In Steven Spielberg’s latest picture, a skinheaded psychic named Agatha keeps challenging Tom Cruise with the words, “Can you see?” The question answers itself: Cruise sees in Minority Report, but not well enough. He must learn to recognize his ocular limitations–a task he accomplishes by enduring chase scenes, double-crosses, confrontations at gunpoint and a few jocularly nauseating trials, conducted in Spielberg’s bucket-of-bugs, Indiana Jones style.
In Jacques Audiard’s new picture, by contrast, Emmanuelle Devos can’t hear, and she knows it from the start. The first shot in Read My Lips is an image of her tucking a hearing aid behind one ear, then concealing it with her hair. Her first lines, spoken while answering the phone in a nerve-jangling office, include the words, “I didn’t hear. Can you repeat that?” Her task in the movie–accomplished through acts of larceny and hostage-taking–is to learn how much power she might have, despite her aural limitations.
Ineluctable modalities of the filmable! We are discussing not only sight and sound but also America and France, plot and character, man and woman, innocence and experience. Film culture needs both sides; so if I tell you that I’d gladly watch Read My Lips several times but will be content with one viewing of Minority Report, please don’t take it to mean that Minority Report shouldn’t be seen at all. On the contrary: To miss it would be like bypassing one of those grand and macabre curiosities that lie just off the tourist’s route–like visiting Madrid, for example, without troubling to descend the marbled stair to the crypt of the Escorial. In the monumental edifice of Minority Report, as in that palatial tomb, you may encounter something madly idiosyncratic, yet absolutely characteristic of its culture. It’s just not much of a pleasure; whereas Read My Lips is so much fun, it could be retitled Curl My Toes.
But, to begin with Spielberg:
After last summer’s release of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, all true filmoids were eager to know what nightmare he might next sweat out in public. Under the influence of Stanley Kubrick, under the pretense of selling us entertainment, Spielberg had made a nakedly confessional movie about abandonment, disillusionment and the corruptions of show business. Past a certain point, of course, the picture was a misshapen wreck; but that was because A.I. struggled so desperately to escape itself and concoct a happy ending. The harder it strained, the more compelling, and horrifying, it became. I felt that Spielberg had at last tapped into emotions he’d located not in his audience but in himself. Could he maintain that connection, now that he’d established it? That was the question hanging over Minority Report.
The answer is now before us, in the only futuristic, metaphysical thriller I can think of that takes the violation of civil liberties as its theme and the abuse of children as its obsession. These twin facets of Minority Report come together, improbably but unforgettably, in the figures of oracles known as Pre-Cogs. They lie in a bottom-lit, Y-shaped pool somewhere in Washington, DC, in the year 2054: three damaged orphans who are adult in form but fetal in situation, since they are kept floating in an amniotic fluid of high narcotic content. Their fate (you can’t really call it a job) is to remain forever in that stage of childhood where every shadow in the bedroom conceals a monster. Unfortunately, the monsters are real: They are the murderers who will strike in the near future, and whose crimes the psychics not only foresee but experience. You might think someone would take pity on the Pre-Cogs and release them from these visions, at which they convulse in pain and horror. Instead, for the public benefit, a police agency called the Department of Pre-Crime maintains these creatures in a permanent state of terror.