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Nashville Scene Atom and Evil

Egoyan's 'Felicia's Journey' is a chilling treat

By Noel Murray and Jim Ridley

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  Over the 20-plus years of his filmmaking career, Atom Egoyan has been that rare commodity--an artist who overcame a "promising but troubling" tag to become someone whose new work can be greeted with genuine enthusiasm. Early films like the icy, techno-phobic relationship dramas Family Viewing and The Adjuster may have been intellectually stimulating, but they were also emotionally enervated. Egoyan seemed to turn a corner with 1993's Calendar, a probing, bittersweet story of love and obsession that confronted the director's own anxieties in a more direct and personal way. Since then, Egoyan has been reaching a larger audience with films that use the accessible structure of psychological suspense to put across deep and complex themes. Last year's Felicia's Journey (playing Thursday through Saturday at Vanderbilt's Sarratt Cinema) may not be the best of the Canadian's recent oeuvre, but it's perhaps the most entertaining, and often the creepiest.

Elaine Cassidy stars as Felicia, who travels from Ireland to England to tell her boyfriend that she's pregnant. When she can't find him, a kindly cook named Mr. Hilditch (played by Bob Hoskins) takes her in and offers to help her track down the young man. But in a series of unnerving flashbacks, Egoyan shows us that Mr. Hilditch has had similar relationships with other lost young girls, and he implies that the ones who came before Felicia may have come to a deadly end.

Felicia's Journey has the rhythm and suspense of a Hitchcock film, but like director Anthony Minghella in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Egoyan removes the McGuffin and lets the queasy motivations take center stage. It's an interesting and useful switcheroo. Hitchcock's best work hooked the audience with plot and then touched ever so cleverly on dark themes like voyeurism, guilt, and psychotic obsession. Like Minghella in Ripley, Egoyan engages our morbid fascination with sex, despair, and sociopathy, dropping tantalizing bits of plot along the way. Indeed, Felicia's Journey is less about what Mr. Hilditch will do next than it is about what he has done and why he's done it--a mystery that Egoyan addresses in hysterical flashbacks to the cook's childhood and his inattentive celebrity-chef mother. What has been missing from Hilditch's life to shape his strange behavior?

Beginning with 1995's Exotica, Egoyan has been interested in the emotion of loss--especially how people behave when their loved ones die. As a subtext, Egoyan has been exploring the exploitation of children by well-meaning adults, who let fragile hopes get perverted into something dark and ugly. 1997's widely acclaimed The Sweet Hereafter (based on the Russell Banks novel) slyly used the story of the Pied Piper to explicate the devastation of a small town after a fatal school bus accident, and had at its center a disquieting portrait of incest. Based on a William Trevor novel, Felicia's Journey inverts the story of Little Red Riding Hood: It shows a girl leaving her Grandma's house to find a home and staying a few days with a man who may be The Big Bad Wolf.

If there's a downside to Egoyan's dabbling in the more plot-driven thriller style, it's that eventually he has to stop vamping on the curious human condition and let something actually happen. When Felicia's Journey finally gives in to the necessities of its genre, it becomes a not-quite-dim (but not-quite-brilliant) serial killer movie. Until the climax, though, Egoyan hypnotizes us with his skillful dance around the facts and the meaning of the story. We in the audience--who have internalized the fairy tales Egoyan is riffing on and the Hitchcock beats he's borrowing--follow right along with him as he shows just what brings the hunter and the prey to their mutual stage. Blackly funny and ultimately jarring, Felicia's Journey is not to be missed. --Noel Murray


All American

When the five Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Film were announced Tuesday, the only one widely known to people in this country was Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother. It's likely to stay that way too. The Oscars tend to monitor the acceptance of Hollywood standards of filmmaking around the world, and it would be tough to find a foreign film more Americanized than this glossy, briskly commercial homage to the Tinseltown melodramas of the 1950s.

In some ways, that makes All About My Mother an effective entertainment. After all, some of those melodramas are pretty damn good, and Almodóvar's film shares many of their virtues, from a crackling pace to lively supporting characters who stand around dispensing bitchy witticisms. But the lurid plotting seems like a straight version of one of Almodóvar's prankish early comedies, like What Have I Done to Deserve This? or his best-known film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. And when the material is this soapy, straight isn't necessarily better.

In this partial tribute to All About Eve (hence the title), Cecilia Roth plays Manuela, a hospital organ coordinator who decides to celebrate her son's 17th birthday by taking him to see a Spanish production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It's a rainy night, though, and a chance encounter with Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), the actress playing Blanche DuBois, results in a tragedy that affects both women's lives. In the aftermath, Manuela becomes the center of a small surrogate family that includes a flamboyant transvestite (Antonia San Juan) and a young nun (Penelope Cruz) who harbors a dark secret.

Almodóvar made a joke of such brazen contrivances in his earlier movies, so much so that he began to lapse into worn-out ironies and facetious stylistic excess. In recent films such as The Flower of My Secret and Live Flesh, he seemed much more emotionally committed to his material, without sacrificing his flair for exotic camera angles or evocative decor. Here, though, the plotting is unashamedly manipulative: He's angling for tears now instead of snickers, but the effect is still weirdly artificial. And although the movie pays tribute to the roles of strong women--the movie is lovingly dedicated to Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, and Romy Schneider, as well as all mothers and actresses--the wild plot twists do little to enhance our understanding of the characters. Try making sense of the nun's past with the little Almodóvar tells us about her.

The influence of Hollywood on foreign movies is a mixed blessing: For every Kurosawa who expands upon the films of John Ford, there's a Luc Besson who'd love to be Jerry Bruckheimer on the Seine. Pedro Almodóvar isn't sinking to those depths, knock wood; All About My Mother is skillful and involving. But the Oscar nomination for the weakest of his recent films isn't a reward for moving forward; it's a reward for looking back at America, and not in anger. --Jim Ridley


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