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Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Out of the mouths of babes

Ten Tiny Love Stories

Rating: * * * *
Japanese title: Kanojo no Koi kara Wakaru Koto
Director: Rodrigo Garcia
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: English
Opens Aug. 10

Why are women so adept at talking about their relationships? I've heard more gripping tales, farcical anecdotes and tragedies of Greek mythological proportions from various girlfriends than 15 Meg Ryan films strung together. What's more, their delivery was skilled and artful, their timing nearly perfect.

News photo
Alicia Witt in "Ten Tiny Love Stories"

One wonders whether most women aren't natural actresses when it comes to the Relationship Confession. Ask any woman above the age of 14 what her love life is like and nine times out of 10, her face will switch to camera mode. She will look at you (the lens), recross her legs and pause for a cue call audible only to her. Then she clears her throat and gives a little smile. She begins.

Rodrigo Garcia is a filmmaker fascinated by the stories women carry within -- and he has made it his mission to bring them to the screen. Last year, it was "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her" that displayed his amazing antennae for picking up women's inner voices and weaving them into richly textured tales. This year it's "Ten Tiny Love Stories," and Garcia attempts something different. He discards the guise and props of storytelling to concentrate solely on the woman. Just the woman, sitting in front of a high-definition digital camera.

Ten women deliver 10 monologues written by Garcia, each a small story about a love affair that, in one way or another, marked their lives. They sit in different parts of what appears to be the same house, the camera focuses on just their faces and chests. They hardly even move, apart from the rare hand gesture. They simply sit and talk, then fall silent as the scene fades out and changes to the next woman.

Some of the tales are so intimate you're half convinced they were the actress's own experiences, and indeed, that's one of the kicks of this work -- we don't how much of it is real-life adlib and how much of it is "fiction, having no relation to persons living or dead."

The other kick is that any of the tales could be blown into full-fledged, big-budget love stories, starring -- of course -- Meg Ryan and, say, George Clooney. But Garcia's method (the total absence of males, soundtrack and computer graphics) challenges the worn-out but still-gloating genre of "love story" to a duel. Love Story says the more fancy the trappings, the better. Garcia says all you really need is a woman and her words.

Radha Mitchell appears first in a monologue titled "Brief Encounter," about running into an ex-boyfriend in a movie theater. Mitchell describes the sudden tension and flood of memories, particularly his smell when they kissed. For all that, however, she knows that their relationship is over. When he asks for her new number so they can meet for breakfast, she gives it to him readily, knowing that when he calls she won't be there. She has already planned to spend the night with her new boyfriend.

This is the kind of thing women are telling each other over coffee all the time: an intimate slice of life that needs no advice or solution, just a willing ear. Mitchell tells it well, her breath becoming quicker and her cheeks flushing when she recalls kissing her ex, dwelling on how it used to make her feel. The moment is so charged with eroticism the screen actually seems to buzz. It's astonishing that mere words and facial expressions have the power to do this, much more so than if this had been a scene of a man kissing Mitchell, to an appropriate soundtrack.

There are the stories whose intimacy level is taken even higher. In "Dream of a Better Me," Lisa Gay Hamilton ("Jackie Brown") recounts a story of a blind date that went awry. Hamilton is a little tense as she recalls setting up the evening; she tells how, seeing her date at a deli for dinner, she felt attracted to him, but the evening somehow felt "flat." Nonetheless, she goes to his house for drinks and without him making the slightest move or showing any interest, she goes ahead and gives him a blow job. What happens after that deserves a mention in the "Book of Awful Blind Dates." The way Hamilton tells it draws out the most defining quality of the modern woman: a delicate mix of self-assurance, self-pity and cynicism in matters of love.

Garcia is the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the family DNA is detectable in the way he handles words. Many of the sentences spoken here are so beautifully and subtly crafted, one is compelled to take notes. And oh, how they flow from the lips of these actresses like poetry. The burning question is whether Garcia is willing to repeat this with male actors, (pleeeeze say yes!) My fingers are crossed, Mr. Garcia.

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