Friday, August 10, 2012

Ruby Sparks and Farewell, My Queen

 “I don’t believe you, you’re not the truth.
  No one could look as good as you.
  Mercy.”   Roy Orbison, “Pretty Woman”
               Review by Ken Burke            Ruby Sparks                                    
Romantic fantasy invades reality when a young novelist literally conjures up the girl of his dreams but finds that his insistence on meddling with his creation sours it all.

                                                                      Farewell, My Queen
The end of days for the court of Versailles as seen from the sidelines as a servant’s devotion to her queen proves no match for her highness’ conflicted priorities.

            Each week when I’m in the process of writing these review I take a quick look at the average scores from the critics surveyed by the Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and Movie Intelligence sites that I refer you to at the end of my rambles.  I skim a bit but don’t read in detail what so many others have had to say just to see how much or little in agreement I am with the critical world at large.  Most often I link up fairly well (although there are times when I’m underwhelmed compared to the accumulated wisdom—Warhorse [Steven Spielberg, 2011], Chronicle [Josh Trank], and The Kid with a Bike [Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2011] are good examples—and times when my brilliance just hasn’t yet been realized—Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close [Stephen Daldry, 2011], The Dictator [Sacha Baron Cohen], and The Amazing Spider-Man [Marc Webb] are excellent examples).  This week, except for the positive comments from the Rotten Tomatoes folks (where their 79 is right on the mark that my 4 of 5 stars would rate), I’ve got serious discrepancies with those who find Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Ruby Sparks to be witty and cute but not dark or “heavy” enough—or even a bit “casually sexist,” according to SF Bay Area’s Kelly Vance (read the details if you like at, but note that until Ruby is gone from his life Calvin writes her on a typewriter, not a computer, so a little more attention to actual detail would be appropriate here even as Vance claims this film “produces[s] more cringes than chuckles”; I often respect the direction Vance takes in weekly reviews but we’re far apart on this one).  For those who see this gem of a fantasy-evolved-to-reality love story as missing something essential about human relationships, all I can say is this must be a case where the aesthetic head overwhelms the yearning heart for the naysayers because for me this seemingly impossible tale is very funny, very emotionally traumatic, and very insightful on what far too often goes wrong with what should be the perfect match of attractions.  Zoe Kazan (Ruby; middle name Tiffany, although that seems to have no further relevance) has written a marvelous story for herself and off-screen lover Paul Dano (Calvin) to bring to life, just as on-screen Calvin as a writer’s-blocked one-hit wonder brings a young woman from his backlit, yellow-toned invasive dreams to life as he searches for a way to connect to something that matters to him when the long-awaited follow-up novel refuses to emerge for this media-darling-at-19-transforming-into-far-too-long-delayed-J.D. Salinger-type-30-year-old recluse, desperate to regain his old form (although even his dog, Scotty, seems to taunt him to rise above his creative drought by chewing up his copy of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye).

            Maybe the folks who want more from this film think that it’s too self-referential to have the romance of the stars transformed into the romance of the characters (as if that hampered Bogart and Bacall, Beatty and Keaton, Woody Allen and [fill in the blank, including Keaton], Stewart and Pattinson—oh, wait, that last one’s not playing out too well right now, is it?  Maybe the Dawn won’t be all that breaks next November, but I digress …) or maybe they think, along with Calvin’s brother Harry (Chris Messina), that with the wondrous situation of a woman manifested into life from words on a typewritten page that you shouldn’t mess around with a good thing by trying to be too sensitive about it and should just bring on Harry’s obsession with big boobs (if that’s the case we’re back to John Hughes’ 1985 Weird Science with young geeks Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith trying to control their hormones with their creation of their perfect woman, Lisa, played by Kelly LeBrock, although she’s a lot more fantastical and authoritative than Ruby, a sweet young woman who initially just wants the love from Calvin that he has written for her when she was just an essay exercise from his therapist, Dr. Rosenthal [Elliot Gould]).  In her initial devotion to Calvin Ruby would be any guy’s dream, but his concern for anyone but Harry finding out about the genesis of her existence leads to him keeping her consigned to his (very luxurious—that first novel must have been a mega-best-seller) home where she begins to develop a more independent personality, tired of his control and seeking more command of her assumed life (born in “romantic” [?] Dayton, OH [I spent a couple of college-age summers there; believe me, it’s a joke], expelled from high school because of sex with one of her teachers [Calvin hasn’t finalized which one, but I'm rooting for the Spanish guy for reasons I won't explain]) which she is clearly cognizant of, even if she just materialized yesterday in his kitchen.  In his desperation not to lose Ruby Calvin violates his pledge to not write any more about her, attempting with disastrous results to change her into someone who clings to him, soon realizing how miserable it is to be laden with a sycophant rather than a true soulmate.  At first she tries desperately to meet all of his needs, then begins to take on more solidity in her existence as she realizes that few of hers are even acknowledged.  As Calvin’s attempts to remake Ruby into someone he’s comfortable with—by rewriting her as being dependent, then happy, both of which fail as her extremes overwhelm him—he just makes her into an alienated Barbie doll (connections again to Weird Science) who fails to meet his ambiguous assumptions about what a relationship is really about (crass Harry, in his compromised but functional relationship with his wife, at least understands enough to tell Calvin “You don’t know jack shit about women!”).

            Calvin doesn’t even really understand what he’s looking for in a woman because the more free-spirit, unconventional aspects of Ruby seem clearly (if subconsciously) derived from his hippie-happy mother, Gertrude (Annette Bening), who’s gloriously living in the near-ocean wilderness of Big Sur—far up the coast from Calvin’s media-centered L.A.—with her erotic, chainsaw-sculptor lover, Mort (Antonio Banderas).  Calvin clashes with his mother and Mort over just about everything, although they easily embrace Ruby so that even opportunistic idea-hustler Harry seems comfortable by comparison in the family nest while Harry just can’t relax about anything, especially Ruby’s existence as well as her ability to embrace life while he quickly trades his first-blossom fascination for an increasingly confused and melancholy inability to accept that the relationship that he assumed would be ideal is instead a burden because he truly doesn’t know anything about real women, just his idea of what the ideal mate would be like so when she requires more than tolerance as she “intrudes” on his private time he clearly doesn’t know how to respond to her.  At a party where he meets his previous lover what begins as a benign conversation turns hostile when she confronts him with the idea that all he wants is a relationship with himself (or a female manifestation of himself), not realizing that what he needs is not a mirror-image, different-gender reflection but instead someone who can take him beyond himself, beyond his insecure withdrawals, beyond his fictional recreation of life in the making into uncontrolled life as it stumbles from one episode to the next.  He finally gets it after a remarkable scene in which he literally proves to himself that at this level Ruby is just his puppet as he quickly types a series of actions for her to perform just so that he can understand that she’s totally under his control (Kazan proves herself to be an amazing actress in this scene as she shifts instantly from one existence to another); Calvin finally types a complete release of Ruby so that she leaves his life, but enters again accidently after he’s finally written his long-awaited-successful-follow-up novel, The Girlfriend, based on his affair with Ruby—but with some details held back to protect her identity because she’s still alive even when freed from his Pygmalion/Svengali (or “Svenjolly” as Seinfeld’s Elaine would say) control.  Can what seemed headed for the fantastical disaster realm of The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985) land in the hopefully-more-optimistic-ending area of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michael Gondry, 2004, but more well known as another off-kilter screenplay by Charlie Kaufman)?  We can’t know for sure, but given Calvin’s determination to not screw it up a second time when the now-unaware Ruby meets him again, asking him to not tell her “how it turns out” (specifically The Girlfriend which she is eagerly reading but clearly implying to us another run at a relationship with him), you’ve got to have a heart “made of stone, or is it lime, Or is it just solid rock?” (Bob Dylan, Temporarily Like Achilles, 1966, although the situation here also conjures up Just Like a Woman [1966] with “Please don’t let on that you knew me when, I was hungry and it was your world”; you can check them both out on the fantastic double album Blonde on Blonde) not to appreciate the innocent, magical love between these two characters and the actors who are giving them life.  Mercy, indeed.

            Conversely, Benoît Jacquot’s French film, Farewell, My Queen (Les adieux à la reine) for me is a marvelously staged but more distant exploration of the last days of King Louis XVI (Xavier Beauvois) and his fabled Austrian Queen Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) as told from the perspective of a dedicated minor lady of the court, the fictional Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the compelling story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as seen from the perspective of Jekyll’s maid in Stephen Frears’ Mary Reilly (1996, with, of all choices, Julia Roberts, as the supposedly plain and befuddled servant who becomes increasingly aware of the chaos caused by the transformation from one persona to the other).  Laborde, as the devoted servant to the Queen, is willing to give her all for her monarch, but, hopefully, with the dream that she will be given safe transit from the besieged Versailles palace at the onset of the French Revolution in July of 1789.  In a role that showcases the odd relationship that an inconsequential underling has with a monarch, simply because she has intimate contact as a designated reader of novels to Marie Antoinette rather than being a faceless meal server or garment mender, Seydoux provides a fine demonstration of a woman eternally devoted to her mistress but with no sense of what the larger political issues of the time are about when her secure position is threatened by the tumultuous events of the regime’s overthrow.  She even has no validation from the Queen when attempting to fulfill her majesty’s desire for sensual contact with Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), as the Queen hides her desires from others in the court for her forbidden consort even after telling Laborde to arrange a meeting.  Yet, Laborde hangs on, hopeful for another chance to serve her royal mistress (in a manner reminiscent of the 1939 Jean Renoir classic Rules of the Game [La Règle du jeu] in which maid to Madame Christine de la Cheyniest [Nora Grégor], Lisette [Paulette Dubost], says she’d “rather divorce” than leave her lady’s service, even when her husband, Edouard Schumacher [Gaston Modot], implores her to join him in his duties at the country estate).  At one point Laborde even gives up sex with the sensual Italian gondolier, Paolo (Vladimir Consigny), to rush to her Queen’s needs, who may “take comfort in all things Austrian” but who knows that her world in France is quickly changing around her.

            While we see a lot of Mario Antoinette on camera (much more than we see of King Louis) she remains a bit of an inconsistent mystery to us (hence the faceless photo to the right) as she easily and regally shifts from being intimate and collaborative with handmaiden Laborde to then becoming imperially defiant and offsetting as she closes herself off from her conspiratorially-close servants and vents her anger, confusion, and aloofness as she insists upon her privileged position as Queen of a major European country (in those days, the height of Earthly triumph) even as she knows that the peasants’ revolutionary spirit is quickly bringing an end to the imperial life that she has always been accustomed to.  Kruger imbues her with a marvelous spirit that balances her defiance in the face of disaster with her spoiled self-image that allows her to assert her self-convinced sense of otherworldliness even while plotting an escape from the soon-to-be-besieged court of her out-maneuvered husband.  Like Jekyll and Hyde in Mary Reilly, she’s the most powerful, commanding presence in this film, but we don’t see and feel the world so much as she encounters it; rather, we’re given a sense of the outsider observer’s simultaneous desire to be part of this privileged inner circle and that narrator’s occasional disgust with the blind opulence that overcomes whatever humanity these privileged people may still harbor under their luxurious material facades (in a manner reminiscent of Nick Carraway’s simultaneous distance from the opulence of the upper crust and inner desire to be part of their world in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece The Great Gatsby, although there are no green dock lights at the court of Versailles, just the haunting reality back in Paris right after July 14 that the seemingly impregnable Bastille had been stormed by rebels who were ready after centuries of servitude to completely upend the Ancien Régime).  Servant Laborde was faithful to the end—although, as the film shows, there was concern among these “house n--gers” as to what their fate would be once the social tables were turned—remaining loyal to her royal mistress even as the Queen alternated between embrace and rejection of Laborde’s mere presence.

            Where Marie Antoinette’s ideal embrace would have been is around the body of Duchess de Polignac, a sensual sight in anyone’s eyes, especially early on in the film when she’s laying on a bed in a nude shot providing provocation for hetero and homosexual desire alike (recalling Susan Sarandon’s recounting in The Celluloid Closet [Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman, 1995] of her seduction scene in the erotic vampire film The Hunger [Tony Scott, 1983] with Catherine Deneuve, where she convinced the filmmakers that it didn’t need to have her character being drunk to couple up with Deneuve, because she’s erotically attractive enough to stimulate anyone, no matter what their orientation).  Despite de Polignac’s enticing resistance, it’s clear that she shares the Queen’s desire for her and willingly accepts the escape option offered as she and Laborde trade places in a carriage bound for escape from the troubled palace (echoes of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, cited in my previous [August 5, 2012] review of The Dark Knight Rises [Christopher Nolan]), allowing them both to elude the bloodthirsty mob that would eventually take the life of their desired (in different ways) monarch.  Yet, with all the care taken in casting, acting, costuming, shooting at Versailles (which gave me a sense of connection given my visit to these opulent surroundings a couple of years ago—that clearly shows why the deprived citizens of France were pushed to overthrow such ignorant, unconcerned leadership), and taking this whole quasi-historical, oblique point-of-view film into serious consideration for all of the sincere motivation behind its production, I just couldn’t get into it that much like I did with the goofier but more engaging Ruby Sparks. 

            I appreciated the contrast between the have-not revolutionaries back in Paris who eventually show up at Versailles and their kindred spirits like the better-educated but still restricted Laborde, who knows how to read and entertain the Queen but could easily be consigned to stable duty (at best, or maybe fishing dead rats from the royal waters, a nice metaphor for the corruption at the root of this isolated upper class) if she angered her patron and so is in appearance a member of privileged society but ultimately is there on a whim, not by aristocratic heritage.  I appreciated the conflict within Laborde as a commoner in lady’s clothing, torn between her desire to be part of the rulers and her awareness of the mercurial condescension inherent in these 1-percenters who could dismiss her with a whim.  I appreciated the care that went into costumes, props, and other visual depictions that set me firmly in the 18th century rather than just an attempt to recreate a distant past that still felt like constructed sets on a huge sound stage.  But beyond that appreciation, I just didn’t feel connected to this historical drama, which has gotten a lot of critical praise (for another offering from a local colleague of mine, check out Mick LaSalle’s well-explained gushing at but ironically left me siding with the majority at Metacritic and Movie Review Intelligence (my 3 ½ = 70=roughly their respective 66 and 69).  Most of the reviews I’ve actually read in full are much more complimentary than mine, so I still feel a sense of disconnection from this one just as I do from the general consensus on Ruby Sparks, but what matters with any film is what you can justify to yourself rather than what you can be convinced of by another analyst (including me).

            When it’s all over, I just didn’t have much connection to the whole experience of Farewell, My Queen, beyond an appreciation for how well executed the production was.  Certainly Marie Antoinette was mesmerizing to subordinate Sidonie Laborde, just as aristocrat Gabrielle de Polignac was mesmerizing to Marie Antoinette, just as dream-come-true Ruby Sparks was mesmerizing to Calvin Weir-Fields (and me, although I reveal this to you only as my wonderful wife Nina is off elsewhere making jewelry, not reading over my shoulder while I type this; but in my defense I know that she still lusts after Antonio Banderas, even into his older age, so I think I can negotiate my way out of this if necessary).  It’s just that the Versailles drama as a whole wasn’t that mesmerizing to me, especially in comparison to the realize-your-limitations-and-learn-to-appreciate-the-wonderful-reality-that-surrounds-you love story available in Ruby Sparks.  I’m sure that some others would find equal satisfaction in Farewell, My Queen, but I think I’m just too removed from the time, the social milieu, and the pompous aristocrats (who remind me of others I’m exposed to daily in watching/reading national news stores but I won’t get on the political soapbox now—wait until closer to November) to be able to care as much for Laborde’s lost Queen as I do for a compelling validation of the imagination. Again, mercy!
            If you’d like to know more about Ruby Sparks here are some suggested links: (interview with real-life and on-screen lovers Zoe Kazan [also screenwriter] and Paul Dano)

            If you’d like to know more about Farewell, My Queen here are some suggested links: (10 min. interview with Diane Kruger [Marie Antoinette], where she gets a bit more focus than in the actual film)

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