Those who have seen the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink, will remember that John Turturro plays a writer who is madly typing an opus throughout that movie. The screenplay that the actor was
writing during those takes was apparently the early versions of the film he will release this year, Romance and Cigarettes. A musical set in New Jersey, it uses existing music that well-known actors lip-synch to, and/or sing overtop of. Right away, this makes it unique from most other contemporary musicals. In Moulin Rouge, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor lip synched competely to well known tracks. In biopics like this year’s Walk the Line (directed by James Mangold) or last year's Beyond the Sea (directed by Kevin Spacey), the actor him or herself sings. In Romance and Cigarettes, there is a combination of all of the above, in what is the genre’s whackiest offering to date.
It is in theory the love story of a working class marriage challenged by the discovery of the man’s hot affair with a full-blown tart (Turturro’s words, not mine). But what starts out highly stylized, including an almost surreal screenplay of hot provocative lines by all characters, boils down in its final moments to a very naturalistic and very honest account of how people move from the full throes of passion (love, lust, hate, rage) to the sober reckonings of their hearts. What is full blown and robust gets expressed in song. What is quietly understood gets covered in quiet, almost minimalist dialogue scenes. Watching Romance and Cigarettes is witnessing the emergence of a compelling new visual storytelling style.
James Gandolfino and Susan Sarandon play the couple and the discovery of the affair by Sarandon’s Kitty, occurs under the opening title sequence. She sits quietly on the bed with her back to us, holding the telltale piece of paper. The mature subtle acting style of both Sarandon and Gandolfino are what make this film work. Inbetween crazy production numbers (which include a ballet of pregnant women and a separate number where hydro line workers break into dance), they act and react to thwarted love and unpeakable lust first in large gestures and then in the small choices that inevitably lead to reconciliation. Even the scene where Gandolfino finally ends the affair with gloriously vamped and red-headed Scouser, Tula (Kate Winslet) is resonant with feeling and meaning and we are moved by them both. The musical numbers provide the high style, as do some of the scenes. But most of the movie hangs on the quiet moments of truth, such as when Sarandon finally breaks her months' silence to her husband out of sheer absent-minded rage at a neighbour and he quietly says to himself, “she speaks to me”.
Musicals are making an unmistakeable upsurging reappearance. In the Dialogue series, filmmakers introduce works that have undisputedly influenced them. Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang (whose The Wayward Cloud is another very highly stylized musical) screened a Cathay musical from 1961 called The Wild Wild Rose, by director Wong Tin Lam and starring the irrepressible Grace Chang. The screening was one of those academic watershed moments for me in putting together a chain of influences of directors by providing a missing link. The period of production provides the key: just a few years after Vincente Minnelli’s An American In Paris, which this film’s opening imitates with an artist and a hand-drawn rose; and creating vividly the kind of Hong Kong culture and West meets East fashion and set decoration sense of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, period set at exactly the same time. Grace Chang’s brassy, pouting performance is like a parody of any number of Hollywood musical actresses - so much so that you wonder if it is a send-up of MGM or the actress is in fact channeling those divas in her own inimitable style. The musical numbers are made up of new lyrics (in Mandarin) set to lounge versions of arias from Bizet’s Carmen! There is no end to the bizarre cross-cultural mish-mash of this movie and we were told that there were many like it in the period! Someone needs to do a study of the influences on North Asian musical cinema of this period and its subsequent impact on the current generation of Asian filmmakers.
In the end, The Wild, Wild Rose bogs down in its improbable storyline - but who cares?! In the meantime it offers a genuine cat fight between two hair-tearing divas and other campy cliches with such high energy, humour and style that there is nothing left but to settle in and enjoy it. If
the musical is reinventing itself (as Turturro and Ming-liang are trying to convince us) then it’s not hard to see where the inspiration comes from. Here’s hoping there’s more!