October 02, 2005

The Squid and the Whale / North Country / The Intruder

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Exactly a decade ago, Noah Baumbach made a promising Whit Stillman-esque debut with Kicking & Screaming. After a string of duds, he has finally proven that the debut was no fluke with the overwhelmingly poignant The Squid and the Whale, a semi-autobiographical account of his coping with his parents’ divorce as a teenager. The separation, infidelity and joint custody arrangement complicate the already awkward pubescent sexuality for two brothers (Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline), and also prompt them to choose sides between mom (Laura Linney) and dad (Jeff Daniels). The boys each pick a different role model and become hostile toward the other parent. But further disillusionment awaits as the parents’ selfishness will soon dawn on them. This unsentimental and economically swift film arrives at a surprisingly resonant conclusion, and Baumbach’s mom – the esteemed former Village Voice critic Georgia Brown – can definitely take pride in it.

Also inspired by a true story, North Country is unfortunately a lot less sincere and believable. Niki Caro’s follow-up to Whale Rider finds its inspiration in a class-action sexual harassment suit filed by female Minnesotan miners, and then proceeds to turn it into something fairly generic and shamelessly manipulative. As if having to endure the sexist taunting of male coworkers isn’t enough, screenwriter Michael Seitzman makes sure that Charlize Theron’s protagonist is also a victim of traumatic upbringing, teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse and rape, so that the defendant mining company can conveniently dig up the past in an effort to discredit her. Thank goodness you can see the uplifting happy ending from miles away, or else the film might actually be a devastating tearjerker like Dancer in the Dark.

Jean-Luc Nancy's book on his heart transplant becomes completely unrecognizable and incoherent in the hands of director Claire Denis. By throwing in hunters, smugglers, black marketeers, estranged family members and lots of canines, she transforms The Intruder into a confusingly cryptic and insufferably pretentious tragedy about karmic justice. “Our worst enemies are hiding inside,” goes first line in summing up the moral of the story, although the film eventually becomes so disorienting that the point gets lost. The most remarkable part about it is the fact that it incorporates lead actor Michel Subor’s 1965 film Le Reflux as flashback. But since Steven Soderbergh similarly utilized Poor Cow in The Limey, this ploy has lost its novelty.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.