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The Devil's Backbone
by Chris Dashiell

The Devil's Backbone mixes at least three disparate elements - political drama, the ghost/horror genre, and the coming-of-age narrative. This concoction doesn't really coalesce into a satisfying whole, but the clash of elements does manage to produce an interesting feeling of queasiness, at times coming close to dread.

The story takes place in Catalonia, towards the end of the Spanish Civil War. 12-year old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is deposited at a school for orphans that is run by supporters of the Republican militia. He is bullied by a sullen youth (Íñigo Garcés), while the school's staff suffer their own divisions - the one-legged head mistress (Marisa Paredes) is loved by the old doctor (Federico Luppi) while having sex with the much younger caretaker (Eduardo Noriega) a bitter former student obsessed with finding her stash of Republican gold. Meanwhile, the school is being haunted by the ghost of a boy who died mysteriously during an air raid.

The director, Guillermo del Toro, creates some good moody effects, contrasting the dark, oppressive interiors of the school with the correspondingly forbidding openness of the desert plain surrounding it. The setting's centerpiece is the best touch of all - a huge bomb that landed in the schoolyard without exploding serves to portray the constant presence of fear and death.

Although the appearance of the ghost is gruesome enough - a desiccated face surrounded with what appears to be an aureole of otherworldly flies - the movie really isn't that scary. The dead boy serves more to symbolize the tragedy of Spain - the end of hope, the massacre of children, the triumph of brutality over innocence. He is also part of a rather unwieldy plot structure in which these political calamaties are enacted inside the walls of the school. The story explodes in horrific violence, and del Toro loses his way, relying on the old idea of retribution to resolve things.

I wouldn't say that the picture is a failure - it's never clumsy or stupid, it's just that the sad strangeness of the film's atmosphere doesn't quite fit with its lurid plot developments. In any case, to del Toro's credit, he doesn't lose sight of the tale's elegiac quality. In the end, that's what will stay with you from The Devil's Backbone - the ache of irretrievable loss.

Given the lackluster, uninspired visual sense of most commercial product, it's no wonder that audiences enjoy Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie. Jeunet revels in the pleasures of cinematic effect - wide-angle tracking shots, rapid cutting, split screen, delirious camera movement, you name it. The photography (Bruno Delbonnel) creates an impossibly bold and vivid world of surprise. A great deal of the pleasure in Amélie is in this sense of being tickled with sight and sound in unexpected ways. Jeunet uses digital effects like a kid using a box of crayons, always fooling around with something different, and at its best the film is funny on a visceral level - most of us have lost touch with the joys of "peek-a-boo" long ago, but the picture comes close to reproducing that sense of infant delight.

All this tends to mitigate the essential shallowness of the story, about an impish do-gooder (Audrey Tautou) in Montmarte, secretly helping others find love while she is in desperate need of receiving some herself. The film is populated by types rather than people, and its whimsical romanticism is of the sort you'd find in a very slim book of pop psychology. It's a cartoon, in fact, and it may seem churlish to criticize a cartoon, especially such an entertaining one, but I will register my demurs nevertheless.

I don't know what Mark Caro added to Jeunet's sensibility in their previous films together. By comparison I would venture to guess that he brought a bit of darkness and mystery to the brew. In any case, Jeunet alone seems all brightness with no shadow. I'm not silly enough to ask for realism - that would of course be a mistake in a film of this sort - but if you take a look at The City of Lost Children you'll see how shadow can add depth and wonder to a tale. Amélie's cheerfulness is too facile - the scene where our heroine sets up a back-room quickie between misfit lovers (complete with obligatory loud orgasm) would only need a laugh track to reveal its sitcom nature. We also have a voice-over narrator to explain everything, along with lessons learned. The words, the actions, the very appearance of the film, is so controlled and determined down to the last detail that Tautou and the other actors seem like dolls or puppets.

When a work has decided everything for you beforehand, and the artist has calculated each cause to have its effect like clockwork, there's ultimately nothing new to experience. I'm told this is a fairy tale. Fairy tales have been maligned in our recent usage of the term to indicate a happy, predictable tale of magic. The fairy tales I remember struck deeper than that, and included a lot more human elements, not all of them happy. As a result, the happy endings felt more earned.

I enjoyed myself during Amélie. I laughed at parts. At other times I rolled my eyes, although not that much. I praise Jeunet's visual playfulness. But I also find myself feeling distant from the work because of its overwhelming artificiality. This is why, in the end, I can't give it my highest praise.

Another splash of color comes our way in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums. It's goofy and cartoonish, and it even has a voice-over narrator explaining everything, along with lessons learned, although this narrator (Alec Baldwin) is more amusing than Amélie's, and thus more tolerable. Anderson doesn't have Jeunet's control of the medium - his style is much less even, but at the same time he has more of a heart, and that counts for a lot with me.

The film's visual style is extremely detailed and inventive. The eccentricities of the actors' faces and dress and surroundings are highlighted by the deliberate camera placement and color schemes. Anderson specializes here in a kind of face-front tableau style, with a character or group of characters arranged facing the audience, framed in proscenium fashion by the room or setting, with all its odd little knick-knacks and incidental details. The effect is quite funny, in a soft chuckling way rather than a belly laugh - at least the first dozen times it's used. I think Anderson ends up relying too much on this technique, as if he weren't sure how else to exploit the marvelous production design.

The Tenenbaums are a family of unfulfilled child geniuses (what Salinger's fictional kids might look like after surviving the 1970s), with a protective mother hen (Anjelica Huston) and a rascal of a father (Gene Hackman) who has abandoned them and then returns to try to stop his wife from re-marrying. The script (Anderson and Owen Wilson) is sometimes wonderfully, drily absurd. At other times it gropes for cohesion and fails to find it. The one really well-written character is Hackman's, as the outlandish, irrepressible con man of a father, and he makes the most of it. His performance is the movie's best and funniest, brimming with energy.

Gwyneth Paltrow looks and acts different than usual - which is a good thing, and Ben Stiller is fine as the security-obsessed financial whiz kid who has a resentment against Hackman. I'm less impressed with the Wilson brothers - Owen and Luke. On the evidence here, I'd say their comic abilities are overrated. Danny Glover and Bill Murray are essentially wasted in throwaway parts.

The movie put me in a friendly mood and kept me there most of the time. Some good laughs, mainly smiles. One thing that annoys me, I must say, is Anderson's use of pop songs to evoke feeling. Instead of taking the trouble to create emotion through character and dialogue, he puts a song on the soundtrack at certain moments - by Nico or Dylan or Lennon etc. - and we're supposed to feel something. I think it stops the movie dead and creates an impression of phoniness that works against true feeling.

With its hit-or-miss quality and its imperfect technique and development, The Royal Tenenbaums is a less accomplished piece of filmmaking than Amélie. But despite that fact, I like it better. The reason is simple. The affection it shows for its characters, for the foolishness that goes on in families, for the touching and somewhat embarrassing vulnerabilities of human beings, seems more real and more soulful to me than all the brightness and air-tight skill of the French film. There's something to be said for relaxing and letting things go, even if they seem like they're going to hell.

©2002 Chris Dashiell