On its surface, Ang Lee’s career has been distinguished by a seemingly aimless ricochet between nations and milieus (Taiwan, New York, Wyoming, Devon, Shanghai, Connecticut, etc.), and between adapted disparate source materials (Jane Austen, Rick Moody, Annie Proulx, Wang Du Lu, Stan Lee) and from both perspectives, you can find something to carp about. Indeed, Lee is rarely considered in serious debates about contemporary heavyweights, and his cultural rootlessness (read: opportunism) and dependence on literature may well be the reasons. We commonly like our auteurs to come packaged as purebred cultural expressors, and as artists largely independent of old narrative voices. But Lee’s case can also demonstrate, movie by movie, the irrelevance of location, and the depth-finding force of deft adaptation.
“The Ice Storm” (1997), newly Criterionized, makes the point with a cudgel: Lee may have been Taiwanese, but his first all-American movie couldn’t have been more American. Neither did its attentive filmization of the Moody novel ever seem archly literary, or uncinematic. Bizarrely underrated and unawarded in its day (not a single Oscar nomination, though it did net a Cannes trophy for screenwriter James Schamus), the film on its face is a melancholic but bemused Mona Lisa portrait of a very particular time and place: wealthy Connecticut bedroom communities in the early ’70s, when polyester suits were in, Nixon haunted the airwaves, cocktails flowed like monsoon rainwater, and the sexual revolution began to sour the lives of restless suburbanites. Focusing humanely yet sardonically on the implosion of a prototypical upper-middle class suburban family, it’s the kind of scrupulously adult, deeply imagined piece of work Hollywood should be able to generate regularly (and used to, in the ’70s); as it is, and despite the big name cast, it was pure indie. The time capsule details are formidable from the leisure suits to the “Fantastic Four” comics to the old fashioned levered ice trays, “The Ice Storm” is a masterpiece of anthropological reincarnation. (Give it points, too, for the most convincing bong hit in film history.) What unfolds amid the martinis and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” paperbacks is less of a story than a multiple character study: the affable dad (Kevin Kline) equally bewildered by his affair with a trendy neighbor (Sigourney Weaver) and his slowly disintegrating family, the mom (Joan Allen) lost somewhere between girlhood and disillusionment, the rebellious daughter (Christina Ricci) experimenting with shoplifting and mock sex with the neighbor’s boys (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd), the sweet-natured son (Tobey Maguire) impassively grappling with puberty. It’s Thanksgiving weekend 1973, when Watergate rages on the TV and the worst ice storm in 30 years hits the East Coast, a metaphoric arena for the family’s eventual rendezvous with tragedy.
Lee is adept, as few other directors are today, at limning inexpressible emotional tumult, which here pertains to every character, creating a frustrated web of incident and cross purposes that culminates, in more ways than one, with Kline and Allen’s unhappy attendance of a suburban-roulette swingers’ party. The key to “The Ice Storm”‘s ambiguity and unexpected depth is the fact that the events of the story mean wholly different things to different characters there’s no moral, just life sliced like a loaf of bread. What sticks most clearly to your skull are the lyrical moments, from Ricci impulsively donning a rubber Nixon mask for her first awkward dry hump, to the awful silent slide of a boy’s prone body down the ice-covered street. Of course it’s an actor’s movie, giving Kline one of his genuine opportunities to really etch out a character, but from the moody opening of the night train spinning its wheels on the frozen track, it’s the peaceful, pensive gaze of Maguire, still only a mysteriously hypnotizing teen star-to-be, that pulls the strands together into a single poetic statement about family, about the ’70s, and about America.
Another neglected auteur, French New Wave vet Alain Resnais has crafted a career that few critics and cinephiles know how to approach he began as the movement’s fashionable philosopher, with years of high-culture shorts, and then the epochal smart-cool splash of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959) and “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961). But then Resnais, always inquisitive and original, pursued theatrical intellectualism and metaphoric science fiction, and quickly used up the collateral he’d established with international art film audiences. The ’80s saw a Resnais renaissance, insofar as the director’s touch got lighter and less pretentious, and his attraction to movies-as-gameplay became clearer. Kino has released four of this unpredictable and energetic master’s ’80s films, two of which “Love Unto Death” (1984) and the Gerard Depardieu-starring “I Want to Go Home” (1989) have never been released in this country, even on video. The burning heart of the set, though, is “Mélo” (1986), a four character proto-melodrama (hence the title) based on a 1929 French play that in itself appears intent on boiling down the basic elements of romantic tragedy into a three-act iconography. There’s Marcel (AndrÃ© Dussollier), a famed concert pianist, visiting the domestic home of his conservatory-era pal Pierre (Pierre Arditi) and his young, elfin wife Romaine (Sabine AzÃ©ma). Marcel is a heartbroken loner despite his success, while Pierre is content and devoted. It’s Romaine that transforms, in the space of one long conversation, from a devoted spouse into a manipulating femme fatale, and from there, the sexual and emotional entanglements of the three (Fanny Ardant shows up later as the fourth, less crucial wheel) careen through betrayal, mental instability, marital espionage, suicide and even attempted murder. It’s an enveloping experience, filthy with rich talk and fascinating performances (you underestimate the cyclonic AzÃ©ma, and then you don’t), and Resnais captures it in breathtakingly long, fragile takes, emphasizing the play’s theatrical nature only enough to suggest the theater’s quaint inadequacy in truly conveying the firepower of romance and agony on display.
[Photos: “The Ice Storm,” Fox Searchlight Pictures, 1997; “Mélo,” Kino, 1986]
“The Ice Storm” (Criterion Collection) and “Mélo” (Kino) are now available on DVD.