Monday, August 13, 2007


COLD HEAVEN (1990, USA, Nicolas Roeg, Allan Scott screenplay, Brian Moore novel)
Rebuild the sanctuary. What is a sanctuary? It is a refuge, it is a safe haven. Have you not heard of the refuge of marriage, the safe haven of one's husband or wife? The sanctuary of marriage. It's a long hard road back to a faith that you've once lost, but I'll be glad to walk it with you. "Late have I loved thee." That's what we all say in the end.

Pity Brian Moore. He started his writing career as a serious literary novelist before turning his hand to pretty good second-best-seller genre fiction, and he's had more movies made of his stuff than John Gresham. Lousy movies, that's the problem. Couldn't just one of his post-Catholic, God-haunted, spiritually inflected novels work as well on the screen as on the page? Apparently not. Not nearly. (Well okay, there is one: BLACK ROBE, which he screenplayed and exec produced himself. Can't trust nobody...)

Certainly can't trust Nicolas Roeg. Maybe it was drugs that fueled the young lion's directorial brilliance during his PERFORMANCE / WALKABOUT / DON'T LOOK NOW / BAD TIMING phase, and maybe by the end of the nineties it was payback time: "mind expanding" becomes "brain damaging" eventually. Granted, Nic never made conventional movies, always more interested in mood and effect than in strict narrative logic, but COLD HEAVEN is appallingly bad.

The premise sounds bizarre but potentially interesting, and if its meaning is obscure, no moreso than the Moore's title and its tenuous connection to a William Butler Yeats poem. A woman pursues an extra-marital affair until her husband is killed in a boating accident. When his body goes missing, she returns to the seaside hotel where her liason began a year before, at which time she also experienced a troubling vision of the Virgin Mary telling her to "rebuild the sanctuary." You hope you've turned up an undiscovered gem, you're prepared for a little incomprehensibility in pursuit of the ineffable, but it's soon apparent that this movie is inept rather than inspired.

Apparently the principal actors showed up first day of shooting and decided to hold a bad acting contest for the duration. Apart from Will Patton, who missed that particular meeting, they comported themselves admirably, the director's wife taking the main prize, with Worst Actress In A Supporting Role honors going to newcomer Martha Milliken (who decided to retire on a strong note: this was not only her first but also her last film. Hopefully she didn't run off and join a convent.) Theresa Russell apparently thinks that inexplicable mid-syllable pauses and lots of agonized face-pulling indicates she's feeling extreme emotion: I think it indicates she should have learned her lines.

There is at least an artistic unity: the calibre of the acting is matched by the quality of screenwriting and direction. The film is an endless series of set-ups that never pay off, and pay-offs that were never set up. Early on Marie's husband makes a fuss about her "bad hand:" she replies that she quite likes it, and it is never referred to again. Not only is the fact that he dies and apparently rises from the dead never explained, it contributes nothing to either plot or theme. When Will Patton's priest comments on Marie's bizarre religious vision (staged with House Of Horrors music and lightning bolts, even!), he says "There's no reason to believe that your husband's illness has anything to do with this," we can only wish he'd been hired as script consultant. "It must almost seem like some kind of demonic possession" is his only fumble toward and explanation. I guess he'd seen THE EXORCIST.

Confounding dialogue, whispered, tortured voice-overs, time-lapse clouds and and kryptonite-green crosses ("It's incredible! It's incredible?" No, it's tacky...), morphing monsignors and portentous jet plane fly-overs signifying absolutely nothing combine with bucket-loads of over-wrought emotionalism and spooky pseudo-Catholicism to make this one of the dumbest treatments of spiritual themes ever to perpetrated on celluloid, right down there with GOD TOLD ME TO and WIRED TO KILL. Except...

Right at the end, once Marie and Martha's apocalyptic paroxysms have passed, the one actor we can still stand to listen to sits the star down for a quiet hillside chat about faith and faithfulness. It's as hokey and tacked-on as anything else in the film. But maybe because the lines were at least spoken by a human being, or maybe because they seemed to lend some sense to at least a few of the story threads that had gone before, or maybe because of the relief of hearing something so straight-forward (even faith-affirming) at the conclusion of such a crudely stupid movie, I found myself rather suddenly and surprisingly moved.

Turns out the one thing I liked in the movie didn't even originate in the source novel – it's cribbed from Saint Augustine and who knows where else, and even this scrap of good sense is pretty much foreign to the spirit of Brian Moore's book. Poor Brian. Oh well, we take our crumbs of inspiration where we can find them, and pretend the hour and forty five minutes wasn't a complete waste...


Available at Videomatica

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