Another Movie Guy?: "The Unknown Woman," etc.

Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Unknown Woman tries to accomplish too much. It wants to be a revenge thriller, a family melodrama, a tearjerker, a horror movie, and a police procedural. The movie’s first act is bursting with tension and imagination. But as the plot unravels, the story becomes more and more ordinary. I’m not sure whether the twists were supposed to be obvious, but it’s depressing to solve the mystery before any of the characters do. The following review has spoilers. Don’t worry – I won’t divulge anything that an attentive viewer couldn’t easily guess.

Irena (Kseniya Rappoport) moves into a small Italian town. She claims to be from the Ukraine, and looks for work as a maid. Foreigners are treated with cool hostility. She’s searched by security staff at a grocery store, and her eyes grow wild. There are abrupt shots of her being sexually brutalized. The director makes it abundantly clear that Irena has an unsavory past. Soon Irena finds work in an apartment building with a Hitchcockian staircase. It becomes clear that she wants to get into the home of Valeria Adacher, who works as a jeweler. The current maid stays in the way, but Irena gets rid of her. Now she’s in the apartment, watching Valeria’s daughter, and trying to get access to the safe.

The rest of the movie  tells the story of Irena’s past, and what motivates her. The payoff does not satisfy. For example, Irena develops a rapport with Tea (Clara Dossena), Valeria’s young daughter. They both have the same curly brown hair – I’ll give you two seconds to guess their relationship. Yes, such a plot development is painfully obvious, but the director attempts to make it as earth-shattering as The Usual Suspects. At first I forgive these mis-steps, but one happens after the other, and I lose interest. At the hour mark I found myself checking my watch. I will say that for all its plot faults, the movie does have an abundance of style.  The camera sweeps with confidence. The score, by the great Ennio Morricone, pulses and does its best to keep the audience enthralled. But style does not equal substance.

The movie does not answer every question it raises. There are plot holes you could drive an 18-wheeler through, but the director tries to justify the holes with an inert emotional conclusion. Watching the movie, I found myself thinking about Tell No One, the superb French thriller whose airtight plot captivated me. The Unknown Woman pales in comparison. By the end, there was a guy snoring in the theater. I couldn’t really blame him – it’s easy to lose an interest in a movie that isn’t clever as it thinks it is.

Here are some better foreign thrillers worth knowing about:

The Aura.* The late Fabian Bielinsky tries his hand at another heist movie. Unlike his earlier effort Nine Queens which focuses on a highly intricate plot, The Aura is more about character. Its hero, played by Ricardo Darin, is an epileptic taxidermist with a gift for memory and observation. While on a hunting trip, he stumbles onto a casino heist, and through some luck and improvisation, becomes a co-conspirator. The movie has a dark palette and seems mournful throughout. Characters make choices based on their nature and not the convenience of the plot, making The Aura an uncommonly thoughtful heist movie. Those expecting twists like the ones found in Nine Queens might be disappointed. While the movie does have its share of double-crosses, they are not as ingenious as Nine Queens – a movie which borrows heavily from Mamet. Still, you’ll enjoy yourself if you’re patient and accept this is a slow-burn thriller.

* Full disclosure: I wrote this review on Netflix about a year ago. I don’t like rehashing my old reviews for this column, but since I had lots of homework weekend, I made an exception.

The Page Turner. The premise for this revenge thriller seems uniquely French. A young pianist is a bundle of nerves, and wants acceptance into a prestigious music school. She auditions before a panel of music instructors. One of the panelists, Ariane, does not offer her complete attention, and the student unravels. Years later, the student is now a gorgeous young woman named Melanie, and is intent on ruining Ariane’s life. At first Melanie’s revenge seems predictable. She becomes Ariane’s page-turner, which puts her in a unique position to ruin Ariane’s reputation as a pianist. Director Denis Dercourt is not content with such a simple story. He toys with our expectations so when the revenge finally comes, we’re surprised at Melanie’s capacity for sinister planning. The movie feels like a good short story – it’s not too long, focuses on few characters, and with a doozy of an ending. In addition to its fascinating plot, the movie is worth watching for its acting – Deborah Francois, the absolutely gorgeous woman who plays Melanie, does so much with a simple, sly smile.

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not. Audrey Tautou stars in this nightmarish thriller about a woman obsessed with a young doctor. Actually, “thriller” is not quite the right word. In a way, the audience already knows what will happen, so rather than generating suspense, the movie builds dread. It is told from two perspectives. Shot in bright colors, we watch Angelique (Tautou) leave sweet love notes for the doctor (Samuel Le Bahin). The first minutes almost play like a romantic comedy. But soon we see the doctor’s perspective – he does not even remember Angelique. What’s worse, his wife suspects infidelity. The stakes rise Angelique’s actions become increasingly crazed – soon the doctor’s life gets torn apart. Tautou is as charming as she was in Amelie. This time, however, the director ably turns the charm on its head, making her seem deeply deranged. The movie utilizes such a high concept, and could have easily become just another genre exercise. But with such nuanced performances, the story is ultimately a tragic one. The closing title cards inform us that Angelique’s psychological affliction is not uncommon. I remember thinking, “Great, with my luck, I bet the next girl that comes along will be as crazy but not as adorable.”

That’s it for this weeks “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I run for Congress.