'Tristan & Isolde': Prisoners Of Love, By Kurt Loder

James Franco and Sophia Myles are stuck in the mud of a downsized myth. Also: 'Caché' — attack of the Euro-snoots.

Like the King Arthur legends that it apparently predates, the story of Tristan and Isolde comes down to us from the misty single-digit centuries of the Dark Ages. There are many variants of the tale (in one of them, Tristan actually becomes a knight of the Round Table), and many promising elements for a movie are scattered among them: a dragon, a giant, a hunchback dwarf. There's a powerful love potion, usually, and in one version, Isolde is handed over for ravishing to a band of lust-addled lepers.

Unfortunately, none of this fun stuff enlivens the soggy realm conjured up in "Tristan & Isolde." The movie attempts a sort of documentary realism in depicting a period that is largely undocumented. (All we can be fairly sure of, given the Celtic setting, is that there must have been lots of lousy weather.) As a visual strategy, this attempt at period vérité is artistically interesting, I suppose; but as was the case with the flat-footed "King Arthur" of two years ago, you may miss the magic.

James Franco plays Tristan, who was orphaned as a child and lovingly raised by the goodhearted Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), whom he now serves as head knight. Marke dreams of uniting his fellow English warlords against their oppressor, the Irish King Donnchadh (David O'Hara). But then Tristan is poisoned; he appears dead, and his body is floated off to sea in a burning boat. Soon afterward he washes up on a beach in Ireland, where he's discovered by the beautiful Isolde (Sophia Myles), Donnchadh's daughter. With the help of her maidservant, Isolde drags Tristan into a nearby cave, where the two women shed their clothes, warm him with their naked bodies, and — well, it turns out Tristan isn't really dead after all.

In the course of further warm-ups, Tristan falls in love with Isolde, not knowing that her father is the hated Irish king. She likewise falls for him, but fears for his safety and shoos him back to England. There, word soon comes that Donnchadh has proposed a tournament, the victor in which will win the hand of his daughter. Tristan enters the tourney and prevails, but then is horrified to discover that the veiled princess whose hand he has won for his master is actually the woman he loves. He takes Isolde back to England, to be married to Marke and rule with him over a united land. But before long ....

This archetypal love story never quite comes to life here, possibly because it strives to be too lifelike. Shooting on the west coast of Ireland and in the Czech Republic, the director, Kevin Reynolds, and his production designer, Mark Geraghty, have crafted a rough, muddy look for the film, and the Polish cinematographer Arthur Reinhart adeptly conveys the period murk — so much so that the imagery often seems starved of color. And because the interiors are presented as they actually must have been — cramped, musty and airless — the movie sometimes feels that way, too.

It would help if the dialogue had some sparkle — if the lines had poetic compression, and the words took wing. But the talk provided by screenwriter Dean Georgaris is resolutely earthbound. There's a certain unintended entertainment to be had in hearing a huge, sweaty hulk of a warrior murmur, "I, too, dabble in elixirs." But you can't help feeling you've wandered into a bad TV show when Isolde intones, "Why does loving you feel so wrong?" And when Tristan lets rip with "I live in torture thinking of these moments," you may start groping for the remote.

Some of the actors deserve better than what they're given to work with here. Mark Strong has a sizzling intensity as the scheming English warlord Wictred — the movie's fun quotient goes up every time he slinks into a scene. And Rufus Sewell, as Lord Marke, has a warm solidity that seems to prefigure the more humane leadership of a better age that's yet to come. But Sophia Myles is marooned in a role that doesn't call upon her to be much other than pretty and lovelorn — it's hard to put a personal stamp on a character so blithely underwritten. And James Franco, very surprisingly, seems all wrong as Tristan. Franco is an actor with both star quality and real talent, but here he's all cheekbones and wildly over-styled hair, and his endless pouting and pining seem less appropriate to a tragic hero than to a male model who's just had a big photo shoot canceled.

Without two commanding lead performances, and without the fantasy elements that can make a myth-based tale like this a pleasurable diversion, the movie feels grounded, and pointless. Ridley Scott, who acted as a producer on the picture, originally wanted to direct it himself. He says he's been trying to bring the story of Tristan and Isolde to the screen for more than a decade. He shouldn't have been in such a rush.

"Caché": Puzzling Evidence

This is one of those prickly European art movies that makes you wonder what you've done wrong to deserve it. The Austrian director, Michael Haneke, has a towering disdain for bourgeois intellectuals — the upwardly-mobile urban liberals he appears to despise for their smugness, their consumerism and their unacknowledged racism. But bourgeois intellectuals are the only imaginable audience for a movie like this — you can almost hear them savoring its insights over cocktails at some save-the-wombats fundraiser.

The movie begins as a mystery-thriller, but don't get too excited. It opens with a static shot of a Parisian street — a shot that sits on the screen for so long, you begin to wonder if it's some new kind of postcard with built-in bird chirps. Then it starts to rewind, and you realize that it's video footage. The video has been sent to a man named Georges (Daniel Auteuil), the host of a TV book-chat show, and the unwavering shot is of the townhouse he shares with his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), who works in publishing, and their son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). The cassette has arrived accompanied by a crude drawing of a bird with its throat cut. What can this mean? Who's behind it? Anyone hoping for straightforward answers to these questions might usefully duck out at this point, and stay gone.

As increasingly unsettling videos arrive at Georges' house, he begins to suspect that they're being sent by Majid (Maurice Benichou), an Algerian immigrant whom Georges knew and mistreated years earlier, when they both were children. He tracks Majid down to an apartment building that's practically as slumped and sorrowful as the man himself turns out to be. Majid says he knows nothing about the videos Georges has been receiving. Georges doesn't believe him, and storms out. After he's left, the camera holds on Majid sitting wordlessly at a table. It holds and holds for so long, we begin to wonder if this, too, is surreptitious video footage. Or is it real? What is "real," anyway? And so forth.

There are two really shocking sequences in the movie. One will surely upset the PETA contingent within Haneke's audience. The other — a sudden death — is skillfully horrific. The movie is thick with ideas about observation and buried information (the final shot, another long, static take, is like a pop quiz on the whole meaning of the movie). But the more mundane subject of "Caché" (the word is French for "hidden") appears to be France's long and brutal occupation of Algeria, and the continuing inhumanity with which the French have treated the Algerians they subsequently allowed into their country to serve as cheap labor. You really should bone up on that history before seeing this movie. Alternatively, you could skip that, and skip this, too.

—Kurt Loder

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