Friday, December 11, 2009

Uncovered

Earlier this year, I decided that Jim McBride, whom I had always considered a very good director, actually had the sensibility of a great director, if not the control over his career that a great director would hope for. And so I set out to obtain DVD or VHS copies of all his films that I hadn't seen. One of these, Uncovered (1994), instantly and improbably joined David Holzman's Diary (1967) and Breathless (1983) in the ranks of my favorite McBride movies.

McBride's career breaks up fairly neatly into three parts:

  • Late 60s and early 70s: He receives critical acclaim for David Holzman's Diary and enjoys a brief period of impoverished autonomy as an independent.
  • 80s: He tries making films within the commercial system, and strikes pay dirt with his second film of the decade, The Big Easy (1986). But the subsequent failure of Great Balls of Fire! (1989) seems to damage his prospects.
  • 90s: He manages to string together a series of feature works, mostly television genre projects of little prestige, barely noted by anyone.

On paper, Uncovered would seem to be as unpromising an idea as any McBride had been saddled with. Based on a mystery novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, the script (presumably written first by Michael Hirst, then worked over by McBride and his frequent collaborator Jack Baran) is about a young art conservator named Julia (Kate Beckinsale) trying to solve a 15th-century murder by analyzing a chess game depicted in a painting. Soon people associated with the painting's restoration are being killed by someone who is using the likely progression of the chess game to select victims.

This plot has nothing and can have nothing to do with the characters except to engage their curiosity, a quality that, not coincidentally, is also the audience's hoped-for condition. McBride had just managed to make good movies from an urban-vampire comedy-thriller (Blood Ties, 1991) and a film noir retread (The Wrong Man, 1993), so we already knew that he had a way with seemingly doomed projects. But Uncovered has a nimbleness and sense of freedom that lift it above the other films of this period.

Part of McBride's approach to projects like this is to treat the plots very lightly, to minimize weighty emotions associated with them and move them along quickly. This distance from thriller plots naturally creates a comic tone, and McBride directs genre assignments as comedies whenever possible. (The 90s McBride films that don't work well for me - The Informant (1997) and Dead by Midnight (1997) - are the ones with subject matter so grave that McBride couldn't in good faith play them for laughs.)

If McBride doesn't bother pretending that his plots are important, he turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic to other audience-pleasing genre elements. It's plain that he enjoys sex in a general, almost polymorphous way, and lacks the usual American inhibitions about taking simple sexual pleasure. (McBride came of age during that brief period in the 60s and 70s where it seemed as if American cinema might actually be experiencing a sexual revolution, and he has never lost the calling.) He dotes on romance between attractive people, and he's even got a flair for action and violence. (His Elmore Leonard adaptation Pronto (1997) contains an exceptional scene in which a somewhat comical U.S. Marshal, played by James LeGros, takes unexpected and lethal command of a threatening situation.)

More than any particular kind of story, McBride enjoys people, and no genre exercise is so contrived that he doesn't try to fill it with surprising, unpremeditated behavior. One of the prerogatives that a director almost always has, that few overseers are clever enough to prohibit, is to take characters who are designed to fulfill audience fantasies, and reconceive them so that they become the mysterious subject of our gaze as well as the receptacle for our identification.

Kate Beckinsale is at the center of Uncovered, and McBride clearly enjoys just being in the same room with her, being paid to photograph her. This Kate bears almost no resemblance to the rather formidable, shielded beauty who now graces our screens. McBride encourages her girlishness, her permeability. Her Julia occupies the role of the investigator, the problem solver, the righter of wrongs; but she lopes awkwardly through the streets of Barcelona, munching on carrots or apples; she stares at the painting she is restoring as if she were a child in a schoolyard encountering a new playmate. There is no fixity to her state of being: she comes easy to anger, easy to embarrassment, easy to fascination. Though she is smart, her connection to life seems simple and sensual, not much mediated by intellect.

McBride breaks down the boundaries between Julia's different functions and modes: he wants to mix everything together. Example: the first of the killer's victims is a former lover Julia still has feelings for. After she discovers his body and deals with the police, she returns to her apartment. This genre film will of course not treat the death with the gravity that it would deserve in life; and, in fact, the script is ready for a nude scene. To the accompaniment of atmospheric music, Julia enters the apartment and strips off her dress, so that she is naked except for panties. McBride isn't shy at all about his commercial obligations here: he pans, then tracks backwards to keep Julia in the camera's fixed, sensual gaze. Now that the film has shifted into an erotic mode, McBride and Beckinsale make a connection to the previous events: the topless girl shudders with a sob, still grieving. The scene is no longer purely an erotic set piece: it now exists between two narrative functions. At this moment, Julia looks at the painting in her living room that she has been restoring, and moves closer, as if noticing something new about it. The scene's function shifts again, back to the film's central inquiry, as Julia approaches the painting, her sorrow temporarily muted. McBride isn't fazed that Julia is still half-naked and exposed to our gaze as the mystery of the painting is evoked: Julia as sex object and Julia as driver of the narrative go together for him with no strain.

As much as the film revolves around Beckinsale's magnetism, it's an ensemble piece, and it contains at least two other memorable performances: by Paudge Behan as Domenec, the street-gamin chess expert who overcomes Julia's hostility, and by John Wood as Julia's queeny lifelong friend and guardian Cesar. Wood in particular does a terrific job of steering clear of cliché. He camps it up as hard as any gay best friend in the cinema, but he and McBride channel his exhibitionism into the character's life instead of brandishing it as a distraction for the audience: we quickly understand that Cesar must be taken seriously at all times, though he does not sacrifice his flamboyance to that end. Nearly the entire cast partakes of the film's diffuse but overt erotic vibe: man or woman, sympathetic or unsympathetic, everyone gets to strut before the camera and try to seduce it.

The plot is wrapped up tidily; the characters' lives less so. Julia's first line of dialogue, a spontaneous "Fuck me!" as she discovers the covered-up inscription on her painting, feels a touch provocative and open-ended, coming from this still slightly unformed woman-child. And her last line of dialogue is a refusal of closure: an impatient "Sssh!" to her new lover Domenec as she eats a pastry and watches with absorption the auction of the painting that had so occupied her. The impatience does not make us question the value of the love relationship: it merely suspends Julia, and us, in the eternal present.

1 comment:

dave said...

I've ben wanting to see this for some time, but you've certainly clinched it. First words/last words - one of my favorite details in films. It's much easier to come by in the States, so perhaps I'll try to see it while back for Xmas.