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Birthday Girl (Jez Butterworth) 2002 / Mississippi Mermaid (FranÁois Truffaut) 1969 

The battle of the sexes on display in Jez Butterworthís Birthday Girl probably should be the focus of the film. Instead we get a lot of nonsense about bad ass Russian criminals. The lack of singularity doesnít exactly sink the film, but we find it meandering far more than it should. Thatís disappointing, because it stars Nicole Kidman, whom, out of all actresses working today, seems to best understand the amount of power contained in her sexual presence. The best moments in the movie are those in which Kidmanís character lays bare the sex / power equation. Since language is taken out of her relationship with Ben Chaplin, a primeval carnal understanding seems to emerge. When the movie turns into a more routine crime caper, the bondage stops being a playful erotic dance, and a good portion of the fun drains out of the premise. Since the movie begins striving for a sort of sweetness that seems at odds with the central themes of the work, things begin to sour. Chaplinís character is revealed to be so free of malice and ill will toward his mate that we wonder why we had to watch the early scenes in which heís humiliated at work and home. Thereís no payoff to some of the promises that the film makes. Still, itís entertaining enough, and it leaves little doubt that Kidman has become one of our best actors, since she takes what should be a stunt performance (she delivers much of her dialogue in Russian) and creates something more interesting.   

 

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                Quite coincidentally, the day after watching Birthday Girl, I popped the new release of FranÁois Truffautís Mississippi Mermaid into my DVD player. I hadnít seen it before, and knew of its reputation as a minor work by Truffaut standards. If itís to be considered minor though, thatís a strong testament to Truffautís body of work. As the second Hitchcock homage that Truffaut produced (after The Bride Wore Black), it manages to be the movie that Birthday Girl often seems to yearn to be. Certainly the setups of the two movies are similar. Both films start out with the arrival of a mail order bride that isnít quite what she has promised. For all that I said about Kidman, she really canít hold a candle to Catherine Deneuve in her prime (and Deneuve is still sexy Ė her turn in POLA X definitely infused a domineering presence with an undeniable attractiveness). As an amalgamation of the blondes Hitchcock consistently used in his films, her character here has little trouble turning heads. A detective remarks that everyone seems to remember her, despite her lack of distinguishing characteristics. When she takes off her shirt, a car crashes, because of the distraction. Much of the movie feels at once comic and tragic because poor Jean Paul Belmondo canít resist her, even though he knows her presence is poisonous. His rant about the irresponsible behavior of pretty girls is a highlight, and Deneuveís petulance opposite his accusations takes things to a higher level. Nothing in Birthday Girl can come close to this or a half dozen other equally great scenes that Mermaid offers.   

                The biggest problem is that Birthday Girl introduces more of a supporting cast than Mermaid does. The reason we watch either of these movies is to watch the interplay between the leads. Subsidiary characters in Mermaid are not at all well developed. They exist simply to propel the plot, and to allow new depths to the degradation that Deneuve can inflict upon Belmondo. The thugs that show up in Birthday allow some of the blame for the con to shift from Kidmanís character, but they mostly diffuse the intensity of the central relationship. Both films end with the couples still together, with the male continuing to live the lie heís created, but in Birthday Girl, they want us to think thereís nothing ironic or twisted about the arrangement, and it simply does not work. Thereís still a lot to like in the film, which passes time amiably enough, and itís only when you compare it to the work of a master that its direction seems a little shoddy and its lack of consistent tone seems amateurish. It doesnít have the hip sophistication and ironic humor that makes Mississippi Mermaid so eminently watchable. I suppose it must also be said that both movies thinly disguise their misogynistic tendencies under a guise of sexual empowerment. Thereís no doubt that the real victors in the battles of the sexes waged in these films are the male directors. Some might reject the movies because of this, I suppose, but look at the bright side. At least these films address the issue at hand, unlike so many films that allow objectification to go completely unchecked.

 

Birthday Girl *** 

Mississippi Mermaid ****

02/12/02

Jeremy Heilman