Dir: Samantha Lang. France. 2002. 110mins.
A great leap of faith is required to adore The Idol, an overwrought chamber piece about the ambiguous, erotically charged relationship between two expatriates living in Paris. Premiered at Locarno's vast Piazza Grande but much better suited to an intimate art-house setting, this French-language drama might attract admirers in France itself when Mars Film releases it this autumn. There, its chief selling points will be the strength of screenwriter Gerard Brach, who counts a number of Polanski's films among his distinguished credits, Michelle Tourneur's source novel and a general indulgence towards this kind of archly histrionic fare. Elsewhere it looks like a hard sell outside the festival circuit: certainly it has enjoyed wide exposure this summer, with an appearances at Toronto next month after playing at Locarno and Edinburgh.
A former cook who left China many years ago, the elderly Zao (James Hong) lives alone in a rambling, traditional apartment block populated by the sort of nosey, vaguely malevolent eccentrics familiar from Polanski's The Tenant or, more recently, Amelie. Their tongues are set wagging by the arrival of Sarah (Leelee Sobieski), a neurotic, free-spirited Australian actress touring with a French stage company who sublets the flat next door to Zao's. A frustrated understudy to the production's female star - who also happens to be her lover's wife - Sarah soon befriends the reserved but kindly Chinaman and confides to him her fantasies of revenge against her rival and her thoughts of suicide.
Shot on deliberately claustrophobic sets, the film suggests the clash of these two opposing worlds across the landing. A teasing complicity develops between the neighbours, as Sarah flirts with the old man while holding him at arm's length. He in turn gives her flowers, cooks her exquisite dinners and irons her nightdress, infusing it with exotic perfume. There is something distastefully colonial about their relationship.
Zao is a stereotypical Oriental sage. "Why are you so enigmatic'" he is asked at one point, and replies, unarguably: "Because I am Chinese." He has a shrine to his ancestors, in contrast to the unstable Sarah who gushes that he has "centuries of history behind him". Yet his personal past remains sketchy, and while Hong's strangulated French is excused by the fact that the American actor bravely learned it from scratch for the role, it is inappropriate for a character who is supposed to have lived in France for half-a-century.
Sobieski's French is polished, but the young actress, so outstanding in A Solider's Daughter Never Cries and Eyes Wide Shut, here delivers a mannered performance which will alienate many audiences. Presumably meant to be sexy, fascinating and mercurial, instead Sarah comes across as an irritating drama queen who turns every moment into an opportunity for attitudinising and whose suicidal intentions are highly suspect.
The Australian-based director, Samantha Lang, has previously specialised in intense, smothering relationships, as she did with fine effect to her debut feature The Well. But she was less successful with The Monkey's Mask which, like The Idol, constantly teetered on the pretentious - for the latter, faster editing might help relieve the overall mood of inertia. Among the other technical contributions, special credit goes to Benoit Delhomme's atmospheric, richly textured photography.
Prod co: Fidelite Productions
Fr dist: Mars Films
Int'l sales: TFI International
Prods: Marc Missionier, Olivier Delbosc
Scr: Gerard Brach, Samantha Lang, based on the novel by Michelle Tourneur
Cinematography: Benoit Delhomme
Prod des: Prisque Salvi
Ed: Chantal Hymans
Music: Gabriel Yared
Main cast: Leelee Sobieski, James Hong, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Jalil Lespert