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Armchair Cinephile

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Belle Epoque
(Columbia Tristar)

The Rules of Attraction
(Lions Gate)

When his film Belle Epoque (Columbia Tristar) won the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1993, director Fernando Trueba made a comment as sacrilegious, albeit more modest, than John Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" remark: "I'd like to thank God, but I don't believe in God, so I'd like to thank Billy Wilder."

That sentiment tells you much of what you need to know about Trueba's film, where the normal institutions in which mankind places its faith - the Church, the government, the revolution, marriage - are laughable distractions at best, destructive forces at worst. Sex doesn't seem like that big a deal either - although judging from the adventures of a young military deserter named Fernando, it couldn't hurt.

Fernando is a one-time seminarian, escaped soldier, and talented cook who befriends an old man just before his four daughters come home to visit. The daughters are improbably beautiful, but their allure is no less likely than the speed with which Fernando beds them. In the most entertaining of his accidental seductions - and the one that owes an obvious debt to Wilder's Some Like It Hot - the young man is dressed for a costume ball as a French maid, with the family's lesbian daughter dressed in his Army uniform. She rescues him from a would-be molester, leads him to a hayloft, and does what soldiers have done to farm girls for centuries. Thus begins a series of quick and comical copulations that culminate with true love in the form of virginal Penelope Cruz. Not even two onscreen suicides can weight down this piece of pastoral fluff, but Trueba's Wilderish detachment makes the plot's insubstantiality perfectly appropriate.

 
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There is a suicide in The Rules of Attraction (Lions Gate) too, although director Roger Avary has a little more trouble finding the right tone to depict it. As many critics noted when the movie spent its five minutes in theaters last year, novelist Bret Easton Ellis' bed-hopping characters are moral ciphers who deserve to be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism (to say nothing of penicillin). While Avary spends much of the movie depicting them as depraved nihilists who pretty much deserve whatever trouble they get, all the while using their exploits to demonstrate his flashiest cinematic tricks, he succumbs late in the film to a desire to grant them a little humanity. That is a bad idea, but it doesn't make the film any less repulsively compelling, or diminish impressive sequences like the long split-screen scene that morphs together when its two characters cross paths.

Contrary to what some activists think, not all women who seek abortions are consequence-ignoring libertines - but it made sense for director Alexander Payne (who co-wrote the script) to make the star of his abortion comedy Citizen Ruth (Miramax) a glue-sniffing tramp who is doing well to be able to identify the father of her unborn child. The dumber Laura Dern's Ruth Stoops is, the more Payne can focus on the factions who battle to control her fate, both of which are ripe for mockery: Burt Reynolds' politically opportunistic Baby Savers on one side, and a bunch of tree-hugging lesbian pro-choicers on the other. At no point is the film very generous to its characters, which was my main complaint with Payne's recent About Schmidt, but satire is rarely for the kind-hearted, and at least Payne knows a thorny joke when he sees one, and at least he doesn't let a personal sympathy for one side of the political debate keep him from mocking both sides more or less equally. In comedy, if not in real life, it pays to spread yourself around. •


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