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Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Bending the rules of noir

The Monkey's Mask

Rating: * * * 1/2 Japanese title: Poetry, SexDirector: Samantha Lang Running time: 93 minutes Language: EnglishShowing at Yebisu Garden Cinema

Murder mysteries have been set in just about every locale possible, so why not the cloistered world of Australian poetry? That's what director Samantha Lang attempts in her second film, "The Monkey's Mask," and actually the contrast makes for an intriguing tension. On the one hand, you have a hard-boiled film noir, with a tough detective doggedly investigating a violent murder; on the other, there's the airy-fairy world of tenured academics and cliquey poetry readings to the accompaniment of fey flutes.

Susie Porter and Kelly McGillis in "The Monkey's Mask"

Lang bends the genre rules even further: The gruff private eye whose good sense is clouded by the wiles of a femme fatale is, in this case, a lesbian. Petite Susie Porter (soon to be seen in "Star Wars: Episode 2") gets the role that would normally be for someone like Bogart, Nicholson or Crowe, while Kelly McGillis (of "Top Gun" fame) plays the manipulating seductress.

Set in and around Sydney, "The Monkey's Mask" starts with a young goth sort of girl reading some raw and racy poetry at a small club event. The girl is Mickey Norris (Abbie Cornish), and it's the last we see of her: She disappears the following day. After two weeks, her parents suspect foul play and call in private detective Jill Fitzpatrick (Porter).

Jill suspects Mickey's simply run off with one of the men she was writing about, but starts to sniff out the trail. Visiting Mickey's university, Jill finds her head getting a little fuzzy in the presence of poetry professor Diana Maitland (McGillis), a statuesque blonde with a commanding presence. Jill leaves with no leads, but a date.

Things get complicated: Jill is ecstatic when Diana sleeps with her, but unsettled when Diana suggests a menage a trois with her husband Nick. (In the film's best line, Jill demurs, saying, "No thanks -- I'm straight.") Mickey's corpse turns up, and Jill turns to the girl's poems, which are full of violent sex, for clues. Diana dismisses Mickey's writings as mere "victim poetry," but Jill senses something more. Two older, respected poets are implicated as former lovers of Mickey, but Diana's indifference to the fate of her student is troubling, as is the furtive behavior of Mickey's dad . . .

The whodunit is strung out rather nicely, but the film's real heat lies in the affair between Jill and Diana. As in her first film, "The Well," Lang excels at creating a slippery, shifting dynamic of sex and jealousy between two women separated by age and attitude. McGillis crackles like dry ice, playing a woman who's comfortable with wielding her sexuality aggressively and at the same time worried that she might be losing that edge to age. Porter brings a nice combination of professional toughness and personal vulnerability -- in a neat twist, it's the butch who's the hopeless romantic.

Lang made a bold move in choosing to shoot their intimate scenes erotically and with an amount of nudity that could only be deliberate. Normally, this wouldn't be such a controversial move these days, but Lang chose to film actresses with body types that matched the roles they were playing: Porter displaying stocky thighs and sturdy shoulders, McGillis looking like the 40-something mother-of-two that she is. To say that Lang is subverting established depictions of beauty is an understatement: After a Tokyo screening, bewildered fans besieged the director with questions asking why McGillis looked like she did. Proving -- once again -- that in our era, normality onscreen has become perceived as aberrant.

Based on a verse-novel by poetess Dorothy Porter, "The Monkey's Mask" seeks to be an attack on smug, established academic poetry circles, delivered as poetry. But there the film fails: While it can make us laugh at the pompous middle-aged poets and their self-obsession, it never gets us to admire the confrontational, confessional poetry of Mickey. Her verse, with lines like "I'll love you till I die/even if your angry cock kills me," is nothing short of dreadful. Poetry skeptics will eat this up though, and enjoy a wide grin when Jill remarks, "I've met more poets in one month than most people would care to in a lifetime."

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