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The Man Who Thought He Loved Women

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STRAPLESS

Directed and written by David Hare

With Blair Brown, Bruno Ganz, Bridget Fonda, Alan Howard, and Hugh Laurie.

With his third feature--his second, Paris by Night, has yet to be released in this country--British playwright-turned-filmmaker David Hare consolidates his reputation as one of the most tiresome and pretentious contemporary directors. He combines musty dramaturgy, psychobabble, and barefaced borrowings from the works of far greater filmmakers to create movies that would be insufferable if they weren't so laughably unconvincing.

Early in his stage career, I'm told, Hare was a firebrand, a proletarian dramatist zinging poisoned darts at the upper classes. But his films--including his screenplay for Plenty, which was at least elegantly directed by Fred Schepisi--are posh, posturingly politicized updatings of what used to be called "women's pictures." His female protagonists (the men are largely stick figures) are blocked women forced by will or circumstance to attempt to liberate themselves. Meryl Streep's embittered idealist Susan Traherne in Plenty--nothing less than a symbol of postwar Britain's moral decline--fails; Vanessa Redgrave's repressed schoolteacher Jean Travers in Wetherby begins to get an inkling of what's wrong with her life (and the culture that spawned her) after a young man blows his brains out in her tidy Yorkshire cottage.

Hare's ideas--and I use that word with tremendous generosity--are never fleshed out by his heroines. These unfinished women are merely talking theses; Hare spreads his themes on them as though he were buttering scones. Strapless's Lillian Hempel (Blair Brown) is a dismal example of the filmmaker's gauche notions of characterization. We first meet Lillian, a middle-aged American doctor working in a London National Health hospital, on holiday in Portugal. She muses to an admiring stranger, Raymond Forbes (Bruno Ganz), that she's never understood how Christ's sacrifice could redeem humanity's sins. "Such a weird idea." (Raymond, eager to get into her knickers, nods in agreement --"It is obscure.") Just as Chekhov knew that a gun planted in the first act of a banal, well-made play will inevitably go off in act three, you can bet your billfold that by the fade-out Lillian will prove herself capable of some Great Redemptive Sacrifice.

Back in London a hospital coworker tries to enlist Lillian's help in protesting Thatcherite government cutbacks that are crippling medical care. Like Humphrey Bogart in his best-remembered roles, Lillian disclaims responsibility. "That isn't my fight," she protests, "I'm an American." You needn't have yawned through more than a couple of formulaic plays and movies to know that Lillian will be transformed into an activist and rally the hospital staff with a rousing Norma Rae oration before the final credits. "We collude in the system's decline" is just one excerpt from her jaw-breakingly didactic sermon.

Hare's screenplay is childishly schematic. Lillian (her prudish, archaic name tells all we need to know about her) is a creature of pure intellect, a stern workaholic whose brain censors all of her emotional and erotic instincts. In case we miss the point, the smitten Raymond calls her "a uniquely interesting and vulnerable woman." Her much younger sister, Amy (Bridget Fonda), with whom she shares a flat, is all impulse--a slovenly, free-loving, drifting groupie attached to the fashion world. As Lillian learns to release her id, Amy, impelled by an unexpected pregnancy, develops a superego--she alters her slothful housekeeping habits and designs a line of dresses while waiting for the baby to arrive. Strapless is a crash course in Freudian cliches, an insult to educated, upscale moviegoers who constitute the only conceivable audience for such tony yuppie melodrama. The diagrammatic screenplay ends with a death followed by a birth; it's the cinematic equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit.

Formally, Hare uses derivative French New Wave effects to express his stale Freudianisms. The film's opening shot--the camera arcs around a piece of statuary--duplicates identical images from Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad and Godard's Contempt, a double plagiarism. (Georges Delerue's music from Truffaut's Day for Night is also cannibalized in Nick Bicat's otherwise lackluster score.) After a scenic Lisbon prelude--cathedrals, formal gardens, picturesque restaurants, all handsomely photographed by Andrew Dunn--the film retreats to the static framings of Wetherby: actors trapped in frozen compositions trading bits of Hare's dialogue, which mixes pseudo-Pinteresque absurdist spareness ("What are you doing?" "I'm sitting here") with trite profundities ("We're not here for long. It's so short") and soap-opera whimpering ("For years, I've done nothing but give . . . give . . . I'm sorry, but when do I get something?").

The performers can't do much to deepen Hare's shallow writing and direction. Blair Brown struggles to make Lillian something more than a casebook study, but little about her rings true--starting with why she left America at 25 for an unremunerative position with the National Health. Brown's appearance alters drastically from scene to scene; sometimes she looks girlish, sometimes haggard. (Perhaps her highly publicized romance with Hare led to some sleepless nights.) As Raymond Forbes, an enigmatic, romantic entrepreneur--the character's surname is no accident--Ganz seems totally disengaged from the few scenes in which he appears. Fonda, who brought some sluttish vivaciousness to her previous screen roles, is disappointingly bleached out, her high spirits stifled by Amy's monotonous petulance. Alan Howard, the lover in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, has a few telling moments as Lillian's overcautious but sympathetic supervisor.

Near the end of the picture, Lillian --who has secretly married Raymond only to be deserted by him--goes to the country to meet Raymond's previous (and still undivorced) wife, who reflects, "Raymond loved women. It's very rare." Hare, one of the rare contemporary male dramatist-screenwriters whose works are dominated by female characters, thinks he loves women too, though I suspect that, like Ingmar Bergman, he's more infatuated with the idea of women than with their reality. Because Anglo-Saxon society permits (even encourages) women to be more up-front than men about expressing their emotions, employing female protagonists liberates writers to be more explicit about feelings and sentiments. But despite his professed empathy with women, Hare uses them as devices, mannequins on which he can project his acrimonious vision of England's social, political, and moral failures.

In Strapless, Hare may feel he's deepening and politicizing the women's picture, but all he's accomplished is the evisceration of that genre's questionable pleasures. (Hollywood's Douglas Sirk, in All That Heaven Allows and There's Always Tomorrow, managed to subvert the genre far more effectively and radically.) Hare's press- book comments expose the paltriness of his imagination. "It's about a woman who's hitting 40, and finally realizing that her professional life, as important as it is to her, is not enough to sustain her. She's trying to evaluate what has gone wrong with her past relationships, and whether, given her fears, she can make any relationship a success." Didn't Gloria Steinem and Gail Sheehy talk to death this having-it-all dilemma more than a decade ago?

It's easy enough to convey some sense of the ludicrousness of Hare's soaper by offering a few examples. The movie begins and ends with the antiquated device of women dropping their hankies. The moonstruck Raymond appears outside Lillian's apartment one evening with a love offering--a horse. (We're never told what becomes of the poor beast.) Amy gives birth in a Jacuzzi to the strains of Mozart. I could go on with this list, but I feel my brain turning to jelly.

Even the title is Symbolic. Literally, Strapless refers to the gowns Amy designs for the fashion show that ends the film. But in the final sequence, featuring the newly renovated sisters modeling strapless dresses, a typically leaden Hare line--"They shouldn't stay up but they do"--informs us with thunderbolt obviousness that the title also refers to Women, God bless 'em. (I couldn't help recalling that terse, patronizing phrase Faulkner uses to eulogize the black characters in The Sound and the Fury--"They endured.") Staggering out of Strapless, female viewers may well regret that they hadn't opted to save their money for Rambo III.

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