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Saturday, May 13, 2000
The man who loved himself too much
By KAORI SHOJI
One of my friends is the author of an imaginary book called "To Tide You Over." This is a self-help work dedicated to tiding one over the difficult moments in life (i.e., dinner with relatives, being forced to watch Big 10 football in a crowded bar) by means of imaginary forays into movies, books and comic strips.
For example, he swears by "Longtime Companion" as the perfect getaway in the face of a breakup: "I just imagine myself walking on a Fire Island boardwalk with Dermott Mulroney and I'm smiling again." In this scene, my friend casts himself as 10 kg thinner and wearing a frayed Ralph Lauren ensemble with just a hint of stubble growing on his hollow cheeks.
My vehicle of choice is "Onegin." I'd be sitting there in a tiny office, opposite a kacho with tropical armpits, lecturing me on the importance of, well, I couldn't tell you . . . but I would be lost in a private reverie where Ralph Fiennes is casting long, meaningful looks in my direction from across a ballroom filled with waltzing Russian aristocrats.
"Onegin" is probably the most erotic movie of 1999 (winner of Best Director's Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival) and manages to be so without once stepping over the border into overt sexuality. Restraint charges the entire film and the constant sense of physical upheaval remains just that, a sense. The result is something aglow with sensuality. At times you can almost catch a whiff of Ralph Fiennes' onscreen cologne and in fact, "Onegin" would make a perfect name for an after-shave. Here's the blurb: "For the man who loves himself just a little too much."
Based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin, "Onegin" records the life and times of the title character: Russian aristocrat Evgeny Onegin (Fiennes). Finicky and narcissistic to the ends of his manicured nails, Onegin is introduced to us as a man so jaded by the been-there-done-that, slept-with-1,000-women experience, that he is capable of just two modes of feeling: bored and comatose.
A sudden inheritance induces him to leave his decadent life in St. Petersburg and live in the country where he encounters Tatyana (Liv Tyler). She is intelligent, pure of heart and has the kind of looks that make normal men think they have died and gone to heaven when in her presence. Onegin, however, is too self-engrossed and doesn't even notice Tatyana is attracted. She confesses her passion in a letter, handwritten with a quill on a sleepless summer night.
This letter scene alone could not offer more visual appreciation mileage than if she had gone skinny dipping in a Russian creek. Which goes to show you: (a) what romance is really about; and (b) how e-mail has killed most of the joy of communication, which is, let's face it, what romance is really about. You will watch mesmerized as Tatyana pauses in her scribbling to smear her ink-stained hands on the front of her lily-white nightgown, and pushes her tumbling tresses from her face. Such a letter should be encased in thick glass and hung in a museum.
Alas, Onegin turns her down and completes the injury by flirting with her sister Olga (Lena Headey), already engaged to his best friend Lensky (Toby Stevens). Naturally, this complicates matters and offends everyone except Onegin. From his point of view, no flirtation is ever worth getting excited about. As he says to Tatyana, love may start out as something bright but, like everything else, dulls overnight: "A wedding, then children, then boredom, then affairs. How could things be otherwise?" This he tosses off with a dose of ennui that could sink a ship.
Director Martha Fiennes worked many years on MTV and British TV commercials before this feature debut. Like David Fincher ("Fight Club"), also an ex-MTV wizard, Fiennes has a flair for making every frame count. Despite the period and the costumes, "Onegin" is distinctly minimalist and modern, liberated from the many characters with their many nicknames, digressions and political subtexts that tend to overburden the Russian literary adaptation.
Reining in the story the way she did, Fiennes had plenty of room to have fun with the material. For example, she positively lingers over a scene where Onegin is dressing in his best for a meeting with Tatyana -- he arranges his locks just so, slips into a corset, buttons his tight, frilly blouse and looks into the mirror with feverish longing. Totally gorgeous. Tatyana, on the other hand, never gazes at her reflection and spends most of the movie reading lofty books but looking totally gorgeous anyway.
Oh, sigh. If you'll excuse me I have to go and complete my reverie with Onegin on the Winter Palace's dance floor.
"Onegin" opens May 20 at Cinema Square Tokyu in Shinjuku.