Playing dress-up: Everybody Has a Plan, Populaire and Behind the Candelabra

07 June 2013

Two directorial debuts… and an apparent send-off.

Dead ringers

Opening with a close-up of bees on a honeycomb, Everybody Has a Plan (Todos tenemos un plan) makes reference in its latter stages to the threat posed by drones (male honeybees): without odour, drones are able to penetrate a foreign hive and carry diseases into it; furthermore – and something which the film doesn’t tell us – because drones cannot produce honey, the term has over the centuries also been a common expression for an idler. On the one hand, then: beware the dropout, accept no baggage. On another, though: beware the lookalike, accept no imitations.

The feature debut of Argentine writer-director Ana Piterbarg, Everybody Has a Plan is in equal parts about the perils of escaping one’s roots (and responsibilities) and of clinging (and returning) to them. Out of Buenos Aires-based paediatrician Agustín’s past arrives unkempt twin brother Pedro, a chain-smoking beekeeper who lives in the Tigre Delta. Both played by Viggo Mortensen, the brothers are identical; we distinguish them by Pedro’s shaggier beard and terminal cough. In the pre-credits sequence, we have seen Pedro watch dodgy associate Adrián (Daniel Fanego) shoot dead a local storeowner, who he has kidnapped for ransom money; now, Pedro has fled responsibility and, knowing he has lung cancer, wishes for his brother to kill him. Conveniently for him, would-be parent Agustín has a fear of fatherhood to rival Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer, and so having been left home alone with cold feet and room to ruminate by wife Claudia (Soledad Vilamil), he indulges Pedro’s request, subsequently assuming his brother’s identity and setting off for the delta on which he grew up.

As a meandering and never-quite-anchored character study, the best thing about Everybody Has a Plan is Mortensen, who pulls off moral ambivalence and ambiguous intensity with a certain ease, while Fanego adds belated menace as a self-described “pain in the ass” (read kidnapper, extorter, murderer). Ironically though, everybody has a plan in Everybody Has a Plan but for its main character. And since the film unfolds from Agustín’s strict viewpoint, its narrative appears to lack structure precisely because his purpose for returning to Pedro’s shack is never given. Other than to retrieve the ransom money left for his brother in one of the honey boxes at his home, Agustín’s reasons are left to mystery, and a wishy-washy romance with blank-faced twenty-year-old Rosa (Sofia Gala Castiglione) doesn’t convince. Add to these weaknesses token turns from Vilamil and Javier Godina, two familiar faces from The Secret in their Eyes (2009) and both of whom are disappointingly underused here, and you have a film whose more promising territories remain uncharted. A flabby two hours, it’s also a mess.

Playing to type

Populaire too has the kind of premise – a heftily-budgeted screwball rom-com set in late-1950s provincial Normandy – that lives or dies by its performances. It’s to its credit, then, that leads Romain Duris and Déborah François are pitch-perfect as, respectively, insurance broker Louis Echard and newly recruited secretary Rose Pamphyle. Opening on a Triumph typewriter, the film barely has adversity to offer its characters: from the off, Rose is able to flee her native St. Fraimbault (or in her words “Nowheresville”) because she’s the speediest typist in all the land, a skill by which she lands her job with Echard and conquers the world at a point in history when humans were able to go beyond the speeds of their machines.

A feature debut for director Régis Roinsard (and co-written by him with Daniel Presley and Romain Compingt), Populaire is more interested in the films to which it pays homage than the history to which it pertains. Visual cues to 1958’s Vertigo – in particular, to the scene in which Judy finally emerges before Scotty as Madeleine – might offer some self-questioning on the filmmakers’ parts with regard to their masturbatory tendencies, while the sex scene that immediately follows references both Godard’s Le Mépris (1963) and Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)… a Man’s World implicated? To be sure, one wonders why François has to get her tits out for the lads while female viewers have to make do with Duris in a never-creased three-piece suit. Is the box-office gendered too?

On the cusp of our tech-fetish age, the film’s timescale is one in which romance may be presentable as unproblematic – or put another way, one in which the testing travails of sexual attraction are offensively inoffensive. It’s fine that Rose storms out of Echard’s office when she thinks he’s making inappropriate advances (good for her!), but once he’s made it clear that he wants her to enter (and win) the regional speed-typing contest, she’s swept along by his oblivious, “tortured-type” charms anyway (poor him!). Add belated daddy issues for Rose and an unfulfilled past amour for Louis and the film begins to grate just as it’s entering its final thrusts.

Sylvie Olivé’s smart production design and suitably sumptuous cinematography from Giullaume Schiffman ensure the film’s fancies never touch earthly realms for long, though, and so its sweeping and fleeting joys depend on the extent to which one is able and/or willing to run along with it.

“Imitation is the highest form”

Behind the Candelabra, meanwhile, is apparently Steven Soderbergh’s final film, made for subscription-television channel HBO but given a theatrical release following its premiere at Cannes last month. As impeccably made by the increasingly prolific director as we’ve come to expect, this biopic of pianist and entertainer Liberace (Michael Douglas) is based on a book by one-time lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) and struggles to transcend the structural limitations of the genre.

Genre-hopping Soderbergh may or may not have become a dab hand at something resembling détournement in recent years, and this effort risks exhausting us early on with a straight-faced approach to Liberace’s life that’s difficult to discern as serious or mocking. The hilarity of early scenes seems intentional at least: there’s no way we’re not meant to laugh as Liberace – known to friends as “Lee” – apologises to guests for being so informally dressed, as we cut to a shot of his gold(en) slippers and subsequently tour the “palatial kitsch” of his unhumble abode; or when we cut from the briefly graphic images of a facelift operation to Liberace being wheeled from the hospital resembling Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933). And there’s a kind of provocation-cum-grotesquery at work, too, first hinted at when Liberace’s manservant Carlucci (Bruce Ramsay) stands before Scott and holds a plate of pigs-in-blankets at his crotch, and furthered later by the aforementioned facelift procedures, carried out by Jack Startz (a scene-stealing Rob Lowe).

But the film isn’t so much a mockery of camp outrageousness as it is of the idea of exuberance itself – of the idea of accumulating unthinkable wealth in order to fund one’s (and another’s) ongoing self-transformation. This is Liberace behind the candelabra, but even beneath his wig there’s very little to go at in terms of character. Every effort has been made not just to protect himself from ageing and other elemental worries but also to insulate himself emotionally: after his facelift surgery, Mr. Showmanship can barely laugh, let alone smile (and he can’t close his eyes, even as he snores during sleep). Clearly, this Liberace at least has problems, the largest of which might be his insatiable thirst for anything he doesn’t have. Quick to accuse others of being spoilt or of being “like Jekyll and Hyde”, he explicitly expresses his wish to be Scott’s father, brother, lover and best friend.

Is there something to be said here about social attitudes to homosexuality in the US and elsewhere prior to the AIDS epidemic of the mid-80s? Was Liberace’s outward flamboyance in any way conditioned by wider currents? Is his child-like pursuit of youth in the film accountable in social and historical terms? If so, Soderbergh and scriptwriter Richard LaGravanese prefer not to say – which is why their film is an ultimately ordinary overview of someone whose idiosyncrasies deserve better questions. The two MDs (Douglas and Damon) are excellent, though; tellingly, whenever the script demands dramatic sincerity rather than mere mimicry, each resembles himself and might be all the better for it.