FilmFestDC — Day 2 capsules
I upgraded this film from 5 upon reflection because it finally became clear to me that, the ridiculous and self-contradictory last scene aside, the film really does have a consistent attitude toward its protagonist and her situation — a custody fight in which the city of Prague is trying to take away her seven children on the grounds of abuse, neglect, truancy, etc.
My problem was that I could never figure out while I was watching EL PASO what the film wanted me to make of Vera — a Roma woman who is frequently her own worst enemy. The film seemed to occasionally overdo the “cultural sensitivity” act in her blaming “gadjos” (Roma for “The Man”). And at other times the film played as a PRECIOUS-like wallow in poverty and child dysfunction (gypsy children gratuitously stealing pens from their mother’s lawyer? c’mon … it’s like Precious’s fried-chicken bucket)
But no … EL PASO is really about a family, albeit a deeply problematic one, defying the stifling nanny state. Indeed, this is where EL PASO distinguishes itself as better, or at least more realistic, than PRECIOUS — the visiting social workers are clearly portrayed as interfering busybodies. “You feed your children sausage, that’s not healthy,” one says at one point, and the city bureaucrat leading the case is like Montgomery Burns as played by James Cromwell. Horrible abuse like smoking in the front of the children (seriously) are taken as evidence of unfit motherhood. But EL PASO doesn’t take the easy way out — Vera, brilliantly played by Irena Horvathova with plenty of strength but little grandstanding Strength, is not an easy character to like and constantly acts oblivious to, and sometimes contemptuous of, her legal predicaments. And she eventually alienates her lawyer (the more-quietly excellent Denisa Demeterova) who tries to help her and dispenses sound advice and thus is as close to an audience surrogate as the film gets. So again, my initial “mixed” reaction was really a testament to the film’s success in having me share her reaction to Vera. (Though that still makes the final “everybody happily ever” scene unforgivable.)
Sometimes you just have to be honest and admit that you enjoyed a movie that isn’t really very good. WILL YOU MARRY US is basically a Swiss sitcom about a small-town civil registrar whose marriage is breaking apart but (here’s the twist) meets an old boyfriend who wants her to preside over his impending marriage. Given that high a concept, everything that happens is completely predictable — there’s some funny scenes (one good punch line came at the end of a scene involving tiramisu; the best scene is the climactic speech and an absurdly overextended metaphor about marriage as a voyage), a growing realization that the old flames still love each other, and a wisecracking best friend (who is NOT gay). It’s fun but never anything that threatens to be great.
There is a scene involving someone unexpectedly walking into a room containing two people who are not supposed to be together or in that room — it’s amusing and there’s one big laugh, but the difference between that scene and the comparable scene in A FISH CALLED WANDA (Kevin Kline in Cleese’s study) is the difference between an OK film and a great one. Indeed, a film like MARRY entirely depends on “do you enjoy spending this time with these people and existing in their environment?” And the answer to that question, for me, is “yes.” Indeed, I quickly developed a 90-minute crush on Marie Leuenberger, who plays the “civil registrar” of the film’s German title (DIE STANDESBEAMTIN). She glows on the screen, even though she’s not playing someone conventionally happy for most of the film and isn’t an obvious sex-bomb type (more like an early career Minnie Driver), but she is so likeable and the camera so “likes” her that I found her very presence irresistible.
Lewinsky said during the Q-and-A that he wanted to make “a normal romantic comedy for Swiss, but there haven’t been many.” He also said, surprisingly to me given how well the film seemed to be received by the packed auditorium and how generally it seemed to be selling “Switzerland for Export,” that MARRY would probably not be distributed commercially in the US. There was an audible disbelieving groan in which I shared — this film would go down very smoothly with Landmark-type audiences if it were booked and handled properly (I’ve already got the pitch line — MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING meets ONCE). Or perhaps if it were simply remade — indeed, like with FAREWELL, I wouldn’t mind seeing a first-class American handling of this premise, because an American film might be a little faster-paced, a bit more manic and a touch nastier, and if it were, the result could be a screwball classic.
¹ If I have to use something as absurdly artificial as “Czech Republic,” why not this, also a proper name (it’s the origin of the “CH” national-ID tag on cars)
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