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By Hadley Hury

MARCH 2, 1998:  Almost 33 years after initially falling in love with Julie Christie, I realized as I viewed her new film Afterglow that I was falling in love all over again with Julie Christie. Then, she was the wide-eyed, bekerchiefed Lara of Dr. Zhivago and the wistful, desperately glamorous model in Darling (for which she won the Academy Award for best actress), and I was 16. Since that time, both Julie and I have been around the block a few times. Her face is artfully, and ever so slightly, touched up; my hair is white. But the strong feeling that her riveting performance in Afterglow evokes is not mere nostalgia nor some middle-aged desire to recherche le temps perdu. It is how her longtime fans are likely to appreciate Christie now that is of the essence. Thirty-three years ago, American teens found her sultry New Wave English looks either the stuff of exotic fantasies or the ultimate role model for hair-frosting and sang froid stylishness. It is we who have matured. Even though the Christie of Afterglow is more interestingly attractive, intelligently sexy, and husky-voiced than ever before, we are better able at this perspective to see that she is a fine, fine actor, and one of the most satisfyingly watchable film stars of the past three decades.

At one point in Alan Rudolph’s absorbing and entertaining new film, someone asks Christie’s character Phyllis Mann, “Oh, are you an actress?” With a flash of that fabulous grin, unconsciously sharp timing and painfully self-conscious irony, she rasps: “All the time.” Phyllis knows, in a mid-life best described as pleasantly bitter, that the modest talent that led to her only claim to fame – years ago, as a minor movie queen in B-minus (mostly horror) movies – has also been the primary bane of her existence. Rudolph explores, through an odd sequence of coincidental events, what it takes to break her out of her latest, long-running gig as a frustrated wife and failed mother, a beautiful woman in her early 50s whose tragedy is that she actually no longer has a role to play, and who drifts, watching videos of her old movies and dodging the threat of any real emotion with self-deprecating wit and too much gin.

With Afterglow, writer-director Rudolph continues to hack out his own distinctive path through our sulphurous urban angst and the postmodern moral and cultural detritus of our times. (He has, on occasion, lost his way, as those who managed to sit through his Love at Large a few years back will remember.) Afterglow, produced by his mentor Robert Altman, is Rudolph’s most compelling film to date, marking a subtle but substantial advance over his previous best, 1984’s Choose Me. Here we are treated to the same lush visual vocabulary, the same cool affect that somehow manages to quicken rather than alienate. Afterglow is a wonderful mood piece; but it is more than that. Integrating coherently Rudolph’s dreamy, bracingly eccentric style, his sense of societal anomie, and his writing’s oblique narrative investigations into human relationships, Afterglow takes great cinematic risks. What gives the film its own afterglow is the grace with which Rudolph manages to keep his three-ring circus balanced. We leave the theatre not only not particularly bothered but actually invigorated by his unique capacity for juggling icy surrealism with an almost giddy lyricism, and clinical dissections of the human heart with plot elements straight out of Restoration farce.

The ruefully smoldering heart of Afterglow is Christie’s performance which – short of a possible “Brit-split vote” benefiting Helen Hunt – should win her the 1997 Oscar for best actress. Also helping Rudolph hold this odd, fascinating, and ultimately moving entertainment together are the three other lead actors: Nick Nolte as Phyllis’ cheerfully philandering handyman husband, Lucky, and Lara Flynn Boyle (of television’s Twin Peaks) and Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting) as a young couple facing their own marital challenges. More accurately, it is the fact that the couples are not facing what ails them that leads them astray (albeit, eventually, to a sort of enlightenment). Miller’s character, Jeffrey, a prissy young financier whose emotional circuits are clogged by his pretensions to a cold perfection of high-tech, hard-edge style, seeks to revive himself through an affair with Phyllis. Her maturity and romantic air of loss have the effect of turning the jaded young man into a positively medieval, chivalric knight. Concurrently – with each pairing unbeknownst to the other – Nolte’s Lucky has struck up a liaison with Boyle’s lonely young wife, Marianne.

What begins as a cold examination of estrangement, set against the gray stone buildings and wintry sunsets of Montreal (and musically edged by that master of film-score chill, Mark Isham) ends, after all is said and done, as something quite different. The characters have come to a new place, and so have we. From a film of high artifice, with a vivifying sense of something rather magical, some real-life lessons have been learned about breaking free, and about the even harder business of breaking through – of expressing need and forgiveness. As one character in Afterglow (speaking, one suspects, for the filmmaker himself) repeatedly exhorts: “Take a flying leap into the future.”

In one of the many characteristics Palmetto borrows from classic film noir, we occasionally hear voice-over narration from the seriously flawed hero, Harry Barber (Woody Harrelson). In the scene in which Harry feels the undercurrent of a get-rich-quick scheme pulling him from the shoals of his amoral opportunism out into the depths of really big trouble, he muses: “Over and over I told myself I should’ve just pulled out then and there.”

The line will take on a special resonance for anyone managing to sit through Palmetto.

Of all the teeming hordes of misconceived noir spawn in recent years, this, we might hope, is the worst, the one that will shake even the appalling taste and failed imagination of Hollywood by the shoulders and say: No more. All of us who know and love real film noir should start a letter campaign; we could use the classic Lloyd Bentsen line from the 1988 vice-presidential debate – “I knew film noir. It was a friend of mine. And this Tarantinoesque twaddle is not film noir.”

Director Volker Schlondorff has been able successfully to deploy elements of noir in other contexts: The Tin Drum and A Handmaid’s Tale place ordinary protagonists in extraordinary situations and foment a heightened sense of ambient paranoia, corruption, and psychic claustrophobia. With Palmetto, however, Schlondorff seeks to immerse himself in the genre itself. The result – doomed from the outset by an abysmal script and the casting of Harrelson – is a reverential survey of film-noir technique, from rain-splashed windshields in the night, to high-contrast light and shadows (including even the requisite window blinds), violence, and cheap sex. It’s all there. But it never simmers.The characters are utterly uninteresting, and the situations are so heinously derivative of scores of other better movies that, at best, Palmetto feels like a rather boring parody, a sort of “Forbidden Noir” revue.

Elisabeth Shue is wasted in a small, inane role, about which she seems embarrassed. (She should be.) And Harrelson is simply out of his element trying to portray a man scrambling on the slippery slope of a moral quagmire; he simply doesn’t look like a man who would be aware of such a dilemma. The rivulets of sweat that trickle down his face from the beginning of the film to its end have more energy than his performance and are about as interesting to watch.

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