Critic Andrew Sarris defined the "Lubitsch touch" as the "counterpoint between sadness and gaiety," to which one might add witty dialogue alongside insinuating pantomime and a view that audiences should be treated as mature enough to get subtle jokes. Director Ernst Lubitsch arrived in Hollywood in 1922 after a successful career in Germany, and in 1929 made one of the first great sound musicals, The Love Parade, with Maurice Chevalier (a star of Parisian music halls) and Jeanette MacDonald, whose background in operettas perfectly complemented Lubitsch's fascination with the genre.
The finest Chevalier-MacDonald comedy is Rouben Mamoulian's 1932 romp Love Me Tonight, released on DVD by Kino in 2003, but The Love Parade and three other titles in Lubitsch Musicals (from Eclipse, a subsidiary of the Criterion label) remain a treat. They were filmed before the censors clamped down on dialogue of the sort spoken here, or flimsy nighties of the sort MacDonald wears, or plots that treat infidelity and caddishness with the European offhandedness Lubitsch favoured. The plots are set in artificial kingdoms where people break into song as easily as they speak and where servants echo their employers' love affairs and spats. Sample lyrics from a Love Parade ditty sung by Lupino Lane (aide to the military attaché played by Chevalier) and Lillian Roth (handmaiden to MacDonald's monarch): "Squeeze me once, squeeze me twice/ Most improper, but oh it's nice/ Let's be common and do it again."
In Monte Carlo (1930), MacDonald leaves a wealthy duke at the altar and takes up with disguised count Jack Buchanan in a part Chevalier would have played if he hadn't been otherwise occupied. One influential scene uses the sound of train wheels and whistles as the rhythm for MacDonald's song Beyond the Blue Horizon. In The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Chevalier gravitates between free spirit Claudette Colbert and wealthy, reserved Miriam Hopkins. Both Colbert and Hopkins demanded that Lubitsch photograph only the more photogenic right side of their faces; Hopkins won. Chevalier and MacDonald reunited in One Hour With You (1932), which was to have been directed by George Cukor but was handed to Lubitsch two weeks into shooting. Cukor's contract required him to remain on set, which he recalled in 1971 as "goddamned agony for me."
Light-years from those romances is the fraught pairing in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution as a young woman (Tang Wei) is assigned to get close to a brutal intelligence agent (Tony Leung, in a change from his usual upright, romantic characters) in 1942 Shanghai. In the extras, Lee shrugs off any controversy over the explicit (and violent) love-making, noting that it's at the heart of the story. "The reason you do it is you want to push that envelope."
These days, fraught is definitely in. Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding strips away the veneer of sibling love between two sisters (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman) to reveal jealousy and bitterness. Baumbach praises Leigh, his wife, in a mutual-admiration bonus feature: "Your performance as Pauline feels unacted to me."
In Alf Sjoberg's 1951 film version of August Strindberg's 1888 "naturalistic tragedy" Miss Julie, out on the Criterion label, the Swedish director's preoccupation with the battle of the sexes receives a complex workout, as the daughter of a driving mother has a tortured relationship ("I loathe you but I can't escape you") with a family servant. Onstage, the story took place entirely in the manor's kitchen, but Sjoberg, a major name in Swedish film and theatre until fickle attention turned to Ingmar Bergman, broadened the set to the grounds of the estate and introduced scenes and characters Strindberg had only suggested.
Also out: Terror's Advocate is Barbet Schroeder's gripping documentary on Jacques Vergès, lawyer for such villains as Carlos the Jackal and Slobodan Milosevic. Michael Clayton is Tony Gilroy's film of another lawyer (George Clooney) getting his hands dirty at a New York firm whose specialty is cleaning up messes, a job made trickier when a senior litigator (Tom Wilkinson) changes sides. And The Festival offers six episodes of Montrealer Phil Price's ragged but amusing low-budget made-for-cable mockumentary about a desperate filmmaker (played by Nicolas Wright) trying to screen his film, The Unreasonable Truth of Butterflies, at the fictitious Mountain United Film Festival in Sutton, Que. Talk about fraught.
While researching his book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Michael Azerrad taped 25 hours of interviews in 1992 and 1993 with Nirvana singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain. Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Azerrad's collaboration with director A.J. Schnack, yokes Cobain's words to songs by David Bowie, Queen and others. Apart from a few photos of the singer at film's end, the visuals are solely of people and places in his Washington state haunts - Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle. Only in the extras do we hear from Schnack and Azerrad, who recalls that Cobain killed himself a year after their midnight-to-dawn talks. Azerrad says, "I knew that he might not be long for this world."
Extra! Extra! Extra!
In writer-director Marshall Lewy's very political romantic comedy Blue State, the 2004 re-election of President George W. Bush propels John (Breckin Meyer) to leave the United States for Canada. Producer Andrew Paquin just happened to have a sister, Oscar-winning Anna, who was in the middle of X-Men 3 reshoots and signed on as the woman who shares John's expenses on the road trip to Winnipeg (where Anna and Andrew grew up). When the filmmakers couldn't nail down the main location in that city, they knocked on doors to find people willing to let them film in their homes for a week. "People in Winnipeg are incredibly nice," Lewy says in his feature-length commentary. "I don't know, if we'd been somewhere else, whether we would have got much traction with that method at 8:30, 9 at night."
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