VENICE: ‘Reign of Assassins,’ ‘Happy Few’

Posted by · 6:34 pm · September 2nd, 2010

“How many films did you see today?” It’s an innocent-sounding question that you nonetheless feel oddly cautious answering at a festival. Did I see too few? Do they think me a lightweight? Should I squeeze in a midnight screening of that Iranian peasant musical I really have no interest in seeing, just to beef up my score?

Okay, it’s not as petty and competitive as all that. (And it goes without saying that I’d be totally up for an Iranian peasant musical.) But whereas watching three films at home on a regular day feels like something of an indulgence, at a festival it seems positively neglectful, unappreciative of the spread that has been laid out for you.

“What am I missing?” you keep asking yourself (and others willing to listen). Then again, a friend of mine who sticks religiously to a six-film-a-day diet at every festival likely asks himself the same thing. It’s best to stop counting.

All of which is a long way of saying that, for the second day running, I caught only three films today – below my preferred batting average, but entirely okay when the upshot of that was a delightful beachside lunch with Anne Thompson, someone who long ago mastered the art of attending festivals like a human being rather than a film journo.

More good news is that today’s triple feature recovered from its dreary start with Julian Schnabel’s “Miral” (already reviewed here). Indeed, while a number of pejoratives could be applied to Su Chao-Pin and John Woo’s elaborate martial-arts fantasy “Reign of Assassins” (***) – silly, plasticky, just barely acquainted with notions of narrative coherence – “dreary” is not among them.

The film is having its world premiere on the Lido to coincide with the presentation of the director’s lifetime achievement award, but neither by name nor by nature is it formally a John Woo film; rather, he is credited as “co-director,” while it’s Chao-Pin who is given the possessive credit. The newer director’s hand is in evidence throughout: “Reign of Assassins” lacks the technical grace and advanced set-piece conception of, say, Woo’s “Red Cliff,” but it does boast a goofy sense of humor, as well as a certain elasticity of genre as endearing as it is initially bewildering: this is the rare fighting film that takes sideways strolls into supernatural video-game territory and meet-cute rom-com.

The story – convoluted guff set in ancient China, with Michelle Yeoh’s gifted assassin attempting to go straight, then falling for a mild-mannered laborer who turns out to be more connected to her previous life than she’d ever have guessed, her former colleagues battling her for the magical, fossilized remains of a Buddhist monk all the while – is little more than a clothesline on which to peg a lot of swordfights (not to mention some rather splendid clothes, courtesy of the great Emi Wada), shot in poppy, seemingly graphic novel-inspired style.

The stupid dial is turned way up – this is a film where actors deserve bouquets for belting out dialogue like “Let me reap the consequences of karma!” without corpsing – but so is the good humor, and that counts for everything in a bauble like this.

Rather fewer laughs were to be had in French writer-director Antony Cordier’s elegant if somewhat overextended relationship study “Happy Few” (***), in which two attractive young couples bring partner-swapping into the 21st century with astonishingly civilized results. It’s a film that poses that old chestnut about whether or not it’s possible to love two people at once, but its answers, such as they are, are rather more contemporary, admirably avoiding the judgmental as Cordier keeps shifting our sense of which of these pairings “belong.”

If anything, “Happy Few” is so adult about the quartet’s amassed indiscretions that the dramatic stakes are rendered rather low; even as the arrangement begins to sour, one rather wishes the film would lose control just once. Meanwhile, the inveigling of the couples’ children into the situation, and the limber sense of family that generates, is a fascinating story angle that too frequently slides out of view.

Still, the performances are smart (as you’d expect of an ensemble made up of Élodie Bouchez, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Roschdy Zem and Marina Foïs), the sex is hot (ditto) and even if the French can churn out these bourgeois, tastefully erotic domestic dramas in their sleep, that’s not to say that they shouldn’t.

Tomorrow: Up bright and early again for Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” – as usual, keep an eye on Twitter for a first reaction, with a full review landing later in the day.

[Photo: Labiennale.org]




→ 5 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

5 responses so far

  • 1 9-02-2010 at 6:44 pm

    han said...

    you ranked “reign of assassins” higher than “uncle boonmee”? omg.

  • 2 9-02-2010 at 8:07 pm

    MovieMan said...

    I can’t wait for your reaction to “Somewhere.” If it manages to even equal “Lost in Translation,” I may die. Oh and you have a fellow “Marie Antoinette” fan in me, Guy. :)

  • 3 9-03-2010 at 1:55 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Han: Apples and oranges. I keep saying it: I grade on a sliding scale.

  • 4 9-03-2010 at 6:52 am

    billybil said...

    Of course, the quality of the writing that comes out of what films you do see is what matters to us back home. I think you’ve got the balance quite right for now!