“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you can be violent and original in your work.”
- Gustave Flaubert.
I’m sure that Flaubert didn’t have someone like Sacha Baron Cohen in mind when he originally made those comments. Yet can we ever know who the real Sacha Baron Cohen is so that we would be sure that he is "regular and orderly" in his life? Flaubert's sentiments are absolutely pertinent to understanding this satiric shape-shifter who has made himself into an equal opportunity offender. In his new movie Bruno, Cohen ups the stakes with his audience. In doing so, he succeeds and fails in about equal measure. But it’s still a daringly provocative piece of work. Unlike in his last film Borat, Cohen doesn't offer the audience a comfort zone in which to enjoy the satire. In Borat, which was also directed by Larry Charles, Cohen played a genial naif, the inverse of the ugly American tourist abroad, a Kazakhstan journalist who comes to America and exposes its warts by revealing many of his own. For the most part, audiences responded favourably to this Kazakhstanian boob because they could take refuge in Borat’s naivety. But many, showing some of their own naivety, also assumed wrongly that the film was designed to make fun of American dumbness. Borat did more than that. It overturned our notion of what constitutes dumbness and prejudice by confronting us with the main character’s good intentions. Those intentions comically masked his odious views and outlandish behaviour. Bruno, though, doesn’t provide even that kind of safety valve because the character – a gay Austrian, fashion-obsessed celebrity seeker - is aggressively unpleasant.
After being fired as the host of his TV show, Bruno comes to America to seek success and celebrity in a country that always seems to crave it. Cohen’s style is continually confrontational, daring us to see what is real and what is fabricated. But rather than create a character for the audience to identify with (as he skewers homophobic attitudes and celebrity obsession), Cohen pushes the limits of tolerance that a liberal-minded audience might possess. He shakes our assurance and certainty in our liberal belief in same-sex equal rights. Unfortunately, Bruno ends up being too single-minded in its approach. The gags are also pretty much hit-and-miss. (One involving the ambushing of Presidential candidate Ron Paul comes dangerously close to the kind of smug grandstanding that Michael Moore gets lauded for doing.) But unlike Moore, who assumes the role of a trustworthy narrator by making himself (and his followers) politically and morally superior to the folks he’s attacking, Cohen is the untrustworthy narrator, one who becomes the target of everybody’s scorn. In Bruno, that attitude is quite evident in a hunting scene with a group of very manly hunters. When he taunts their heterosexuality by slyly coming on to them, he doesn’t make us laugh at the hunters’ homophobia; instead, we are appalled by Bruno’s candid desire to couple with them.
Although he’s British, Cohen’s style of comedy comes right out of the Jewish-American tradition which uses the art of disguise as a means to subvert cultural norms. Lenny Bruce pretty much pioneered this comic form on stage, as does Randy Newman in popular song. But Cohen most resembles the late Andy Kaufman, who also toyed with his audience by making himself the object of scorn. Bruno lacks the assured tone of Borat, however, so Cohen vainly repeats a number of plot motifs from the previous film. Nevertheless, Bruno is still a sharply controversial picture. Cohen pushes the viewer with outrageous and scatological routines while daring the audience to turn on him. Many have already begun to do so which means the picture is unlikely to be the hit that Borat was. However I laughed and gasped at much of his audacity. But I was equally appalled by what I found myself laughing at. Yet there’s something quite dangerous and deviously clever about having a University-educated Jewish comedian playing an obnoxiously gay Austrian celebrity diva. And what does this diva want from life? He just wants to be as famous as that other Austrian “superstar”: Adolph Hitler. Flaubert would gag.
In the past, whenever you attended films by Fellini, Kurosawa, Godard, or Bergman, you at least felt that you were getting a fascinating and intriguing look through the window of a culture quite different from your own - whether the movies were good or bad. The cinematic language usually challenged your ability to “read” a film and respond to it. But one of the down sides of our current globalized economy is that many foreign-language films are now using very generic, familiar plots dressed up in cultural garb in order to be hits in North American markets. The success of Slumdog Millionaire, for instance, was certainly a product of this change. Although I mostly enjoyed the movie, my enthusiasm was somewhat tempered by the box office calculations built into the story – and I’m not referring to the film's allusions to the Bollywood tradition. I’m speaking of an audience-pleasing component derived from the test market screenings that diluted the “realism” of the impoverished lifestyle of the characters in the story. Slumdog Millionaire, at times, felt as manufactured as the game show it was depicting.
The new Italian film, Il Divo is a much more problematic version of this dubious devolution of foreign-language movies. Based on the controversial career of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, the seven-time prime minister who preserved his power through corruption and murder, director Paolo Sorrentino’s operatic study is style that runs roughshod over its content. Borrowing from a number of visual stylists, including Scorsese and Tarantino, Sorrentino is so hot to show you how adept he is at moving a camera that he fails to signify anything with it. He introduces plenty of plot concerning the devious machinations of Andreotti’s hunger for power but we get no sense of how he built the alliances necessary to keep it. You can barely keep track of the conspiracies and double-dealings because of the constant dancing of the camera. Yet Sorrentino has to keep the camera moving because he doesn’t know how to dramatize the story he’s devised.
Much has been made of this award-winning film’s main performance by Toni Servillo, but it’s largely an actor’s stunt. Servillo plays Andreotti as a still, diminutive gnome, a cartoon Richard III floating in a sea of stylized chaos. (Il Divo is what Francesco Rosi’s The Mattei Affair might have been if Tarantino had directed it.) Il Divo was one of the many colourful nicknames given to this puny worm but Sorrentino never gives his protagonist his due. He is so hungry to dazzle the audience with his pyrotechnics that his movie ends up eclipsing the power-hungry character at its core. Maybe Il Divo ends up feeling fraudulent and hollow because its director, starving for his own international recognition, ends up being as nakedly ambitious as his character.