â€¢ Movie Movie â€¢ Violette â€¢ Superman
â€¢ The whole thing is pure corn, the clichÃ©s are so transparent that nobody could be fooled by them, the coincidences so unbelievable that nobody could take them seriously, the characterizations so stereotyped as to be almost stereotypes of stereotypes. Yet MOVIE MOVIE, consisting of two unrelated one-hour films set in the 1930s, succeeds brilliantly.
The actors (George C. Scott, Trish van de Vere, Eli Wallach, Red Buttons) are all at their impish best, but the real secret of the film is that it operates on two levels at once. On the level of straight narrative, even with the simplistic characterizations and the coincidences clicking predictably into place, it is a moving story, appealing to universal human emotions. On another level, the film pokes fun at itself, including the "unreal" characters and plots of the movies and musicals of the 1930s (one hilarious sequence is a takeoff on Wings, another on Gold Diggers of 1933), and there is quite a bit of double entendre that can be taken at both levels. The literal cake and the humorous icing are made to blend to perfection: a slight misstep in one direction or the other would have ruined this delicate structure, but it is sustained without a hitch.
This is the epitome of nostalgia films, and the audience eats it up, even applauding time after time, not only because the thing is so deftly done, but because it takes one back to another timeâ€"when life, though difficult, was simpler than today; when people's naivetÃ© was greater; when heroes were white and villains were black and things always came out all right in the end. One senses in the audience reaction a longing to live in such a time once more, that they find in it a simple sincerity and purity of heart that are largely missing today. Only this would seem to explain why a film that pokes such lively fun at itself can at the same time move its audience to tears.
â€¢ The fine young actress Isabelle Huppert, seen as an innocent young girl in The Lacemaker, is equally adept in her new role as a cold-blooded murderess in VIOLETTE, which is based on an actual case of a girl poisoning her parents in 1933. She was sentenced to be guillotined, her punishment commuted to life imprisonment by Petain, and total pardon granted by De Gaulle.
The case would be interesting enough as a documentary, although that's not the way famed director Claude Chabrol chose to handle it. He changes the time sequence constantlyâ€"for example, first a scene that shows us why she hates her parents, then the prison aftermath of the trial, then (recollected in prison) the murder itself. It is not always easy to tell whether a scene is a real incident recollected later or a projection of her hopes or fears in fantasy. The result is unnecessarily confusing: the physician tells her she has syphilis; the parents (thinking it may be of genetic origin) believe they too may have it; yet when the physician comes to dinner the matter is never brought up. One is tempted to infer that having syphilis is also a part of her fantasy, except that this would render a crucial incidentâ€"her giving the parents a white powder which is in fact a poison but which they take to be a cure for syphilisâ€"totally unexplained. There is a great deal of material like thisâ€"the confusion between fantasy and reality, the failure to tie loose ends togetherâ€"so that if he had not been told otherwise the viewer would think the film had been cut.
Still, there is some interesting characterization and some suspense in spite of the confusing warping of time frames and the blurring of external versus internal reality. In spite of the psychological orientation of the film, there is really no hint as to why this girl, who was only one of millions who were unhappy with their lower-middle-class parents and in love with someone poor with whom she wanted to elope, murdered her parents to get the money, whereas most other girls, however unhappy, did not. Why she remained to the end emotionless regarding her deed is also left as much of a mystery to film viewers as it presumably was to the French public when the incident occurred.
â€¢ "I stand for freedom, justice, and the American way," says Clark Kent (Superman) in a line that brings down the house. Presumably this represents the epitome of the wisdom that was fed into his brain while he was traversing space at the speed of light on his way to earth from the planet Krypton in a distant galaxy. If so, it seems hardly worth the trip.
Fortunate it is for the world that with his almost supernatural powers, our hero devotes them to good rather than evil. Even so, if he had as much intelligence as physical power, he would have realized that there remain certain problems: (1) He cannot distribute his beneficence equally everywhere: if there is a train wreck about to occur at place P, he can prevent that from happening, but this means that he cannot simultaneously be at place Q across the continent, where even greater catastrophes may be occurring. What this do-gooder then needs is a moral principle that will tell him how his beneficence is to be distributed, since the supply is so small and the need so great. (2) More difficult still, many situations are not all black and white. This problem is circumvented in the film by making all characters and situations black or white: the villains have no redeeming qualities and the good guys have no disabling ones. (That way our hero doesn't have to think too much.) But what would he do in a situation in which he would have to balance X amount of good against Y amount of evil, involving an elaborate weighting process and possibly indecisive results? Would he, for example, protect a newspaper reporter's source of information against the courts by busting the reporter out of jail, or would he prevent at the last moment the murder that would have occurred because the newsman wouldn't reveal the murderer's name? In the real world, when one embarks on a career of moral busy-bodyism, he finds more situations that are 60-40 than 100-0.
For lack of anything better to do, such speculations and many others like them tend to float through one's mind while sitting through this mindless piece of jelly, SUPERMAN. The special effects are neat; Christopher Reeves is an engaging Clark Kent, and Brando isn't in it long enough for his solemnly intoned antics or laughable lines to ruin the film. (Gene Hackman comes off better as the archvillain.) The shots of Middle West farm country are interesting, and the space-shenanigans are eye-popping if you haven't seen Star Wars. But the time-reversal sequence toward the end raises so many philosophical questions (for example, if something has already happened, how can anyone, even God, cause it not to have happened?) as to boggle the mind of someone who does not represent, as Clark Kent does, the resounding triumph of matter over mind.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".