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Thelma and Luigi
by Lucius Shepard
November 10, 2002

November, and America holds its breath, awaiting with giddy anticipation the first of the traditional superfreakingawfulalidocious holiday cinematic treats, this being, of course, Harry Potter and the Bucket of Snouts, or is it Harry Potter and the Pork Roast Enema? Whatever, it’s sure to sell tons of Harry Potter potty seats (Chamberpots of Secrets?), plastic capes, weedwhackers, wands, refrigerator magnets, pregnancy tests, rat poison, Frisbees, whoopee cushions, chainsaws, doggie treats, double AA batteries, pyjamas, skateboards, cell phones, nipple rings, et al, and that’ll sure make ol’ Moloch happy.

In the interim, other films less celebrated compete for the notice of the American public’s ADD-afflicted consumerist mentality. Among these is German director Thomas Twyker’s latest, Heaven. Twyker achieved international attention several years back with the MTV-inflected Run Lola Run, a dazzling display of technique that relates the adventures of a young woman who literally sprints from fade-in to fade-out in an attempt to save her boyfriend’s life. Part existentialist video game, part off-beat thriller, though Lola was undeniably flashy, displaying a masterful control of camera and pacing and the materials of pop culture, the movie had all the depth of a Brittany Spears lyric, and the general consensus among critics was that Twyker’s gift would be judged as suspect until he added a touch of substance to his style. His two follow-ups to Lola, the vacuous Wintersleepers and The Princess and the Warrior, a terminally quirky romance that appeared to have been influenced by the lamentable late-career excesses of Jean Luc Goddard, did nothing to assuage critical doubt. However, both these films continued to offer evidence of Twyker’s technical virtuosity and thus there was a modicum of hope that his next project, based on a screenplay by the late great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Decalogue, Three Colors) would allow him to handle subject matter of a sufficient weight so as to bring out the best in him. Unfortunately, Twyker’s hyperkinetic style poses a pure contrary to Kieslowski’s stately sensibility, his classically modulated philosophical and moral concerns, and the result is a curiously inept, thematically murky hybrid.

The last instance of a major director taking on and completing the work of dead master, Steven Spielberg’s molestation of Stanley Kubrick’s AI script, produced one of the most repellent films in recent memory, a pretentious stinkeroo of cosmic proportions. While Heaven delivers a few more pleasures than AI, its level of pretension is nearly unparalleled—I mean, we’re talking not since the worst of Michelangelo Antonioni (Red Desert) has such horribly overstated symbolic content been displayed onscreen—and so the project brings little credit either to Twyker or, posthumously, to Kieslowski.

The story goes as follows. Phillipa (Cate Blanchett), a widowed British schoolteacher living in Turin, Italy, decides to place a bomb in a trashcan at the office belonging to Vendice, Turin’s drug kingpin, who is responsible for the death of her husband. A cleaning woman, however, inadvertently carries the bomb onto an elevator, thereby succeeding in killing herself along with a father and his two young daughters. Phillipa confesses to the crime and a police interpreter named—coincidentally—Phillipo (Giovanni Ribisi) becomes infatuated with her and, moved by her story, he helps her to escape from the clutches of the caribineri, who are themselves Vendice’s minions and have determined that the murderous schoolteacher must be eliminated before coming to trial, because she knows too much about the druglord’s business dealings. (Given the ludicrous ineptitude of the police in their efforts to imprison and then to recapture her, one is forced to assume that either Inspector Clouseau or Roberto Benigni or Meadow Soprano has been put in charge of the pursuit.) Twyker expends a great deal of footage in attempting to justify Phillipa’s sociopathic miscreance, hoping to persuade us of her good character by having her tell the police that she not only was seeking vengeance but also was serving the general good by attempting to terminate a villain who had killed thousands of children with his poison—this quite in opposition to the early scenes that show Phillipa making and planting the bomb, operating in a steely, stone-killer mode. The director seems intent not, as would have been interesting and pertinent, on exploring the moral ambiguity of Phillipa’s vigilantism, but on transforming her into a romantic figure, a creature of tragic proportions upon whom fate has worked a cruel trick. Had Kieslowski himself directed the film, this transition—albeit perhaps no less dubious—would likely have been handled with some artfulness, layered in and hinted at and otherwise developed in a believable fashion; as things stand, it comes across as clumsy and more than a little perverse. At any rate, love blooms between Phillipa and Phillipo—you might say they Phlip for each other, and they go on the run through scenic Italy. With them goes all hope that the movie can be redeemed.

A considerable portion of the problem with Heaven can probably be attributed to the fact that the original script was translated from Polish into French, then French into German, and then German into English before Twyker and one of the films many producers (fifteen in all), Anthony Minghella, perpetrator of the thoroughly unsubtle The English Patient, cohabited and together hatched the final version of the shooting script. Doubtless much of Kieslowski’s conception was simply translated out of existence. What remains is without question beautifully filmed—Twyker’s exceptional cinematographer, Frank Griebe, does a marvelous job of reproducing the voluptuous surface and languorous feel of a Kieslowski picture. But thanks to the absurdity of the action and dialogue, Griebe’s work comes to seem scarcely more than mimicry. Blanchett provides a brave and often brilliant performance, but eventually her efforts are overwhelmed by having to speak lines that might have been lifted from a wastebasket belonging to Samuel Beckett’s idiot brother. As the dogs of justice—bumbling but relentless in their progress—close in, Phillipa and Phillipo shave their heads and begin to dress in identical clothing. The idea behind this apparently being that we are all the same except for the vowels at the ends of our names, or that the lovers are Adam and Eve, or that unisex fashions will once again be featured on the runways of Milan next spring . . . or something. Finally, as death draws near, the lovers strip to the buff (note to all you LOTR geeky boys—Hey, Galadriel nude! Check out the DVD. Awright!) on a sunset-lit Tuscan hillside and consummate their union, thus illustrating Kieslowski’s predominant theme—i.e, that even the most flawed among us can achieve transcendence—in terms so unequivocal, so blatantly trumpeted, it’s as if Twyker was aiming to make art for the Jackass audience, as if the frames were captioned or word balloons were appearing above the heads of Phillipa and Phillipo as they make Philli-pie, saying stuff like, “Do you feel the earth moving, my angel?”

“I don’t believe it is the earth, my sweet. It is the firmament.”

“The firmament, my love?”

“Yes, my darling . . . the floor of heaven.”

Gah!

At this pass, having been drenched, assaulted, and in some cases brain-damaged by a couple of hours (it seemed like much, much more) of such primitively announced symbolism, members of the audience with whom I viewed the film began to laugh.

It is to be hoped that the legacy of Heaven will be a reluctance on the part of future filmmakers to complete the unfinished movies of deceased colleagues, but this is undoubtedly a faint hope. Such challenges appeal to the ego and filmmaking is the most ego-fueled of the arts. The likelihood is that such projects will not only proliferate, they will grow increasingly lame as new directors pick up the fallen flags of the Spielbergs and the Scorseses and—God help us—even the Chris Columbuses. Let’s suppose (Heaven forefend!) that Chris had dropped dead on the set of Harry Potter 2, who then would have stepped forward to carry on his great work? Whoever it might have been, I can just hear the critics praising the director’s unimaginative framing, the sublime flatness of the dialogue, his sure-handed way with comic flatulence, the formulaic precision of the storyline. Predictability raised to the elegant. A true homage! The thought of an artist finishing another’s work would be deemed abhorrent in any other medium . . .at least this once would have been the case. Now, given the compulsions of the marketplace, we might someday expect to see an unfinished masterpiece by, say, Dom DeLillo, given over to a Michael Chabon or a David Foster Wallace to polish off, redefine, and thereby serve as a kind of literary talk show host. Such projects have, indeed, already been commissioned as regards more commercial novels—witness Terry Bisson’s completion of Walter Miller’s sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz. Perhaps this sort of morbid collaboration will become the vogue. Authors will sign contracts to write the first three hundred pages of two novels—the literary world going interactive. Perhaps one day we will have museum exhibits of Francis Bacon’s sketchbooks rendered in full dimension by Gary Larsen or Peter Max. When that day dawns, it may be that Heaven will be looked upon as a progenitor of a significant artistic movement. Until that day arrives, if tempted to see it, take the advice of someone who has done so and run like hell.