Movies

Angel & Expelled

Angel & Expelled featured image

by Marc Glassman.

Angel. Francois Ozon, dir & co-script w/Martin Crimp based on the novel by Elizabeth Taylor. Starring: Romola Garai (Angel Deverell), Lucy Russell (Nora), Michael Fassbender (Esmé), Sam Neil (her publisher, Theo), Charlotte Rampling (Hermione).

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Nathan Frankowski, director; Kevin Miller & Ben Stein, script. Feature documentary starring: Ben Stein and featuring Richard Sternberg, Guillermo Gonzalez, Caroline Crocker, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers and Eugenie Scott

Angel.

Language is a tricky thing. The young French director Francois Ozon established a fine reputation over the past few years making the quirky, independent films 8 Women and The Swimming Pool. He showed that he could mix genres—8 Women was a murder mystery musical while The Swimming Pool was a nearly surrealist sexy thriller—and work extremely well with veteran actresses (Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling) and younger ones (Ludivine Sagnier.)

But those films were in French, Ozon’s native tongue. With his latest, Angel, he has not only made a film in English, but he’s also peopled it with British eccentrics. Kudos for the attempt, but Ozon has taken on a bit too much for his first English production.

Part of his problem lies at the film’s source, a well-received novel by mid-century writer Elizabeth Taylor (no, not the actress!). For Taylor, who was a more highbrow contemporary of Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie, Angel was an indulgence. She wanted to evoke a particular type—the willful, astonishingly confident and romantic British artiste—and based her novel on the writer Marie Corelli, who had been all the rage among London women readers before World War One. But does that type of character work on the screen these days?

To his credit, Ozon cast the film very well. Romola Garai, sadly underused in Vanity Fair and Scoop, is terrific here. She’s Angel Deverell personified—her eyes half crazed focusing on an inner gaze, her mouth pursed in a pout, her body poised in anticipation, ready to deliver a witty, aggressive verbal blow to whoever she perceives as her enemy. Sam Neill evokes the raffish charm of James Mason as Angel’s protective publisher, who secretly longs for her. Also fine are Ozon icon Charlotte Rampling as the aristocratic wife of Angel’s publisher, Lucy Russell as Nora, the closeted lesbian who loves her and Michael Fassbender as Esmé, Angel’s doomed lover and Nora’s brother.

Always the stylist, Ozon charts Angel’s climb from the put upon daughter of a greengrocer to immediate success as an iconic teenaged novelist in a manner worthy of a surrealist. Employing a green screen, Angel’s midnight-ride on a horse driven cab to Paradise, the mansion she absolutely desires, is given an air of fantasy. Key moments in Angel’s life—entrances at sumptuous parties, meetings with remarkable people—are shown as if they’re scenes in an opera.

That sense of the fantastic works against the story as Angel’s life comes apart. Having created a leading character who is a “sacred monster—un monstre sacré”—Ozon asks the audience to turn from being amused by her to feeling pity for her travails. Regrettably for him, it doesn’t work.

As Angel’s novels fall out of favour with the public and her beloved husband suffers a tragic fate, one watches with detachment. It’s hard to care about such a self centred and unlikable creature; in fact, you’re surprised that you are being asked to feel sympathy for her.

Would Ozon’s radical shift in tone in Angel have worked in another language? Quien sabe?—as we would say in Spanish…Who knows?

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Michael Moore has a lot to answer for—his didactic crowd-pleasing movies are giving documentaries a bad name. Case in point: Ben Stein’s new film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. An actor, writer and lawyer most acclaimed for the now defunct quiz show Win Ben Stein’s Money, this deadpan intellectual comedian has been many things, but never a hard-nosed journalist nor a documentarian.

But here he is in a feature doc, acting like Mr. Moore, investigating a purported conspiracy against “intelligent design,” a theory that argues for a source behind the creation of the universe. Heady stuff, indeed, but let’s reduce the idea to its essential element. Without arguing for the existence of God, intelligent design suggests that the universe couldn’t have come into existence randomly.

Scientific orthodoxy argues otherwise. Evoking Darwin, children in secular societies are taught that the universe evolved randomly—that there was no divine plan. Ah, ha! Now, you get it. Without coming out and saying so, intelligent design is quietly arguing for the existence of a divinity, or at least a creative source, for our existence on the earth.

Ok. So what is Ben Stein investigating? He talks to people—biologists Richard Sternberg, Guillermo Gonzalez, Caroline Crocker—who claime that they have lost their jobs because they questioned Darwinism. In fact, horror of horrors!, they might believe in intelligent design.

Having uncovered this apparent conspiracy—no proof is offered, just conjecture—Mr. Stein interrogates proponents of secularism and Darwinist thought. His most prominent opponents turn out to be Richard Dawkins, the author of the God Delusion and Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education. Stein tries to hang them out to dry with the question, “how did the universe begin?” They don’t know, of course, allowing Stein the opportunity to make them look like fools.

This would all be fine; docs can argue for or against anything—but Stein goes much further in Expelled. He argues that there is a conspiracy against intelligent design that is causing scientists like Sternberg and others to be “expelled” from the scientific community. Worse, he claims that Darwin’s theories, which argue that mankind evolved through natural selection, is behind Hitler’s racist policies. Before you can say Nietzsche, he’s equating Darwinism to Fascism and is showing Holocaust footage to back up his argument.

There’s something repugnant when a documentary has to stoop to showing concentration camp scenes to score points. Like Stein, I’m Jewish, but unlike him, I don’t think showing scenes of tragedy and horror is fair unless the point being made is incontestably true. Am I alone in believing that Darwin would have despised Hitler? And that any film purporting to believe in intelligence and fair play should employ those very principles in making its arguments?

Another visual metaphor in Expelled is the Berlin Wall. Apparently the forces behind secularism (or Darwinism) want to build a wall against the creationists—oh, sorry, the intelligent design community. Who does Stein evoke at the film’s end as the greatest advocate for tearing down the Wall? Why, that great Cold Warrior and well-known intellectual Ronald Reagan.

Perhaps that’s where we should leave Mr. Stein, among the Reaganites and intelligent designers who will say anything to make their points. Perhaps it’s time to give Ben Stein back his money.

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