PLAY WITH MUD
Mud You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet A Lady in Paris
(M) ★★★ Limited release
✩ encore rien vu) (PG) ★★★✩✩ Limited release ★★✩✩✩ Limited release
T( Une Estonienne a Paris) (M) HE title of director Jeff Nichols’s third film refers not to the terrain around the Mississippi River in Arkansas, where the story is set, but to the central character, a romantic outlaw played by Matthew McConaughey. In his first two films, Nichols established himself as an intriguingly different voice in independent American cinema; Shotgun Stories (2007), also set in Arkansas, was about a family feud while Take Shelter (2011), set in Ohio, told the story of a blue-collar worker who becomes obsessed with the premonition (or fantasy) that tornadoes will destroy his home. Both films starred Michael Shannon, who appears in Mud also, but in a small role as the foster father of one of the boys at the centre of the drama.
The emphasis in the new film is on a boy on the cusp of becoming a man. Ellis, played by Tye Sheridan from The Tree of Life, is 14 and lives on a ramshackle houseboat with his parents, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and Senior (Ray McKinnon) — the names given to the characters in Nichols’s films are frequently rather odd. Ellis is an adventurous kid and, together with his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), regularly explores the river in a little tinny.
On one of these adventures the boys spot a boat wedged high up in the trees, the aftermath of a flood. Exploring further, they come across Mud (McConaughey) who, like them, grew up on the river — but Mud has been away a long time and is now a wanted man, an armed fugitive. He’s returned to the place where he grew up to claim Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his childhood sweetheart, who he believes is willing to go away with him — and he enlists Ellis and Neckbone to help him. Not only are the police after Mud but also bounty hunters hired by the father and brother of the man he killed. Also in the area is the mysterious Tom (Sam Shepard), a former special ops sniper whose motives are not always entirely clear.
The theme of the innocent who, without knowing all the facts, attempts to help a wanted man is a not an entirely original one, and the thriller aspects of Nichols’s film are perhaps its least successful elements.
Nichols is very good at evoking the world of this rural backwater dominated by the mighty river; the stories of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer come to mind as the boys go about their adventures. Growing up in this environment is exciting and relatively unrestricted, though there are dangers ever present, not only in the armed men who live in the area but also in the wildlife — deadly cottonmouth snakes, for example. The people who live here, and work in the cheap motels, bars, supermarkets and car lots, seem to be surviving, but only just — it is hardly the American Dream, and Nichols is a master at depicting this kind of small-scale Americana. He’s also very good with the children, and the scenes in which Ellis tentatively makes moves on May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), a girl a little older than he is, are especially well handled.
At more than two hours, Mud does tend to overstay its welcome, but its many qualities outweigh its liabilities. AS a keen young filmgoer in the late 1950s, I will never forget the first time I saw Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, a multiracial love story set against the backdrop of the city destroyed by an atomic bomb. Resnais’s next film, the puzzling but captivating Last Year at Marienbad, confirmed him as an important contributor to the French nouvelle vague, and through the years his films, always literate and richly amusing, have consistently impressed. He is now 91 and still going strong (a new film, Love, Drink and Sing, will be premiered later this year), though when You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet ( Vous n’avez encore rien vu) screened at Cannes last year it was rumoured to be his swan song. Even when tackling the most theatrical material, Resnais, in the past, has demonstrated the lightest of touches, but You Ain’t Seen feels a bit on the heavy side. It also requires from its audience at least some knowledge of the two Jean Anouilh plays, Eurydice and Dear Antoine: or, the Love that Failed, that have inspired it.
It is, really, a meditation on the past and how it influences the present — the identical theme he explored in Hiroshima and Marienbad — but in this case the level of theatricality dominates to such a degree that the result is a bit stifling. It’s almost like being present at a dinner party where the conversation, while fitfully interesting and amusing, is dealing with matters about which you have little interest or knowledge.
The film begins as a number of well-known French actors, appearing as themselves, are contacted by a lawyer to advise them that their friend, playwright Antoine d’Anthac, has died; the actors, including Mathieu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azema and Lambert Wilson, are asked to congregate at the dead man’s home in Provence, where the events are stagemanaged by a suave butler (Andrzej Seweryn). At first this seems like the set-up of a classical mystery, such as The Cat and the Canary; the will is read to the interested parties, one of whom is a murderer. This isn’t that kind of film, however; in this case, a film is projected in which the late author (Denis Podalydes) introduces a very contemporary version of his own play based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, performed by edgy young actors. All the veteran actors assembled have played in earlier versions of this adaptation and gradually they begin to speak the familiar lines themselves — and Resnais then switches back and forth between the different interpretations of the material.
Despite the commendable consistency of his vision through a career spanning more than 60 years and the ironic wit he brings to everything he does, Resnais seems to be speaking to a small coterie of devoted admirers with this film. The rarefied approach, coupled with the theatrical style adopted by many of his actors, proves distancing and, despite my admiration for this director, I have to admit I was a little bored by the end. NOT for the first time, whoever was responsible for translating the title of a French film into English has missed the point: A Lady in Paris is actually An Estonian Lady in Paris, and there are two of them in Ilmar Raag’s film. Anne (Laine Magi), a divorcee, lives in an ugly district of the beautiful Estonian capital, Tallinn, with her elderly mother. When the mother dies she receives an unexpected — and extremely unlikely — invitation to fly to Paris to care for an elderly Estonian woman who lives there. Anne arrives, excited to be in a city she’s never visited before, and soon discovers the woman she’s supposed to care for, Frida (Jeanne Moreau), is an ill-tempered grouch who stopped speaking Estonian — and mixing with Estonian expats — years earlier. The wafer-thin plot of the film has these two grumpy women finding some kind of common ground, and there are few surprises in the way the narrative develops.
Moreau started her acting career at about the same time Resnais started directing features and, at the age of 85, she looks as though she’s enjoyed life to the full and is still willing and able to tackle a meaty role. Unfortunately, her role in this film isn’t especially meaty, and the problems of these characters never become as interesting as the director presumably intended them to be.
Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi in