Oscar-bait season, part 2
THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG — Vadim Perelman, USA, 2003, 8
Four Decembers ago, I walked without especially high expectations into THE END OF THE AFFAIR, a bit of Oscar-bait that was respectfully reviewed but was a box-office bust and did poorly at year-end awards. It’s now half-forgotten, I’d say, but I will take to my grave that experience of one of the best films of recent years, a film that had me in tears for the whole second half, which I’ve now seen about 12 times, and to which I responded as personally as if Neil Jordan had made it for me, and me alone.
THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG is that same kind of movie — a stately, inevitable march through characters, neither good nor evil, but trapped by coincidence and circumstance until it spins into a fog-bound tragedy. HOUSE has a real novelistic quality — and I mean that as a compliment — like a Victorian gothic set in the present-day about the claims of two families on a house overlooking the sea.
Jennifer Connelly inherited the house from her father, but the county has repossessed it for delinquent taxes — a point she disputes. But while her appeal is pending, the house is purchased by Ben Kingsley, an Iranian Air Force colonel under the Shah. His assets and family’s ability to keep up appearances are dwindling and he buys the home at repossession prices as an investment. There is a sequence early when Kingsley is shown working two menial jobs in rags, changes into gentlemen’s clothes for home, and curtly tells off a swanky-hotel worker who questions him because of his appearance. This is the opposite of the general American custom (dress up at work and down at home) and is one of many ways Kingsley, in a brilliant performance, creates a man from an honor-based culture without making him a petty tyrant.
And that’s part of the other truly special feature of this film — that it caricatures nobody, despite ample “culture-clash” opportunity. I saw Jean Renoir’s masterpiece THE RULES OF THE GAME on TV again recently with its most famous line “That’s the truly horrible thing; that everybody has his reasons” — and HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG is a film entirely in that spirit. The film has no heroes or villains, and lets the conflict play itself out, and not in ways you can necessarily predict.
One of the great pleasures of this film is that, even though you know unspecifically that it ends tragically (think the flashback structure of SUNSET BOULEVARD), it is one of the increasingly-rare films where the first 10 minutes basically doesn’t set up everything else that happens. There. Is. A. Plot. To. Follow. Huzzah!!!!
And yet … still … it wasn’t made for me, and me alone. The oooomph I got for END OF THE AFFAIR was missing (and both films use a similar strategy of repeated scenes; once before you know everything and once after). I didn’t have the same personal connection to the material. Oh, I understand in the abstract the emotions HOUSE wants to tweak all right and this is unquestionably a very strong film. In fact, I’m sure there’s somebody out there, someone whose life story it tells and who will react to HOUSE as I did to AFFAIR. This film is for him, and him alone. But he’s not me.