‘Forever Mine’ (05/01)

Paul Schrader went for delirium in this portrait of the obsessive lover, a figure who first appeared in his work as Richard Gere’s Julian Kaye in American Gigolo (80), then as Willem Dafoe’s John LeTour in Light Sleeper (92), and here as Joseph Fiennes’ Alan Ripley. But Schrader refused to rush the quest, denied its hysteria, and, scene by scene, made the portrait wait. The result is that the hero who emerges from the wreckage of this tale of Rip­ley, the Key Biscayne cabana boy who becomes the criminal international businessman Manuel Esquema, is not Fiennes at all. It’s Gretchen Mol as Ella Brice, the corrupt politician’s wife Fiennes first glimpses emerging from the ocean as if she were Botticelli’s Venus.

Mol is wearing a white suit that seems less like something she put on than something that came out of her. But it’s not just the clothes, which are fabulous throughout—glamorizing, maybe, or maybe a way of letting the character say, across 14 years, that no matter what a disaster her life has become she still has some sense of what she’s worth. From an unself-consciousness with nakedness almost never seen in film anymore (an effect that again owes much to Schrader’s refusal to rush the sex scenes, his lack of any need to use flash shots, his understanding of how to get lust on the screen and prurience off it) to an ability to communicate almost everything with eyes, Mol centers the frame and the film itself. Fiennes’ Alan is mindless in his certainty that he and Mol’s Ella are fate incarnate; she has to think, struggle, make choices, decide. Explaining himself to Ray Liotta’s Mark Brice, Ella’s husband—simple typecasting, back in 1973, when the story begins and Liotta looks like a pimp; good casting when the story shifts to 1987 and he looks like Richard Nixon—Fiennes sounds like he’s quoting from a New Age text he keeps by his bed. “What is this gibberish?” Liotta the thug says reasonably. Fiennes’ character will speak in the puffed, melodramatic cadences of a high-school Shakespeare production; Mol’s voice is always flat, down to earth, the film’s reality principle—why you believe it.

Schrader wanted high romance; he wanted Douglas Sirk. Along with Angelo Badalamenti’s sometimes almost unbearably subtle soundtrack, Schrader gets it most vividly in a few shots of Fiennes, Liotta, or Mol ascending the graceful, hanging staircase in the mansion the Brices live in by 1987; shots from below, from the side, the camera seeming to move around the figures as they climb or run up the stairs. It’s 1948 noir, a shot of pure money you know is about to go up in smoke. But lurking behind the heavy, damask curtains of a Sirk unveiling is the 19th century. The 1987 scene where Mol, having betrayed Fiennes in 1973 and still living off the memories of the few hours they had together, reads aloud from Madame Bovary to elderly men and women—reads about the ball, about how Emma Bovary clings to the memory of that wonderful night, thinking now it was one week ago, now it was two weeks ago, about how “Little by little, the faces became confused in her memory…”—is far more hurtful than any of the film’s scenes of violence, and in its way a more complete, ineradicable act of lovemaking than any of the scenes of Fiennes and Mol in bed. The reemergence of the cabana boy as the Pan-American banker, funneling State Department funds to the Contras with one hand and fixing Liotta’s indictment by the Justice Department with the other, invokes The Count of Monte Cristo, the hero left to rot in Devil’s Island as Liotta leaves young Fiennes for dead in a construction site. Like the Count, Fiennes returns—hideously disfigured—as a man with such confidence, silence, and cunning he has no match on earth. You do believe that fate is on his side—or that he’s bought it off. But Mol never believes it.

The movie never had a commercial release. The production company went bankrupt; while others were interested in Forever Mine as a single property, insurers lumped it in with everything else the company had, and sold the package to cable; thus Schrader’s film went to Starz Encore for a TV premiere last November. Because the movie refuses to move quickly, to acknowledge how busy we all are today, it may do more time in darkness before the light Mol’s performance makes for itself wins out. That will happen sooner or later, and whenever it does, her clothes will still look good, the way the clothes women wore in Forties pictures still look good.

Film Comment, May/June 2001

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