shopping).

Delphine Seyrig first came to the world’s attention in 1961 with the release of Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad, also in a new 2 disc Criterion Collection release. Seyrig played to perfection the elusive and enigmatic A, married (or is she?) to M (Sacha Pitoëff) and pursued by X (Giorgio Albertazzi), through the endless ornate corridors and elaborate formal gardens of a huge Baroque resort hotel.

The film is a more or less faithful adaptation of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s archetypal nouveau roman of the same title (Robbe –Grillet also wrote the screenplay). To say that public opinion about the movie was divided when it opened would be an understatement. Only Antonioni’s L’avventura, which came out the year before, broke more friendships. I once overheard Kenneth Tynan tell Orson Welles he admired Last Year At Marienbad. “Then you are a cunt,” Welles said to him.

Now, with the controversy more or less settled in the movie’s favor, we’re able to appreciate Resnais’ subtle direction,  Seyrig’s balletic poise, Sacha Vierny’s beautiful black & white photography, Charles Mérangel’s mysterious sets, Chanel’s classic costumes and the rich and resonant comedy of the dialogue.

And now for something completely different. Jeffrey Lau’s Chinese Odyssey 2002, set in the Ming Dynasty – which is to say “Long ago and far away…” – tells of the adventures of two royal children, Princess Wushuang (Faye Wong) and the future Emperor Zheng De (Chen Chang), as they plan their escape from the Forbidden City, ruled by the tyrannical Dowager Empress (Rebecca Pan).

Wushuang breaks out first and, disguising herself as a boy, finds refuge at a village inn. There a local thug known as Bully the Kid (Tony Leung), befooled by her appearance, takes her under his protection, thinking the boy will make a perfect match for his sister, Phoenix (Wei Zhao). To quote from the program notes, “ … in one  scene Phoenix, Wushuang and Bully all cross-dress together, with the other two never realizing…”.

Meanwhile, back at the palace…. The director, the stars and the cinematographer (Peter Ngor) had such a good time narrating the absurdly complicated plot, you might be afraid you won’t have as much fun as they did. Trust me, you will.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, two disc set, Belgium, 1975, 201 minutes, the Criterion Collection, $39.98.

Last Year At Marienbad, two disc set, France, 1961, 94 minutes, the Criterion Collection, $39.95.

Chinese Odyssey 2002, Hong Kong, 2002, 90 minutes, Kino International, $24.95.

BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of Grand Street. He can be reached at harapos@panix.com.

 

 

 

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BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of Grand Street. He can be reached at harapos@panix.com.

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