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Cruel Intentions

Robert Altman's belief in a fated cruelty gives Gosford Park its bitter flavor


At an English country manor house in 1932, a group of aristocrats gathers for a weekend hunting party. They cavort, drink, quibble, languish, deliver themselves of off-handed epigrams, cuckold one another, and drink some more. One of them, at a certain point, is murdered. A perfunctory, lightly comical investigation follows, and then the aristocrats depart, mostly unchanged. The servants stay behind.

That, in a nutshell, is Gosford Park. The nutshell, in this case, is the "original idea" the credits attribute to the director, Robert Altman, and Bob Balaban. Considering the film's character as pure pastiche, "original idea" is really a bit much; and though the nutshell of the idea is bloated to two and a half hours, and crammed with a dazzling cast of dozens, a nutshell it remains. The film's commitment to relative smallness of scale, and to a kind of enterprising casualness, are its most appealing features--the ones that mark it most distinctly as Altman's work. Despite Altman's repeated experiments with rambling plots and large casts, in movies like Nashville or Short Cuts, he has usually rendered these narrative macrocosms with microscopic attentions--through quick glimpses, blunt and ephemeral contrasts, brisk and fast-moving counterpoints. In such films, he seems to require an outsize canvas only so that he can concentrate, at however great a length, on the most minute details.

Gosford Park exudes an odd feeling of slapdash meticulousness. The plot is complicated, mostly because of the often bracing clutter of so many characters, but it cannot really be called intricate. The murder itself is downplayed, a mere byproduct of a class warfare too entrenched to announce itself, and the solution, a cliché out of Victorian melodrama, is slipped past us as delicately as possible, which is not very. (It's so beautifully played, though, it becomes poignant in spite of itself.) The meticulousness, effacing itself with a piquancy too sly to be modest, is lavished on shopworn period detail, complex sound design, and the orchestration of performances to make them seem much fuller than they could possibly be given the film's spotty structure.

It's mostly because the movie feels truncated--despite feeling, at the same time, very long--that one is so aware of how fully imagined, well beyond the call of duty, or at least beyond what's visible in the film, most of the performances really are. In movies like Nashville or Short Cuts, or even Beyond Therapy or The Player, the mosaic quality of the movies' structures absorbs the richness of individual performances. The greatest acting in these movies--Lily Tomlin in Nashville, Robert Downey Jr. in Short Cuts--suggests not a performance being built as we watch, as in more typical movie acting, but one that's already been completely worked through, before the movie even started. For this kind of film, Altman needs to persuade the audience that each character is already fully formed, from the minute that character first appears on screen; in a very specific way, in Altman's films, the acting is done in the editing.

Part of this prerequisite is built in to the insinuating, elliptical structure of these films. In Nashville, certainly, Altman's technique was to shoot a lot, sometimes improvising, and cut judiciously (not always at his own behest). The result, a decentered narrative in which no character predominates, gives the impression of leaving out a lot, and forcing the audience to fill in background detail that is pointedly excluded, or emotional detail that is only circuitously implied. Even if we glimpse a character only a few times in the course of the story, because of the dense structure, we're likely to feel that we know much more about these characters than we really do, or have spent more time with them than we really have. Paradoxically, the modernist energies of Altman's storytelling--its fragmented, oblique manner--have produced ensemble performances characterized by an unusually high degree of naturalism.

Such naturalism would seem inappropriate to a project as rarefied as Gosford Park, and though Altman's techniques are in their way as sharply refined as ever, they mingle the tonic ellipses of his slightly more realist mosaic films with something of the dreamy, hermetic, interior logic of his more chimerical projects, such as Brewster McCloud, Three Women or Popeye. Nearly without exception, the actors do not let him down here, coming through with performances that seem attuned to the movie's artifice and in synch with its uniform yet variegated structure.

The best example is Ryan Phillippe, from whom, perhaps unfairly, one expects the least. Phillippe plays a Scottish valet who comes to the party with the Hollywood producer he works for. The brogue he affects, jarring in its first few syllables, makes one fear for a moment that Ryan Phillippe will become the new Keanu Reeves. But he's on screen so briefly, so intermittently, and in concert with so many others, that he, like everyone else in one way or other, just blends in. By the time of, say, his third appearance, you're inclined just to take his presence for granted.

Then, peripherally, a character remarks, "I'll tell you one thing--he's no Scotsman." And a few minutes later the servants are bustling with the news that he's not a valet at all, but an actor doing research on servitude. We do not know how, in what circumstances, this revelation has come to light, but the next time Phillippe pops up, he's no longer affecting the brogue, but speaking in his own voice, and this too--because of the patchwork structure of the story, the constantly shifting attentions it demands--we can just take for granted. That's a sample of how performance is integrated with narrative in Altman's films: Phillippe's performance might have been a disaster in an ordinary movie, but it works well in this one, where the intense concentration required to follow the involuted and ultimately insignificant plotline enables the director to pull off nonchalantly virtuoso sleights of hand in every nook and cranny.

The all-star cast is a real ensemble, to the extent that the actors are mostly engaged, not in fronting their own personae, but in putting across the overall sensibility, at least at a conceptual level, of the movie: wispy, gossamer, playfully moody and avowedly fickle, slightly sad but too capricious to sustain any real gravity. This point is made clearest by the lone exception, Bob Balaban himself--he of the "original idea"--as the Hollywood producer. (The role is a somewhat unreadable in-joke: Balaban's uncle was Barney Balaban, who ran Paramount Pictures in the 1930s.)

Balaban's function is to be annoying, so perhaps one should not fault him for succeeding so fully. His character seems at once to be Altman's revenge on dumb studio heads and his penance for Geraldine Chaplin's Opal in Nashville--the obnoxious Brit from the BBC who was the springboard for glib, easy jokes about English pretentiousness. Balaban's character serves as the springboard for glib, easy jokes about American crassness, and he throws off the ensemble's balance.

That may put into relief, though, how effortlessly, on the whole, that balance is achieved. Even the considerable star power of the cast is blithely asserted only to be smoothly downplayed by the mosaic structure of the story. You're halfway through the film before you realize Alan Bates is in it, because he's been introduced so carefully, framed in backgrounds so that by the time he steps forward, his presence is unsurprising. With other familiar players, like Helen Mirren or Emily Watson, Altman takes the opposite tack, presenting them with a headlong, matter-of-fact breeziness that lets them assume their place in the group straightforwardly. And a certain furtive shrewdness is signified in casting actors whose past work has meaning for this film--for instance, as the head cook, Eileen Atkins, who co-wrote Upstairs, Downstairs, the BBC series that Gosford Park tries fugitively to recapture in spirit.

Overall, the film is put together with a cunning that its extemporary mode bids to keep from seeming calculated. But the bid doesn't take. The first third of Gosford Park riffs elaborately on the film's alleged model, Renoir's Rules of the Game; and Altman's style, from his earliest work, has drawn inspiration from Renoir's technique--its long, loose, improvisatory camera movements, with multiple points of interest within the shot and free-wheeling shifts of tone and focus. It's an odd instance of influence, though: In most of his films, Renoir's style was in the service of a worldview rife with charitable humanism, and the footloose, sometimes even joyously sloppy tracking shots, the rangy plots, and the spontaneous turns of feeling expressed, most often, an optimistic, open-ended affirmation of life's possibilities.

Altman adapts features of Renoir's style, but as a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist, whose films suggest the inevitability of catastrophe--as in the almost perversely willed conclusions of Nashville or Short Cuts, an assassination and an earthquake respectively, endings that seem both random and predestined. Altman's interest in randomness, at one level, makes Renoir's influence remotely explicable, but his belief in fated cruelty as an ultimate arbiter gives that influence, in the context of his work, an angular, aleatory, disproportionate spin. For Renoir, the fact that things were askew meant they could still turn out wonderfully--it's only happenstance that Rules of the Game, mostly comedy, ends in sudden tragedy, and part of the point is it could easily have been the other way around. For Altman, the fact that things are askew means they're doomed to disaster, and where Renoir's satire is hopeful, generous, and expansive, Altman's is sour, bitter, anxious. Altman imitated Renoir explicitly, and Rules of the Game in particular, once before, in 1978's A Wedding--his worst film by far, perhaps because of the severe schism between his sensibility and that of the style he was trying to mimic.

Gosford Park works better because it is poised between simulation and parody, and a little closer to the magnanimity of Rules of the Game than to the baseless, excruciating vitriol of A Wedding. It's doubtful that any Altman film will ever be free-spirited--perhaps excepting M*A*S*H--but what made Altman's previous film, Dr. T. and the Women, so awkward was its seemingly counterintuitive effort to be just that, and the prolonged allusion to Renoir that underlies Gosford Park signifies, apparently, a determined aspiration to keep going, perhaps with a little more grace, in that same direction. The film's insubstantiality, at one level, marks its greater feeling of looseness, or open-endedness; Renoir's own last films, too, seemed airy and ephemeral, though much more open to the varied temperaments of their viewers.

The murder mystery aspect of Gosford Park is especially hard to take seriously, though it seems Altman wants to evoke the spirit of that genre--genial nostalgia, picturesque backgrounds, and civilized skullduggery, as in Murder on the Orient Express--without validating the foundations of it. The movie might be taken as a dramatization of Raymond Chandler's famous critique of the British mystery, with its penchant for murder as a fine art, its concern with subtle motivations and its consequent repression of the primitive passions of crime. The most relentless genre-buster in American movies, Altman deconstructed Chandler's own mystique long ago, in The Long Goodbye (1974), so it should not be surprising to find him reverting satirically to Chandler's blustery ethic in this more stately venture, seemingly conceived as a mild parody but executed mostly straight, and having as much relation to Murder by Death as to Rules of the Game.

The movie's real cousin is another current film, The Royal Tenenbaums. (That movie's director, Wes Anderson, has also mentioned Renoir as an influence.) Like Anderson's exercise in whimsy, Altman's film builds an alternative world with direct but sidelong reference--mediated mostly by fey cultural allusions--to certain recondite real-world phenomena, and the pleasure it offers is that of watching it construct its own specialized, internal logic out of these patterns. What Altman's film is to the world of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Anderson's is to that of The New Yorker magazine of the 1960s, and both films express a mixture of affection, reverence, and disdain for the milieus they diligently, cannily reconstruct.

How persuasive, or how precious, these evocations will seem perhaps depends on how connected you feel, and in what ways, to their sources. What gives both films a quality of prefabricated eccentricity, of blinkered, impervious recusance, is the link between their investments in their sources and their ambivalent relation to their audiences. They seem to address audiences who are both steeped in these sources, so they can get the in-jokes, and ignorant of them, so they can applaud the films' own oddly self-professed originality. In this respect they're representative of contemporary trends in a certain vein of "serious" filmmaking, in being both open and closed, effusive and incommunicative--and, at least for Altman's film, that's where Renoir comes in. Like The Royal Tenenbaums, Gosford Park seems at times expansively Renoiresque on the surface, but underneath it's shut down, hermetic and cramped, stuck in the nutshell that begat it. EndBlock

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