Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Friendly Chat

The Wife(1995)Directed By Tom Noonan
"I want to talk about my feelings!"-Wallace Shawn
Over a decade after his dinner with Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn finds himself at his psychiatrists snow covered house in the wilderness, where his wife is desperate to meet the psycho-therapist team that's been stealing away so much of her hubby and his time. Julie Hagerty and Tom Noonan (who also directs) are said therapists who were just preparing for bed, when in comes the troubled couple. Shawn wants to leave immediately, embarrassed by the imposition, while his wife stalks room to room like a caged tiger, veering between offensive and polite with every blurted out or carefully chosen word. Hagerty too wants to go to sleep, but is too passive aggressive to kick the visitors to the curb. Noonan on the other hand thinks they should stay long enough to resolve whatever issues need addressing. Shawn: I don't like where this is going. Noonan: It's going where it's going He also enjoys his domination over Shawn and his wife (who he can silence with a whisper or slight gesture) and is titillated in more ways than one by Karen Young's edgy barbs, which she has mostly for psychiatrists and the dopes who go in for such psycho-babble. "What the fuck are you people talking about" is her echo throughout the film. Shawn is a mild mannered and pint up neo-liberal who married a dancer in a bar, one who dominates him just as much as the other characters in the film do, but who comes to represent his anxieties (which are many and varied). If you can imagine "Anti-Christ" without the gore, sex, and supernatural elements you can peer into the power plays present between the two couples in "The Wife". The evening never veers into "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf?" levels of chaos, as the characters rarely reveal any deeper motivations about themselves for than more a moment. With the exception of Shawn who babbles about himself throughout the entire film, much to the other characters devious pleasure or annoyance. Noonan's direction is sparse and reserved minimalism. There is repeated image of the house with the front door open letting light pour onto the snow, of the characters faces distorted in the reflections of their wine glasses like funhouse mirrors, and an upside down reflection of the characters in a frozen lake at night lit only be torch(the place Noonan goes to "be himself"). Light comes and goes as a central theme with the characters submerging into shadows often as their emotions rise up in outbursts. Noonan doesn't stick to this visual pattern enough to become predictable, but uses it as one in a range of subtle tricks to highlight mood and emotion and keep the film from being a play. Noonan is wise enough to let his fellow actors command the screen which is a good choice because between Shawn's groveling, Young's angry philistine emoting, and Hagerty's Quaalude induced bouts of laughter and nervousness, there isn't much room left to do anything but sit at the end of the table smiling like Lucifer and delivering a single sentence of "tell me what your feeling" or "this is really happening isn't it?" Fortunately Noonan can deliver these lines and any others he has with a truly creepy finesse that really does say more with less. Outside of the house as he walks in the snow in his bathrobe, torch blazing in the dark he resembles a saint on a pilgrimage or a serial killer going to bury a body. You never can tell with Noonan. Like a John Cassavettes movie "The Wife" is an actor's showcase and it also ends a bit unresolved, piling up question onto question up into the very last scene. In the final moments Noonan does give himself the spotlight, though he cleverly leaves his face largely in the dark. Another actor or director might complain about the way he is lit in this scene and the lose of potential emotional connection, but its because of this very distance created by the shadows covering his face which make it hard to tell if he's crying, that make the scene so absorbing. It is scenes like this which make "The Wife" attractive; the hazy dance of images between shadows and low lighting and the emotional undercurrents of resentment, love, fear, and loneliness that gush up into view only to disappear again a moment later.

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