Lessons in love and war

18th April 1997, 1:00am
Robin Buss


Lessons in love and war

Robin Buss looks at spring films about young love and a French Resistance 'hero'

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (12) Love Lessons (15) A Self-Made Hero (15)

Baz Luhrmann is a teacher. He believes that Shakespeare needs to be made attractive to teenagers, but that they will find this Dead White European Male dramatist boring in conventional guise: he probably knows that the attention span of the average adolescent is supposed to be conditioned by the length and narrative pace of a television commercial.

Luhrmann is not interested in the simple solution, which is to remould the text (in the manner of West Side Story or Joe Macbeth); so his version of Romeo and Juliet keeps the words, while updating the setting to the Latin American city of "Verona Beach" and employing every known cinematic device to keep eyes glued to the screen: rapid cutting, slow motion, freeze-frame, zoom shots, close-ups, aerial photography, sound and music, even phrases from the text which come up like brand names or advertising slogans.

Never has Shakespeare been so blatantly sold. Not everyone, perhaps, wants to see him packaged like a sports car or a pair of jeans; but it works.

Only just, though. Especially in the mumbling mouths of the two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, the verse line vanishes entirely and the text plunges towards inaudibility. More insidious still is the way that Luhrmann reduces the play to a matter of style. The young Montagues favour the beach boy look, while the Capulets go for Cuban heels, leather and Latino hairstyles; nothing more, one feels, is needed to motivate their lethal hatred for one another.

Both sides tote guns of extravagant size and design. Harold Perrineau plays Mercutio as a mincing queen and the Capulet ball, where Romeo first runs into Juliet, would have shamed Imelda Marcos. The big surprise is the amount of kitsch that can be packed on to the screen - Catholic repositories, Californian funeral parlours and tele-evangelists' catalogues must have been ransacked to provide statues, neon crosses, bleeding hearts and casket linings.

Worse still, one starts to suspect that the element of kitsch was just waiting for Luhrmann to highlight it. His film will bring many of its target audience to the original play, and may send some of their elders back to the text, if only to find out if it is still there, as they remember it.

Bo Widerberg's Love Lessons starts off as a tale of adolescent sex, develops into an adolescent fantasy and ends as a wry reflection on life. It is set in Malmo in 1943, where Stig (played by the director's son, Johan Widerberg) and his classmates are speculating on such questions as the difference between "group sex" and "an orgy". Then Stig starts an affair with his teacher, Viola (Marika Lagerkrantz), which seems like the answer to a schoolboy's dream.

If the affair eventually sours, it is not because Widerberg wants to give us a moral about teacher-pupil relationships - the name Viola, incidentally, has no suggestion of "violation" in Swedish, and Viola's principal victim is her weak husband, who tries to compensate for his disappointments with alcohol and classical music. Part of Stig's growing-up involves a transfer of affection to this fellow-sufferer, and the realisation that sex is not life's only good. The period setting is interesting: the war, for neutral Sweden, is a voice on the radio or a crippled American bomber; but neutrality does not give immunity from grief.

It does, however, soften some of the feelings of national guilt implicit in A Self-Made Hero. The hero in question is Albert (Mathieu Kossivitz), a young man caught up in the events of the German Occupation who manages to pass himself off as a member of the Resistance. In fact, he is a complete fraud who succeeds, in this black comedy, because he lives through a time when France needed Resistance heroes and the genuine article was in short supply.

The source is a novel by Jean-Francois Deniau, and Albert is loosely based on a real character whom Deniau knew after the war. I met the director of the film, Jacques Audiard, when he was in London last summer, and he talked about the film's ironies and the problem of a "hero" who gains the audience's sympathy, even though his actions are entirely reprehensible. "I wanted to construct the film as a sort of trap," he said, "so that we fear for Albert and hope that he will get away with it."

Surprisingly, even though the director describes it as "very French" ("tr s hexagonal"), the film is easy enough to follow at most levels for an audience which may not know much about the background. For older students, it would also be a chance to explore the moral dilemmas of the Occupation and to argue the necessity for some of the compromises, silences and reconciliations of the immediate postwar period. "Those of my generation may deplore it," Audiard says, "but, at that time, General de Gaulle's pragmatism was inspired, however deplorable it may have been from the moral point of view." And, though the self-made hero's war is very different from the Swedish schoolboy's, Audiard's film has in common with Widerberg's a refusal to make simplistic judgments about the behaviour of its characters.

A study guide for Romeo and Juliet is available from Film Education, 41-42 Berners Street, London WlP 3AA; tel. 0171 637 9932; fax 0717 637 9996; e-mail: gilm.ed@campus.bt.com

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