Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Don't look now

Javier Godino, Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darín in The Secret in Their Eyes.

It's hard to guess what people would have thought of The Secret in Their Eyes (now playing at the Kendall Square) if it hadn't "stolen" the Oscar this year from Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. No one would have mistaken it for a great film, or even a particularly interesting one - but neither would it have been met with the bristling resentment it has faced in some quarters (the Globe's Wesley Morris - Ty Burr's smarter partner - described it in his majorly-pissed review as "perfumed garbage"). After all, it's not this slick, oddly pretentious, but often amusing movie's fault that the Academy is filled with philistines. Is it?

Still, whatever virtues Secret possesses (and it has a few) will forever be overshadowed by the award it shouldn't have won, but did; it will be remembered as the Foreign Language version of How Green Was My Valley (which beat out Citizen Kane), or Crash (which beat out Brokeback Mountain).

Or perhaps this will be remembered as the year the Academy officially shut out the art film in favor of the arthouse film. For the Foreign Language Oscar was still known, believe it or not, for a loose association with artistic merit; Denys Arcand won it not so long ago, as did Pedro Almodóvar. Sure, none of today's most exciting filmmakers (Haneke, Sokurov, Akin) have ever won, and yes, Life is Beautiful (ack!) won in 1998 - but that felt like the exception, not the rule. Compare the Foreign Language Oscar to the Hollywood Best Picture year after year, and you'll notice a pretty consistent discrepancy in value between the two winners (with, yes, the occasional outlier, like No Country for Old Men).

Let's hope The Secret in Their Eyes doesn't mean all that has changed, but I worry that it has, if only because The White Ribbon is so much more interesting than it is in every imaginable way. And also because Secret feels like the avatar of a troubling new form - the standard Hollywood product re-configured for the "foreign" arthouse; call it "stealth" schlock. Its director, Juan José Campanella, has even directed "Law & Order" episodes - and it shows in his smooth handling of a twisty "plot" that's really more a police procedural than a mystery, and that shifts somewhat portentously to bald political themes, fatuous "romance," and other strange ruminations before it's over.

In fact, what's most admirable about the movie is that Campanella manages to make its weird pastiche of tones and modes from other arthouse hits kind of half-cohere under the "Law & Order" rubric. This is not aesthetically interesting, but it's technically interesting. Secret starts out, it seems, as a kind of rueful romance, but then transforms itself into a crime drama, and then into a comedy (there are some genuine laughs), and then into dark political comment, then conspiracy thriller with a last-minute, weirder-than-anything-yet twist, before its squealing gears shift back into romance at the finish. There's lost love, there's a rapist/killer, there's an evil junta, there's a fumbling police inspector, there's a vengeful lover - there's even full frontal nudity, male and female, to keep you awake if your mind's been wandering.

If all that sounds like it makes sense, rest assured it doesn't, but you kind of buy it while it's happening because Campanella is a smooth technician and his cast is talented; the movie is mildly entertaining, and you couldn't complain that it goes right where you expect it to, that's for sure. And there's one technical tour de force in the middle of the film that almost makes the whole thing worthwhile: in a dazzling piece of cinematic parkour, Campanella swoops down from a helicopter shot of a soccer stadium right into the stands, and through the roaring crowd - and then keeps going, via the magic of digital stitchery, as his suspect dashes across the innards of the stadium, eventually ending up on the playing field itself. This plays like Hitchcock on steroids, but of course in Hitch's hands, the chase would have resonated as some kind of metaphor; here, it's just an astounding feat, like a quad jump in the Winter Olympics.

So in the end, the strongest impression the movie makes is of a clever effort to touch base with as many previous arthouse hits as possible, while maintaining the structure of a Hollywood thriller. This, of course, is not an aesthetic project, but rather a marketing one - which clearly succeeded with the Academy. But do we really need "Law and Order" re-packaged as foreign film? Doesn't that kind of strike you as a harbinger of the end of foreign film, and the beginning of its incorporation into the globalized product line that "American" film has become? Time will tell, I suppose, but let's hope that the Secret of this film's success doesn't augur a trend.