Sea Sick | The Nation


Sea Sick

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Squirrel-cheeked 13-year-old Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau) has no need to learn about sex in the gutter. He gets groans, grunts and smelly leftovers right at home, by living and working in his mother's hot-sheets motel. The place sits in semi-isolation on an exurban road, identified by a generic sign that also serves to name this film: The Motel.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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For any nearsighted chubby boy who likes homework, puberty is already going to be a trial, even without a flinty mother (Jade Wu) who collects overtime charges by breaking in on her naked guests and threatening them with a baseball bat. Sex, for Ernest, is a promise simultaneously flourished and squelched--much like the recognition he's just won in a writing contest but is forbidden to claim. He can't go to the awards dinner because, according to his mother, "honorable mention" means that Ernest wasn't even good enough to lose.

If he is ever to grow out of this trap, Ernest will need a friend, a teacher, a model--and so one blows into the office one afternoon, bringing with him a giggling hooker and a bad credit card. Sam (Sung Kang) is handsome and breezy and drives a sharp car. He may not be able to pay, but he chums up readily, and Ernest wants him around. It doesn't at first occur to him to ask why Sam has nowhere else to go, or why he would seek the company of a 13-year-old. If Sam wants to offer tutelage, Ernest will accept, for both good and ill.

Written and directed by Michael Kang, The Motel is a quiet charmer: modest but precise in visual style, and always tactful about its characters. It never tells you more about them than you can figure out on your own. The film is now rolling out for national release, having recently opened at New York's Film Forum.

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Confined in its setting to a townhouse interior, concentrated in action within thirty-six hours and focused intently on one married couple, Gabrielle would conform very comfortably to the rules of chamber drama if it didn't also drip with luxury and ostentation. The film's townhouse is a Belle Epoque hôtel particulier, populated with neoclassical statuary in its marble atrium and Proustian dinner guests in the flocked and velvety salon. When entertaining, the master and mistress put on a show for their eighty best friends. When nominally alone, they play to the servants, who are many and ever-present. So this period drama becomes very grand and outgoing for an intimate two-hander: a film that lavishly exposes the private feelings of people who aren't supposed to have any.

Co-written and directed by Patrice Chéreau, based on Joseph Conrad's short story "The Return," Gabrielle begins as the monologue of Jean Hervey, whom you might call complacent but who prefers to think of himself as self-confident. As you see his tall, lean figure striding through the Parc Monceau section of Paris, a cigar perfuming the waxed ends of his mustache, you hear him on the soundtrack praising his wife as if she were the best of his polished sculptures. Chronically impassive and faultlessly incurious about others, Gabrielle has been, for ten years, the perfect ornament of a social circle where "emotion and failure are feared more than war."

So it's bad for Jean when he comes home one afternoon and finds a note from Gabrielle saying she's left him for another man. It's disastrous that she doesn't keep her word. Before night falls, she's back, having decided not to abscond. Horror-struck, Jean realizes he has no appropriate face to put on this situation. How can he smooth over a rupture that both did and did not happen? As for Gabrielle, who'd gone out to commit adultery as if dressed for a funeral, why did she return? And can she negotiate a new living arrangement with her husband, now that he suddenly, violently wants her to love him?

The answers come down to physiognomy--despite Chéreau's elaborate period detail and chandelier lighting, his use of jarring music (more Second Vienna School than turn-of-the-century Parisian), his trick of sometimes slapping Brechtian titles over the image. For all of this, the force of Gabrielle lies in the faces--of Pascal Greggory, whose formidable chin should be a French national monument, and of Isabelle Huppert, the only possible choice for a woman "whose every thought and feeling shows on her skin." He is a block of stone, which fractures with a piercing, terrible crack and then slowly crumbles before your eyes. And she is the chisel: keen, resolute and direct.

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