He’s a one-man wrecking crew
A FEW YEARS ago, Oren Moverman directed The Messenger, a film that revelled in its own restraint. Rampart, his follow-up, offers a few echoes of that earlier release. Once again, Woody Harrelson plays against type as a man in a uniform. It takes place in bright, strength-sucking sunlight. It’s another story of men doing what men must do.
Rampart is, however, a very different piece of work to its disciplined predecessor. Everyone involved is showing off like lovehungry kids meeting a potential step-parent for the first time. The acting is off the leash. James Ellroy’s script is stuffed with grandstanding flourishes. And the direction? If the camera isn’t drifting drunkenly about the room, it’s delivering still images of moist
body parts to the accompaniment of clanking machine noise. Somebody please fan my armpits.
Dave Brown (Harrelson) plays a chain-smoking Los Angeles cop, whose tendency to kick suspects in the head doesn’t quite overwhelm his medieval moral certainty. Brown has found himself sucked into the so-called Rampart scandal that brewed around the LAPD in 1999. It looks as if the authorities may be pursuing Dave, recently suspended for laying into a suspect, as a way of deflecting accusations of more widespread corruption.
Then again, something entirely different may be brewing. Ellroy and Moverman have delivered a rather brilliant character study, but they have expended little effort on developing the story.
The film is packed with memorable situations and faintly crazy directorial switchbacks. At one stage, during a stop-off in a sex club, the director decides to exercise his inner Gaspar Noë and allows the film to break down into total abstraction. The contrast between Dave’s cowboy politics and his alternative lifestyle (he has had daughters by two, ostentatiously liberal sisters) invites us to think him unimaginably complex.
It’s all very impressive in a showy way. But you leave the cinema full of the wrong sorts of questions. What the hell is Robin Wright’s up to? How deep in the ordure is Dave? Hang on, is the film actually over or has the projector broken down mid-scene?
Still, Rampart is definitely worth seeing for its oddness alone. HADEWIJCH (Julie Sokolowski) is a young 21st-century novice sister named for a 13th-century virgin mystic. She has embarked on a fanatical regime of fasting and freezing when the Mother Superior (Brigitte MayeuxClerget) takes her aside. In light of the trainee nun’s “self-love” and blind faith she will not be permitted to take her vows or remain at the convent. “You are a caricature of a nun,” scolds the elder anchorite.
Devastated, Hadewijch returns to Paris and her old secular life as Céline, the privileged daughter of a “jerk” diplomat. The girl soon finds some solace in the company of Yassine (Yassine Salime), a young Arab ne’er-doell who lives with his older brother, Nassir (Karl Sarafidis) on the less salubrious side of town. Then, because this is a Bruno Dumont flick, our heroine finds herself in a political cell in the Middle East before returning to France, where a crucible of faith awaits.
What do international distributors have against Dumont? Detractors would have it that the director, one of the best curveball auteurs on the block, is simply too glum and severe for most arthouse tastes. But if that’s true, why did Humanity, his most discombobulating film, a forensic drama about a raped and murdered 11-year-old, find an audience in this territory in 1999?
Why, too, were we left watching Michael Winterbottom’s epic fail Nine Songs when Dumont’s 2003 naturalistic sex drama Twentynine Palms went unreleased? Even Dumont’s Flanders, a 2006 Grand Prix winner at Cannes, was mostly relegated to the festival circuit.
Thus Hadewijch, Dumont’s strange, compelling mediation on penitence and fundamentalism, pops up on our schedules almost three years after the film won the International Film Critics’ award at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. Well, better late than never.
Chilly like a church and mad as a cult, Hadewijch echoes back its pet preoccupation as reverence and gaudy plot turns. It’s secularism from the film nation that brought you Of Gods and Men and Lourdes. Sokolowski’s central turn and Yves Cape’s cinematography add a beatific glow to a fascinating piece of cinema.
Say hello to Officer Friendly – NOT: Woody Harrelson in Rampart
RAMPART Directed by Oren Moverman. Starring Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube, Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche