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Un coup de theatre?

Rosemary North reports from London

Francophilia has swept the stage in London in an unprecedented coup de theatre . You can follow fashion and enjoy the current London affaire with musicals: Notre Dame de Paris, Napoleon or the long running Les Miserables, all spectacular productions notable for nostalgia, for their (rewritten) history, period costumes and big hair.

Alternatively you might prefer to remind yourself of the impenetrability of Proust by seeing Pinter's brave adaptation of 'Remembrance of Things Past'; or enjoy the seductions of Paris in the form of 'Madame Melville', the quintessential woman of a certain age, played by Irene Jacob.
In an unexpected union between the tricouleur and the stars and stripes, Macaulay Culkin proves that he can be at home, alone on the London stage, indulging in a little remembrance of things in his past. As a man of middle age he remembers himself as a gauche fifteen year old, and the femme fatale who was engaged by his parents to teach him about French culture, but taught him more about la vie . . .

Subtitles and Subtleties
Chinoiserie is the current style in cinemas across the country. While Ang Lee's much hyped 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' is notching up long queues eager to see this subtitled phenomenon, the more subdued 'In The Mood For Love' is enchanting audiences with its understated narrative of love unfulfilled. Most people remember Ang Lee for directing Sense and Sensibility, the Emma Thompson/Jane Austen collaboration which confirmed that Austen's talent should take her far in films in the future, and pushed Kate Winslet into prominence as the figurehead in Titanic. A film like Sense and Sensibility adheres closely to its cultural roots in the tradition of the nineteenth century English novel. It is about manners: very verbal but with little emphasis on movement, so the film is remembered for performance rather than direction. 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' allows Ang Lee to explore and extend the boundaries of his own cultural tradition, synthesizing genres: a marriage between the Chinese martial arts epic and the French reflective art film.

Kung Fu meets Confucius. Angela Carter meets Han Suyin. Magic realism meets philosophy. The title is a Chinese proverb. It informs the audience of the importance of looking beneath and beyond the obvious. Some issues are made explicit, like the exploration of the position of women in society. This is achieved through the juxtaposition of the arranged marriage of a fearless but headstrong young girl with the acceptance by the community of an older woman, as one who fights professionally for justice, not for herself but for others. This is a woman noted as much for her wisdom as for her strength. Enigmatic but loving, she has the face of a Chinese Mona Lisa. In martial arts movies, action is vital, words are few. Mandarin is an economical language: much can be conveyed in a few words. This is essential to the success of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', since subtitles must be succinct to allow the audience to read them and still to have time to absorb the stunning visual power of this film. The decision to use subtitles to interpret the minimalist Mandarin dialogue was brave, because the conventional view is that British cinema audiences regard subtitled films as art movies - cult activity, not mass entertainment. The synthesis of art and action is implicit in the title - power waiting to be unleashed, passion concealed. The choreography of the rooftop scenes is mythic: a poem of balletic movement, a hymn to the gymnasts of China; but within the walled city, in the quiet spaces between movements, each encounter is painted with a serenity and dignity which gives those scenes a 'still life' quality.

Wong Kar-Wei's 'In The Mood For Love' is more muted in tone and colour. Narrow rain-drenched alleys of Hong Kong at night gleam darkly. Interiors are confining, tight with bodies who must slide past each other with no contact other than courtesy, a verbal distancing necessary to preserve correctness and constrain sexuality; but beneath the conventions lonely people sometimes brush against each other in the darkness . . . The colours and the lighting of this exquisite film - dark, mellow, brown and sepia, with the glow of amber leaking out through doorways - are Turner-esque, reminiscent of the style of oil painting which was popular in Hong Kong in the late sixties. This is the period it evokes; this is the time of sexual repression it represents. But sexual repression often intensifies emotion. The expression of this intensity and the conflict between duty and desire is captured eloquently in the music, in the superbly understated acting and the delicacy of the direction. It is impossible to leave In The Mood For Love without feeling the pain - and the beauty - of love and loss. Tennyson believed that 'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all '. Somehow love, seen every day until death do us part, seems less beautiful now than love lost, when it is seen darkly through the glass of Wong Kar-Wei's camera lens.

© Rosemary North 2001

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