CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: September, 2014

“Nymphomaniac: Vol. I & II” (2013)

"Nymphomaniac" poster

 

Our relationship with sex is…complicated. Some demonize the slightest whiff of promiscuity. Others advocate giving into every impulse you feel, without fear of shame. For the most part, people seem to participate without making a huge deal of it publicly, though that doesn’t mean filmmakers can’t wring some drama out of the notion. For years, Hollywood’s idea of revolution has been beating the “losing your virginity is the most important thing ever” drum in countless raunchy farces, so if we’re to expect any cinematic progress as far as the dirty deed is concerned, it’ll come from someone like Lars von Trier. Having already sicced works of unrelenting brutality like Antichrist and Dogville upon the world, the Danish director is by all means the perfect choice to create Nymphomaniac, a story spanning four hours and two separate movies that details the life of a sex addict. However, where von Trier’s previous pictures have shared a grim view of the world whilst serving up some intellectual for viewers to gnaw on, he appears to have churned out this latest feature for the sake of being provocative. But Nymphomaniac isn’t infuriating because it asks tough questions of its audience; it pisses you off because it doesn’t ask anything, possessing no agenda beyond showing those in attendance the ugliness its characters wallow in and leaving out the part where we’re supposed to care.

It was a cold and snowy night. En route home from the store, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) comes upon Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a woman lying beaten and bloody in an alley. The good Samaritan takes her back to his home to recover from her injuries, whereupon she professes to be a nymphomaniac. Joe proceeds to regale her rescuer with stories from her life as a sex addict, from exploring her body during childhood to being a curious teenager (played by Stacy Martin) cruising for men on train rides with her friends. For her, love was never in the cards; she only had desires to be fulfilled and a string of willing partners at the ready to help out. But normalcy eventually caught up with Joe after becoming involved with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), a repugnant young man who nevertheless caught her fancy. However, Joe’s restless ways quickly compelled her to expand her search for satisfaction, resulting in a chain of events including a violent dominant (Jamie Bell), a gangster of sorts (Willem Dafoe), and one fateful encounter that left her half-dead on the streets.

That Nymphomaniac‘s ultimate point seems to simply be that suffering exists no matter where you turn makes the journey to it an intensely uninteresting one. “Forget about love,” declares the picture’s tagline, a statement that’s right at home with von Trier’s all-around defeatist view of humanity. Don’t be fooled by Seligman’s efforts to reassure Joe and use logic to explain away her nature; hope is in short supply here, with the lion’s share of the running time taken up by an almost constant succession of dour and unsavory figures. In all honesty, though, there’s still a fascinating premise at play, one that doesn’t shy away from the grim reality a woman who’s pushing an already taboo subject to the extreme would probably end up facing. But rather than build towards some statement about society’s hypocrisy or posit how those who want sex without romance being part of the picture have every right to happiness, Nymphomaniac doesn’t stand for a whole lot at all, save for showing what bastards its characters are — Joe included. As we bear witness to the psychological and physical abuse she suffers at the hands of those who don’t understand her particular set of needs, we see Joe acting skeevy in her own ways from the outset, sexually assaulting unwilling participants and being unrepentant over the relationships she’s helped destroy. It’d be one thing if she didn’t know any better, that she was still trying to get a handle on why she felt the way she did and couldn’t comprehend the lives she was effecting in the process, but she’s well aware and doesn’t care, with this lack of empathy being just about all the insight into her thought process that you can hope to receive.

Nymphomaniac is the kind of film that makes you wonder why anyone in it would ever speak to anyone else. There’s nothing especially warm about Seligman that would inspire the emotionally-jaded Joe to open up, nor do we buy that Seligman is invested in Joe’s story enough to spend hours upon hours listening intently and making cultural connections to every incident she describes. In fact, their conversations are probably the most irksome aspect of the film, a series of overly verbose exchanges that’s several country miles outside the realm of human behavior. Nearly all the dialogue falls into the same unnatural groove, as if the entire cast is trying to act smart by replacing what they’d say in everyday speech with the fanciest-sounding equivalent from the thesaurus. Von Trier also displays a tendency to pack his story with obvious symbolism, then have the characters explain it outright to one another (and, consequently, to us); apparently, so little is his faith in man’s ability to fathom any concept, it even extends to the viewing audience. But the real victims here are the actors, the majority of whom put forth the most raw and brave performances of their careers, only for their work to be almost completely undone by the material. The best they can hope for are a couple brief scenarios in which they truly shine, as with Christian Slater’s touching turn as Joe’s father and Uma Thurman as the deservedly enraged wife of one of Joe’s lovers. But try as Gainsbourg and Martin might, the film offers scant few opportunities to leap inside Joe’s mind and see for ourselves why she’s thinking the way she is, let alone ever truly feel sorry for her.

If von Trier intended only to push buttons with Nymphomaniac, then bully for him. It’s not the first and certainly won’t be the last joke he plays on the moviegoing world, toying with the emotions and expectations of his viewers before pulling the rug out from under them and having a big old laugh. With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is laughing at us rather than with us, and while he’s within his rights to do so, I have just as much freedom to deem this hollow excursion into human misery four hours of fruitless faffing about.

 

“Hysteria” (1965)

"Hysteria" poster

 

Whenever a thriller breathes the word “amnesia,” I tense up for reasons the movie probably didn’t intend. Some audiences love a good fractured narrative, but too many bad apples that leaned upon this plot point as a shallow gimmick have soured my appetite for brittle psyches. A protagonist’s memory loss almost inevitably becomes an excuse for the story to lazily plod around in circles and without making a lick of sense, before pulling a solution to the mystery out of its hindquarters that rarely makes the whole ordeal worth it. But while 1965’s Hysteria — produced by the fine folks at Hammer — undoubtedly encounters rough seas whilst navigating its main character’s subconscious, its shortcomings never came across as all that maddening. Perhaps it’s because even though it, like many movies of this type, fizzles out a bit by the time it comes to a close, the first couple of acts build up a whole mess of good will that’s difficult to shake off. Hysteria may not end on the most reality-obliterating note, but the journey there is freaky and frenetic enough to leave you not minding so much.

In his own words, Chris Smith (Robert Webber) is only a few months old. That’s how long it’s been since he was pulled from the scene of a terrible car wreck that left his mind a complete blank. Other than that he’s an American tooling around in England, he can’t recall a thing about himself, but the mystery doesn’t end there. An unknown benefactor has not only been footing the bill for his medical treatment, Chris has even been set up with a swanky penthouse apartment upon his release from the hospital. As he settles into his new digs, Chris sets about piecing together the events that culminated in his fateful crash, only to stumble across a web more tangled than he anticipated. While his investigations sic him on the trail of a murdered model, our man starts to experience awful hallucinations, with disembodied voices seemingly coming from the walls and driving him towards the brink of madness. But is Chris’s fragile mind really messing with him, or could some force be taking advantage of his condition for their own sinister gain?

Pictures like Hysteria were Hammer’s way of giving viewers a few quick jolts for a price tag lower than their esteemed horror productions. These titles usually accomplished this by restricting most of the action to a single location, which resulted in either nail-biting suspense (Cash on Demand) or characters who looked like nimrods for not hauling ass at the first hint of danger (Crescendo). On the whole, Hysteria does a decent job of giving off a claustrophobic vibe without having its hero piddle around his place and not do anything constructive for most of the time. Chris does his fair share of freaking out and attempting to ward off the strange voices hounding him, but he also ventures outside of his new abode and actively tries getting to the bottom of things. Director Freddie Francis plays up the doubt surrounding his situation very well, making it seem like what’s happening to Chris could be someone else’s doing just as well as it might be his own paranoia’s fault. How did Chris end up in that crash, anyway? Who’s helping him out? Why is the private eye (Maurice Denham) he hired to snoop around so hesitant to do so? No matter the outcome, something is afoot, and courtesy of the frenzied jazz score and photography that’s stifling in all the right ways, you’re made to feel every bit as lost as Chris is for nearly the whole ride.

Unfortunately, when the time comes for Hysteria to pony up with some explanation for all the rampant craziness, it goes about as smoothly as a neck massage from Dracula. Surprisingly, I don’t really have a problem with the big reveal behind who’s supporting Chris and precisely what’s making him batty. But after witnessing the first two acts so effectively tantalize us with clues and snippets from the events that led to our hero’s amnesia, that the movie so casually dumps its answers on us near the end virtually redefines the term “anticlimactic.” What we learn (which I daren’t spoil) is presented so out of the blue, it leaves the audience with little time to process all the connotations involved with it before the final title card fades in. We’re too busy trying to figure out for ourselves what the hell just happened for any suspenseful effect to linger; the climax particularly suffers because of this, as we’ve been told the whole truth before then, yet the characters press on as if the audience is totally in the dark, anyway. Plus, what we discover about what Chris was doing before the accident doesn’t completely line up with how the rest of the film plays out, coming off as one of those twists devised at the end of a long, frustrating, caffeine-addled night of writing rather than something cleverly integrated into the whole of the script.

Hysteria can seem like a lot of sloppy psychobabble to handle, but like I said, I can’t get too upset with it. Though the way the film goes about its business certainly undercuts a lot of potential tension to be wrought, it does too fine of a job baiting you with its initial premise and Webber’s sympathetic yet enigmatic performance for a large chunk of the viewing experience to be spoiled. Hammer has made more fortuitous stabs at making your spine tingle on a budget, but Hysteria is one mind game worth playing for at least a round or two.

(Hysteria is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“Dangerous When Wet” (1953)

"Dangerous When Wet" poster

 

For one of the strangest means by which someone broke into the movies, look no further than the story of Esther Williams. Although she’d receive straight acting assignments as well, it was her talents as a swimmer that first captured the attention of showbiz types who crafted an entire string of musicals around said aquatic prowess. It’s one of the strangest subgenres in film history (not to mention a way of appearing wholesome whilst showing so much on-screen skin), but take away the conspicuous amount of conveniently-placed pools, and there isn’t much setting it apart from the era’s deluge of dime-a-dozen, squeaky-clean tunefests. Perhaps 1953’s Dangerous When Wet just wasn’t the best choice for my first Williams flick, that her career is filled with more successful marriages of the frothy tunes people came to hear and the body in balletic motion they came to see. But the musical is a fickle beast to begin with, and harmless though it may be, Dangerous When Wet can’t help but capture the genre in all its glitzy tedium.

Williams plays Katie Higgins, an Arkansas farm girl with a figure to die for. It’s only natural that she’s in tip-top shape, considering she comes from a family more concerned with physical fitness than with milking the cows. The farm is in dire need of an upgrade, and with no other way of getting the money to pay for it, Katie reluctantly takes up snake-oil salesman Windy (Jack Carson) on his crazy offer. After seeing the Higgins family in action, Windy enlists them in the publicity stunt to end all publicity stunts: having the entire clan swim the English Channel. It’s a ludicrous idea (and having to hawk an awful “miracle tonic” while doing it isn’t pleasant, either), but the brood has no choice but to jaunt across the Atlantic and start training in jolly old England. But in between seemingly endless laps, Katie crosses paths with Andre (Fernando Lamas), a playboy who — much to Windy’s chagrin — starts distracting our girl with his yachts and million-dollar smile. Can Katie choose between her love of sport and her growing affections for Andre? Will Windy end up with a bathing beauty from France (Denise Darcel)? Will everyone stop singing that opening song over and over again?

Just to be clear, out of all the reason why Dangerous When Wet is such a dud, Esther Williams isn’t one of them. By all accounts, the woman was a complete sweetheart, and for someone whose figure is what landed her a movie contract in the first place, she dedicated a lot of effort towards making sure she was at her best on the silver screen. Williams reportedly spent nine months taking lessons in acting, singing, and such before she appeared on camera, and while watching Dangerous When Wet, you can tell that all that preparation paid off. She takes on her role like a pro, rattling off sarcastic zingers and playing the swoony lover card to equal success. But though Williams carries a tremendous amount of appeal here, it’s weird that the picture itself doesn’t really play up the swimming angle that much. Oh, she sure swims a whole heck of a bunch, but it’s mostly in nondescript training scenes, with the one standout showcase being an animated dream sequence where she dog-paddles along with none other than Tom and Jerry. It’s a neat little excursion into fantasy, yet for as much as the story is centered around Williams’ skills, it’s the only section of the film that really takes advantage of them.

I’m only harping on this point so much because the rest of the time, Dangerous When Wet represents the musical at its most disposable. In all fairness, I’ve seen far more flimsy excuses for narratives, and the flick has a decent amount of amusing gags to share. Corny as the script’s sense of humor may be, it’s hard not to chuckle at scenes like Katie and her family arriving to an English reception so drenched in fog, they can’t even see the band that’s come to greet them. On the other hand, though, the soundtrack is too homogenous to kick around your memory banks for long (no matter how much it tries forcing that opening anthem down your throat), and even by the genre’s standards, the story gets painfully contrived at times. Windy’s leering advances towards Katie make him look like a creep who can’t take a hint, Andre comes across in a similarly unpleasant fashion (with the added bonus of not caring whether or not he’s keeping Katie from her training), and to top it off, our own heroine doesn’t seem engaged in the race at all. You have to keep reminding yourself that she’s on a mission to save the family farm, since the screenplay doesn’t allow her very many scenes in which she can exhibit passion, drive, or concern for anything other than which guy will end up controlling her.

I certainly won’t fault anyone for having affection for Dangerous When Wet, just as I can’t yell at viewers for taking pleasure in watching any musical designed to dazzle the eyes, soothe the ears, and nothing more. But while it did prove that Williams possessed acting shops that would serve her well even in vehicles that didn’t shoehorn a deep end into the mix, the film’s Technicolor sheen is about as deep as its ambition gets. Dangerous When Wet hasn’t put me off from trying my luck with another Williams picture in the future, but I’m sad to say that this particular song-and-swim show comes up dead in the water.

“Under the Skin” (2014)

"Under the Skin" poster

 

If I had a dime for every time that I’d been accused of exclusively preferring art-house cinema over anything mainstream, I’d have crowdfunded a couple John Carter sequels by now. It’s true that, as a critic and movie fan at large, I enjoy a challenging piece of work now and again, but it doesn’t mean that this realm of film isn’t a massive crapshoot. For every 2001: A Space Odyssey that engages me with its abstract set-up and compels me to uncover something new upon repeat viewings, there’s a Black Moon or A Safe Place that so aggressively piles on symbolism and begs to be analyzed, you’re left too exhausted to even want to dig deeper. Caring about what themes might lurk beneath the surface is essential to getting a pleasurable experience from any picture that takes the scenic route from Point A to B, and fortunately, 2014’s Under the Skin has you doing just that in a few enigmatic minutes. It’s a tricky premise executed in a perfectly nimble fashion, baiting the audience to follow it for so long while imparting so little information. Under the Skin tells a relatively straightforward narrative, yet not only are enough blanks left for viewers to create their own interpretations of the events, the flick’s stark and trippy atmosphere is plenty of incentive to make them try in the first place.

No one knows who she is. No one knows where she came from. All that’s certain is that a mystery woman (Scarlett Johansson) is scouring the streets of Scotland…and she’s not of this earth. Donning a dead girl’s wardrobe, this being travels night and day in search of men, having been designed to resemble a total knockout for the specific reason of catching their attention. Once she lures these gents back to her home, they proceed to sink into a gooey black void, where their bodies slowly dissolve to serve some unknown purpose. Coldly does the alien go about her business, making quick work of netting a number of stranger unlucky enough to fall into her trap. But after attempting to seduce a disfigured young fellow (Adam Pearson), strange feelings start to stir within the being. She begins to experience twinges of emotion, making her question the mission and look at herself with an increasingly human perspective. Unfortunately, the alien’s road to self-discovery isn’t without its fair share of speed bumps, as deviating from the one task she was trained for leaves her at an almost total loss as to what to do next, as well as making her an easy target for her own extraterrestrial handlers.

I’m not joshing you when I say that Under the Skin drops you into its proceedings cold turkey. The answers to such questions as why the alien is harvesting dudes, what planet she came from, and what made her sign up for this gig are left forever in shadow. Dialogue is in short supply, and even character names are a luxury that director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) doesn’t indulge in (with the credits simply listing the actors themselves). But in spite of this seemingly vague and unnatural nature, Under the Skin‘s logic makes a good amount of sense, with subtle acting cues and entrancing visuals to clue the audience in on the bare basics of what’s going on. The first half of the film appears to be pretty cut and dry, a series of sequences in which Johansson’s character prowls about Scotland in a van and charms unsuspecting guys back to the black pit of doom that is her living room. But following the aforementioned botched seduction — a scene that forces the being to prey on her potential victim in a more emotionally-manipulative fashion — the film takes on a complex new tone, focusing on what happens when the alien looks back upon her acts. That Johansson does so in almost total silence may grind many a viewer’s gears, but it’s to be expected, considering the character wasn’t prepared for anything beyond serving as an object of desire; the thousand-yard stare on her mug speaks more effectively about how utterly lost she is than any monologue could.

Some will take issue with Under the Skin‘s ambiguity and poke holes in the story, which is entirely fair. Even I did some of that myself, sensing a flatness in certain sections of the flick and pondering such ideas as why whoever sent the protagonist on her assignment programmed absolutely no other directives into her than “be sexy.” But the further the plot progressed, the more I realized how fine the picture was getting along just with base character interactions and a lack of constant dialogue. Glazer has engineered Under the Skin so that it simply has no need for Johansson’s character speaking at length about her emotions, scenes of her superiors scheming to get her back, or anything like that. The mystery is just that palpable, and in the end, you’ll appreciate Glazer’s confidence in allowing our imaginations to fill out his universe for him. Though Johansson’s words may be few, her casting is actually a great coup on the film’s part. Not only does the woman herself do an incredible job of performing primarily through low-key facial expressions, her status as one of the screen’s most renowned beauties contributes a whole other layer of subtext; one could definitely read this story as one of any entertainment industry sex symbol trying to claim her humanity. Kudos also goes to Pearson as the most prominent of the alien’s prey, a role in which he exudes heart-wrenching vulnerability in a fairly short amount of screen time.

Under the Skin isn’t your traditional sci-fi tale, but it doesn’t have its head lodged up its hindquarters so deeply that you can’t pick up on where it’s trying to take you. Though many will be drawn to this solely because of the copious scenes of Johansson either nude or nearly bare, the astute will be rewarded with a provocative and uniquely-spun story, while those with more superficial pursuits will be scrambling for the eject button the moment they’re addressed on a deeper level. Under the Skin is absolutely fascinating, a truly moody and chilling excursion whose inner machinations I look forward to exploring in rewatches yet to come.

“The Wolves” (1971)

"The Wolves" poster

 

No subset of cinematic crime is as thematically bountiful as the organized variety. It’s about more than just a bunch of thugs getting together for some grand-scale larceny; deep-seated loyalties are on the line, a myriad of relationships that gets strained the moment someone gets an inkling that what they’ve come to know as a “family” might not be peaches and cream after all. Whether flicks about these subjects be centered around the Mafia or the Yakuza, casting the spotlight on a lone figure adrift in something bigger than they realize is oftentimes a go-to recipe for tragedy. 1971’s The Wolves is a card-carrying member of this no-nonsense club, focused unflinchingly on a gangster (in this case, a member of Japan’s underworld) coming to grips with realizing what a lie everything he’s stood for in life has been. Just as the great samurai films explored the conflict that arises when one tries abiding by a strict code of honor, so does director Hideo Gosha (Sword of the Beast) apply a similar philosophy to those engaged in more illicit pursuits. With its slow-burn pacing and catalogue of intertwining characters, The Wolves might put off some viewers on the outset, but it rewards the patient with a solemn story that packs a dramatic wallop.

As the 1920s neared their end, Japan ushered in its Showa era and, with it, the appointment of a new emperor. To mark the occasion, more than three-hundred prisoners were granted early releases, one of them being long-time Yakuza underling Iwahashi (Tatsuya Nakadai). Jailed for slaying a rival gang’s boss in a blood-soaked brawl, Iwahashi steps out of the clink and into a world he doesn’t quite recognize. He finds his old crew in the process of merging with their sworn enemies, under the guidance of an ambitious political leader (Tetsuro Tamba). Rattled by the changes, Iwahashi keeps silent regardless, determined to accept the switch and avoid jeopardizing his shot at a stable life. But the more Iwahashi tries to stick by the old Yakuza rules of honor, the more he sees that those who seized power in his absence have abandoned such pretensions, their insatiable greed driving them to commit the dirtiest of deeds in the name of obtaining more influence. The final straw is drawn when Aya (Komaki Kurihara), the daughter of Iwahashi’s old boss and lover of a friend/fellow gangster, is forced into an arranged marriage to further ally the two gangs, putting the pressure on our man to either continue refusing to make waves or acknowledge that the way things were done in the past is but a memory.

The Wolves can feel like a very harsh and hopeless film, yet it never allows itself to develop a wholly cynical attitude. It retains a certain sadness, a melancholy indicating that it’d sure like to hope for the best, even if doing so isn’t that viable of an option at the present. With its subtext about the march of progress and the gangs themselves disappearing into a conglomerate mass, the flick is as much about criminals being stripped of what moral guidance they thought they possessed as it is about the modernization of Japan itself, of a lust for power clouding men’s minds and overriding all previous concepts of brotherhood. This somber view is reflected perfectly in the way Gosha shoots the picture, with numerous shots of Nakadai’s Iwahashi wandering about beaches and graveyards by himself, searching for any sort of connection, however brief it may be. But lest you think of The Wolves as purely a pity party, bear in mind its violent side, which resonates with the bite that it does because of all the downtime surrounding its grisly outbursts. Iwahashi is a quiet dude, but when pushed far enough, he’s a force to be reckoned with, as we come to particularly witness in the final act. Gosha has you feeling every twist and plunge of every knife (complete with all the icky squelching sound effects your heart could desire), complementing the predatory nature of the characters; like the title says, the film is filled with opportunists and immoral types alike, biding their time and viciously pouncing when an opportunity is presented.

However, even with displays of bloodshed effectively capturing your attention, The Wolves moves at a deliberate enough speed and relays so much information that the prospect of keeping everything straight may prove daunting for some potential viewers. Considering all the Yakuza cinema I’ve schooled myself in over the years, I must admit that I had my share of difficulties, what with the movie going out of its way to introduce certain characters who don’t pop up again for a long time and who’s exactly being referred to when terms like “old boss” or “new boss” are dropped being pretty vague. As for the pacing, the slowness wasn’t that big of a bother, save for the climactic showdown, wherein Iwahashi goes after the villains behind a conspiracy revealed piecemeal throughout the story. This portion of the picture still carries its intended weight, but the sight of Iwahashi and the last bad guy standing circling each other for what seems like an eternity gets tiring in a hurry. That said, the plot’s suspense remains more palpable than not, with the performances keeping us invested whenever someone isn’t in the throes of a gruesome demise. Having proven himself one of Japan’s finest talents in such varied works as The Sword of Doom and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, Nakadai is the perfect choice for Iwahashi, his gaunt and haunted face providing ideal cover for the fires of injustice being stoked within.

The Wolves is more solemn and philosophically-minded than some might like their gangster tales to be, but I’m glad it turned out this way. Had it been filmed in a more bombastic style, with Iwahashi rampaging through thugs who’ve done him wrong, the picture would’ve been cheapened and made to look like a mindless revenge thriller trying to feign emotional deepness. I wouldn’t recommend it for first-timers to the complex world of Yakuza cinema, but once you get a few hard-boiled dramas under your belt, The Wolves is definitely one to hit up if you want to see the genre taken to a more profound level.

“The Scarlet Letter” (1995)

"The Scarlet Letter" poster

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” was among the many banes of my high school existence. Even with how voracious of a reader I was and how esteemed this story was in literary circles, the act of plowing through its archaically-composed text and analyzing its heavy themes in class weren’t my fondest academic memories. But while turning each page was a battle of attrition, I admired the novel’s ultimately gutsy message — one that its 1995 film adaptation missed entirely. A picture that kicks those dumb old thought-provoking concepts of shame and hypocrisy in favor of jacking up the romance factor, The Scarlet Letter doesn’t stop at just disregarding the source material; it’s proud that it’s done so. The credits declare the flick to have been “freely adapted” from the Hawthorne book, and press interviews back in the day had the cast and crew boasting about how radical their reinvention was. Presenting a new take on a classic work is fine, but when it’s presented in as misguided and laughable of a manner as the way The Scarlet Letter goes about its business, it more than earns the inevitable critical drubbing.

Our tale opens upon a time when the first American colonies were beginning to prosper. The Puritan populace has a difficult time as it is, what with maintaining a shaky alliance with the local Indians, but off the boat from England steps a new arrival who’ll come to shake things up in a big way: Hester Prynne (Demi Moore). Sent ahead of her husband Roger (Robert Duvall), Hester proceeds to set the town buzzing with her forward-thinking ways and mildly rebellious streak. She certainly attracts the attention of Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman), a preacher whose admiration for this woman explodes into a torrid romance once they hear word of Roger’s death. But Hester can’t hide the results of her affair, as she soon finds herself with child, becoming the recipient of the colony’s collective scorn. Forced to wear an “A” upon her chest as a symbol of her transgressions, Hester endures years of torment and ridicule but refuses to implicate Arthur in the matter…a position that becomes more precarious when Roger emerges from the wild alive and well.

The Scarlet Letter feels like one of those movies within a movie that a vapid actress character makes when she wants to be taken seriously. I don’t just mean that in the sense of the acting coming off as conspicuously overwrought (though that’s certainly the case, which we’ll get to in a second); the film as a whole seems engineered to resemble a spoof, something criticizing melodramatic conventions instead of buying into them hook, line, and sinker. There’s no way a sensible person could otherwise take seriously how the love scenes are shot like an ambitious Emmanuelle sequel or how the music is so forcefully weepy, you can practically hear the brass section bawling into their tubas. But straight and narrow is exactly how The Scarlet Letter director Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) intends to play things, which should clue you into just how terminal the film’s delusions of grandeur really are. Now I’m not saying the book is better by default just because the film deviates from it so much, but when the latter so hilariously misses the point, not calling it out is a crime in and of itself. The novel simply was not meant to be turned into a romantic tale of forbidden passions being suppressed, for doing so does away with its condemnation of the cruelty of the pious and substitutes in its place a bunch of stuffy old farts pooh-poohing Hester for being different, a la Footloose: Pilgrim Edition.

As an adaptation and a film on its own merits, the list of things The Scarlet Letter does wrong is monumental. Inventing a slave girl character to ogle Hester in the bath for no reason. Turning Arthur’s inability to hop in the sack with his lover into the reason he’s torn up inside, instead of shame over having to attack her in the public eye. Cooking up an entire subplot about Indian unrest that plays a part in rewriting the end of the story wholesale. But The Scarlet Letter‘s gravest sin is making a competent and, frankly, quite enviable cast of actors look like they haven’t the slightest clue what they’re doing. Oldman tries like mad to instill this Harlequin romance interpretation of Dimmesdale with some dignity, though the combination of a rotten script and a Scottish accent that pops up whenever it feels like it don’t make this an easy task. Moore is okay, but her strong-willed portrayal of Hester (though commendable) is terribly anachronistic; she feels like a take-charge ’90s gal playing dress-up, and we don’t know nearly enough about Hester’s relationship with Roger before coming to America to get why she’d dive so swiftly into Arthur’s arms. But boy, does this flick do a number on Duvall. He certainly has it in him to play a part this insidious and conniving, but between his stiff delivery of the “thee”- and “thou”-tinged dialogue and awful pilgrim outfit, Roger’s evil doesn’t have a chance of leaving you quaking in your buckled shoes.

The Scarlet Letter was a notable financial and critical dud upon its release, and, in a rare instance, this reputation is well-deserved. It’s an example of Hollywood meddling at its worst, a costly and ill-conceived stab at buying prestige by adapting a famous novel but making it audience-friendly and, as a result, robbing it of any real impact it might’ve possessed. Hawthorne’s legacy will survive, but The Scarlet Letter is so boring and self-deluded, your brain cells might not be so lucky.