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Friday, April 16, 2010
It's just me, myself, and I
If hell is other people, as existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously put it, then Sam Bell has the best job in the world: He leads a solitary existence on a lunar base, where he's the only human employee in charge of a mostly robotic-controlled installation that mines fusion energy from beneath the moon's surface. His only company inside the air-locks is GERTY, a cloyingly helpful AI-cum-robot (voiced unctuously, and with more than a little nod to H.A.L. of "2001," by Kevin Spacey.)
Yet Sam (played by a haggard-looking Sam Rockwell) thinks he's lonely: He pines for his wife and child back on Earth, and he's counting the days till his three-year contract is up and he can return to the blue planet. Sam's about to learn the truth of Sartre's dictum, though, when another person arrives at the lunar base, and — Sartre would love this — that other person is him.
Without giving too much away, it should be clear that Duncan Jones' directorial debut, "Moon," is a mind- bender worthy of Philip K. Dick, a gnostic piece of sci-fi that sets up a spurious "reality" only to have it dissolve before our eyes. Sam comes to terms with the implications of there being another "him" rather quickly; what's harder is when he realizes he doesn't really like the guy. Things spin out of control faster than you can say "I'm not a clone, you're the clone!"
Jones — son of another space oddity, singer David Bowie — also pours his love of 1970s sci-fi into "Moon," which resurrects many of the cinematic sci-fi possibilities that were cut short by the success of "Star Wars" and the example it set. Jones cites his love of the markedly different vision of outer space conjured up in films like "Silent Running," the original "Alien," and "Outland," and I would add to that list John Carpenter's "Dark Star." It's a vision of life off the planet where the pristine, sterile white surfaces of NASA modules are present, but are balanced by blue-collar, grungy characters who look like they'd be cab drivers in another movie.
With only a $5 million budget to work with, Jones nevertheless manages some convincing sequences of giant mining tractors plowing up the barren moon surface. And, of course, there was the technical challenge of having Rockwell playing two Sams in same scenes, an illusion that comes off seamless. Even better is Rockwell himself, who delineates the two versions of himself so clearly (in terms of personality), that you'd think he's schizophrenic. About the only other actor who's pulled this off is Jeremy Irons in "Dead Ringers."
The high school teen seduced by a nymphophiliac middle-age lover in "An Education" certainly knows her Sartre, and in a sense she can blame her problems on him. And Albert Camus, and chanson Juliette Greco, and, well, France.
Growing up in a conservative London suburb in 1961, with hopelessly petit-bourgeois parents who are steering her straight for an Oxford education, 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is addicted to all things French. In the preswinging, pre-Beatles early '60s of drab conformity, the frisson of things like existentialism, sultry pop, and Gauloises seems like an exotic dream.
Influenced by existentialist writings — and the idea that one must live one's life passionately and with authenticity — Jenny decides to bite when suave 30-something entrepreneur David (Peter Sarsgaard) pulls up in his maroon Bristol one rainy day and dangles the bait of some concert tickets and dinner at a swank restaurant. David seems too good to be true: polite, charming, utterly confident and attentive to Jenny's every whim. Unlike Jenny, though, the viewer knows that when a middle-age man pursues a teen, there's a train wreck waiting to happen. (Apparently the one author Jenny didn't read was Vladimir Nabokov.)
Soon, David has charmed Jenny's gullible and aspirational parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) into letting her accompany him on overnight weekend jaunts. Along with David's bohemian friends Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper & Rosamund Pike), Jenny is spending her weekends at jazz clubs, race tracks and concerts, dressed in finery and sipping Champagne. Her virginity does not seem destined to last until graduation, which could mean expulsion, but Jenny is convinced there's more to learn about art, music, culture, love and the world outside of the classroom, and her well-intentioned but bookish spinster of a teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), can't convince her otherwise.
Still, a dissonant note is struck in how David and Danny refuse to discuss their "business dealings" with Jenny and when she catches them in what seems to be simple theft. There's a certain mystery around the two that she ignores at her peril.
Nymphophilia is a hot topic to handle, but Danish director Lone Scherfig resists easy moralizing in favor of showing how attraction is often nothing more than a blind leap of faith, and how some lessons need to be learned the hard way. (That, in fact, may be the definition of becoming an adult.)
Scherfig's film is open to the usual carping from the feminist wing — that the Lolita-esque relationship depicted is exploitative, patriarchal, and demeaning to women — but it's somewhat immune to such charges, given the fact that the story depicted here represents someone's actual experiences.
"An Education" is based on a memoir by journalist/author Lynn Barber (once notorious for the 1973 lovemaking manual "How to Please Your Man in Bed") and given a sharp-edged adaptation for the screen by Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity").
The film's pleasures lie in its fine sense of time and place — a world where girls' schools still teach posture with a textbook balanced on the head — and even more so in its performances. Alfred Molina is excellent (and quite funny) as Jenny's insecure dad, tyrannical in his grumbling small-mindedness yet gullible to a fault. Sarsgaard is always at his best when playing a damaged character, and his performance here is so suave and likable that it's shocking when he sinks into creepy baby-talk in the bedroom. Carey Mulligan was Oscar-nominated for her work here, and deservedly so: She makes Jenny a complex mix of naivete and desire, vulnerability and strength.
Perhaps the film's most likable aspect is one that flies in the face of so much current U.S. cinema and literature. In an age in which childhood traumas are held up as the endless fount of adult dysfunction, "An Education" suggests that a mistake can be merely that, something we learn from and move on.