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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Inheritances

The Other Son

Dangerous Liaisons



THE MONTAGUE-CAPULET pattern has been used a lot lately, fitting easily the Middle East situation. The girl is Israeli, the boy Arab, or vice versa. Now, in The Other Son, it is altered. Two young men, seemingly Israeli and Arab, are discovered to be brothers, victims of a mistake in a hospital, a Jewish one. Once again racial difference roars.

The French director, Lorraine Levy, aided by Nathalie Saugeon and Noam Fitoussi, does not use her variation on this basic split as a trick for funny or saccharine effects. Levy and crew see their idea as a possibility, an especially acute way of examining current troubles. They see that it is not a matter of mere labels—that those labels have caused a difference between the boys since birth, and probably before that. The discovery of the mistake will be almost like the tearing of flesh.

Joseph, who thinks he is the son of an Israeli senior army officer, a youth now eighteen and himself up for military service, is told after his physical exam that he has a different blood type from his parents: he is of Arab stock. All three are of course thunderstruck, and the Jewish mother immediately tells his father that she has never been unfaithful. One of the picture’s ingratiating touches is the quickness with which he believes her. Both know the answer must lie elsewhere.

They meet with the head of the Israeli hospital in Haifa who has found the mistake. Soon after Joseph was born during the Gulf war, there was a scud missile attack on the hospital. Two babies in a single incubator were taken to a safer place. During the disturbance, the babies were mislabeled. This explanation is accepted by all four parents, but it only exacerbates the trouble. When Joseph hears it, he says: “You mean I belong to those people who threw us off our land?” Yacine, the boy brought up in an Arab home who is really Jewish, is the “son” of an engineer who has been forced by Jews to practice as an auto mechanic in his home town.

There are lovely scenes between the two boys and their fathers. The only slightly Frank Capra moment occurs when Yacine makes his way back to the Arab home and is invited to stay for dinner. Things are stiff at first, then Yacine, who wants to be a singer some day, starts in on a song they all know and they eventually all join in. A bit syrupy. All the other readjustment scenes occur casually in meetings of the young men and their brothers and their girlfriends. One of their meetings is on an Israeli beach; Joseph is peddling ice cream, as only an Arab should do there. Yacine offers to help. Later it happens again spontaneously. Simple fraternity replaces imposed order.

Of course it is easy to imagine other, darker, results after the opening accident, but Levy’s film, pitched firmly as if it were the only possibility, makes it seem so.

SOME ASTONISHING changes can be caused in film, in the sector called adaptation—changes in an entire society. A Japanese work, Seven Samurai, can be re-made in Mexico. A British work, Macbeth, can be re-made in Japan. Success varies, for different reasons, usually depending on the new culture’s receptivity to the old work. The new culture must comfortably embrace it.

Hence I expected little from a Chinese film of Dangerous Liaisons. Many will remember that there were two British films of this famous French novel in 1988 and 1989, both of them following an Anglophone stage adaptation, each differently comfortable on screen. The French eighteenth century of the novel snuggled fairly easily into the English eighteenth century. This seemed less likely for adaptation into Chinese.

The director Hur Jin-ho and the writer Yan Geling foresaw the troubles. They have accommodated the work to a new home. (They may have seen the South Korean version from 2003, which I missed; still they had their own fish to fry.) They sought a Chinese era that they thought would best suit the Choderlos de Laclos novel, its amatory games and etiquette. The Chinese artists were taken by the plot’s central device, they knew a domestic Chinese society where they thought it would fit, and they could trim the rest. Whether the picture fits that society an outsider can hardly say, but they have made the film function successfully almost as well as in the original setting.

That setting now is Shanghai in the 1930s, long before Communist rule. The principals are all wealthy or connected to money: thus wealth replaces family and the aristocratic license of the French original as class criterion. The Rolls Royces, furs, and jewels replace the titles of France, and financial clout replaces class privilege. Xie Yifan, a wealthy businessman, is a noted libertine, with many ex-mistresses. A sixteen-year-old virgin named Beibei arrives in town, and out of boredom and ego, Xie Yifan bets a non-mistress that he can seduce the virgin. The bet itself reflects the sense of class privilege. If he succeeds, the non-mistress will give herself to him, which she certainly doesn’t want to do. Other affairs play alongside the wager, as we watch it being won.

As we see Choderlos settling into his new place, we are most impressed by Hur’s directing. I don’t know if it is a reflection of Chinese 1930s style, but Hur’s virtually continuous flow from person to person, his zooming in to start and finish a scene, and his use of close-ups to magnify his leading man’s personality are in themselves seductive. The cast is largely made up of exceptionally pretty women, with Cecilia Cheung steely as the bitter non-mistress. Jang Dong-gun has the difficult task of playing a demon lover and succeeds. He is a feeling-filled movie hero.

A wry ostinato to the glistening film is that much of what goes on—visits to the Chinese opera, expensive benefits—is to raise money for refugees from the Japanese invasion, which has already begun. This aloof sympathy supports the moral chill of Choderlos.

IN 1997 Christopher Plummer played Barrymore on Broadway, and I saw four performances. I reviewed it elsewhere. When he left town, I felt deprived, and I looked forward to the film version, which seemed probable. At last it arrives, very welcome, with most of the play’s assets.

First of all, it is not a play. It is a contrivance structured by William Luce to display Plummer’s range, revised by the director Erik Canuel. Some of the exterior shots are merely nervousness about visual variety. The subject once more is John Barrymore, who distinguished himself briefly as a classical actor in the 1920s and spent the rest of his career as a Hollywood spectacle. In the 1940s Barrymore returned to the stage in a play based on his wild personal behavior and toured from coast to coast. I saw him in New York—my one experience of him in the theater—so I hastened years later to see Plummer’s show. I was thus in a unique position, watching Plummer perform Barrymore in his theater condition.

William Luce devised a series of fictional events in which the aging Barrymore rents a Broadway theater where he can rehearse his return. He is alone on stage, only a prompter in the wings. (A few more offstage in the film.) The film is less referential to Barrymore. It concentrates on a slightly drunk and slightly drinking former great actor leafing through his great parts and great memories.

The interest is in Plummer himself—who he is, what he can do. Although he has a career of over fifty films, some of them very well accomplished, he has also had the greatest classical acting career of any contemporary North American. I, who have only sampled (he spent much of his career in England), have seen him in two productions of Macbeth and two of Cyrano,and he was the best Iago imaginable. When he slips onto the stage, including the stage on screen, we sense the arrival of something mysterious, something that cannot be fully explained by the term talent or personality. It has a sense of comradeship with Barrymore and the centuries. There is a constant faint shimmer of power. I missed one moment especially: once, in the theater when he softly spoke the first lines of Hamlet’s best-known soliloquy, the woman sitting next to me sighed and breathed, “Bravo.”

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 20, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline "Inheritances."