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Friday, Nov. 24, 2000

'TITUS' and '81/2 WOMEN'

To the depths of human nature

Rape, pitiless murder, mutilation, human sacrifice and even a meaty portion of cannibalism -- if this sounds to you like the sort of lowbrow Hollywood product that American candidates for public office love to decry, well,you'd be right. Except, of course, the screenplay in this case comes from that paragon of Western culture, William Shakespeare.

Old Willie certainly gets dark at times, but his "Titus Andronicus" is a bummer of such epic proportions that it makes "Macbeth" seem sugar-coated. Bringing this rather neglected work to the big screen is first-time director Julie Taymor, previously known for her stage work, particularly her production of "The Lion King." A misleading reference, however, for "Titus" is one of the darkest, bleakest views of human nature you'll ever see. It's also unforgettable.

Anthony Hopkins plays Titus Andronicus, a victorious Roman general returning with enemy captives: Tamora, queen of the Goths (Jessica Lange), and her sons (including Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). In a virtuoso sequence, Titus' army of dust-covered legionnaires stalk into an eerie torch-lit coliseum, their movements robotic, like an army of Chinese terra-cotta soldiers come to life. As Titus addresses his troops, Taymor shoots him from below, purposefully framing him in a manner reminiscent of Mussolini, thus accentuating the timeless nature of this political violence.

Titus buries his dead soldiers and demands retribution. Despite her pleas, Tamora sees her first-born son slaughtered before her, and this pitiless act by Titus triggers a plague on his house. Titus soon finds himself confronted with a new emperor, Saturninus (Alan Cumming), who bears a grudge against Titus' daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser) for having rejected his advances. The emperor instead takes Tamora as his bride, and she immediately begins to scheme against Titus and his kin, with the help of the devious Moorish slave Aaron (Harry Lennix), her secret lover.

Their villainy bears fruit with most terrible consequences: Titus can scarcely bear the horror that befalls his loved ones, lamenting "he that hurt me hath killed me worse than death." The aged general descends into madness, or so his enemies think . . . Shakespeare's tale builds to an absolutely insane bloodletting, demonstrating amply how vengeance begets only vengeance.

With "Titus," Taymor takes an approach which is absolutely faithful to the original text, and also highly imaginative and experimental visually. Imagine "Satyricon"-era Fellini decadence crossed with the brutal architecture and retro-future world of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" and you'll get a sense of how far Taymor is taking the look of the film.

The costumes are stunning -- a headdress of knives and gilded armor for Tamora, black shirts and jackboots and Pope-mobiles for the imperial family -- while Taymor's dramatic choice of real locations -- a coliseum in Croatia, an Art Brut tower, the Via Appia -- takes the film beyond any boxed-in, stagy feel.

Some of the images Taymor conjures up are unsettlingly terrifying and gorgeous: the rape of Lavinia is imagined in a dreamlike tableaux that mixes Marilyn Monroe's most famous pose with lunging tigers, while an opulent palace orgy is interrupted by a silent hail of arrows arcing through the open domed roof.

Unlike, say, Peter Greenaway's adaptation of "The Tempest" ("Prospero's Books"), the visuals are never allowed to overwhelm the spellbinding beauty of the language, which the cast of "Titus" delivers with sizzling confidence. The bleak matter at hand, though, may have you agreeing with Marcus, the brother of Titus, who laments: "If I do dream, would all my wealth awake me."

Speaking of Greenaway, the last time I reviewed one of his films (1997's "The Pillow Book") I noted the following: "hard to imagine a Greenaway script that doesn't require the idle rich." Well, surprise, surprise: His latest, "81/2 Women," is centered around a father-son pair of upper-crust British perverts with money to burn. After the wife of billionaire Philip Emmenthal (John Standing) dies, his son Storey (Matthew Delamere) -- somewhat less than grief-stricken -- proceeds to comfort his father by sleeping with him, and then convincing him to fill their manor with concubines.

They begin with Shimato (Shizuka Ino), a Japanese woman who's heavily in debt to a Kyoto pachinko parlor owned by the Emmenthal empire. Storey suggests that Shimato pay off her debt through sex, a notion which she readily agrees to, as do her father and fiance! (Following up on the laughably misguided Orientalism of "The Pillow Book," Shimato's family allow her prostitution since they will lose no honor as the Emmenthals are gaijin and, hence, "don't count.")

Sounds misogynistic? Well, it is, and it gets no better as another Madame Butterfly type -- the kabuki-obsessed Mio (Kirina Mano), who longs to be as feminine as the onnagata -- agrees to service the Emmenthal men in exchange for having her obsession financed. Then there's a former nun named Griselda (Toni Collette), an amputee named Giulietta (Manna Fujiwara) and the crippled Beryl (Amanda Plummer), a pig-lover, all coerced into this nasty little fetish harem.

Theoretically, Greenaway is satirizing the moneyed elites, but at this late stage, his near-total exclusion of other subjects for his films suggests instead the director's own self-loathing elitism, a covert love of snobbery masked as an attack. The same could be said of his other recurring theme, sex as the exercise of power and money. That's here again too, for the umpteenth time, and Greenaway doesn't seem to be critiquing it any more, so much as getting off on it.

Gilliam once summed up Greenaway's approach as "disguising his points and hiding his information, creating a riddle that only he has the answer to." The director's smug reliance on this avant-garde inscrutability allows him to maintain a condescendingly superior position over the peons who watch his films (a dwindling number, that). In a word: elitism. Bring on the guillotine.

"Titus" starts tomorrow at Shibuya Hermitage and other theaters. "81/2 Women" is playing at Shibuya Cine Palace.

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