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PARK CITY – It’s not just the large number of people constantly smoking in Anne Fontaine’s miscalculated Two Mothers that makes the Australian characters seem like French imposters. Had the duo of the title been played by, say, Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Beart, pawing at each other’s sons with ferocious intensity, there might have been some Oedipal amour fou fuel to power the scenario. But even with such class acts as Naomi Watts and Robin Wright on hand to lend integrity, this glossy drama never escapes its air of faint ludicrousness.
Based on a short story by Doris Lessing called The Grandmothers, the English-language film was adapted by Christopher Hampton, which is somewhat surprising given its on-the-nose dialogue. Everything is spelled out literally and at a stultifying pace, in a story that might have worked onscreen as either heightened melodrama or farcical comedy. Instead Fontaine, who is not exactly blessed with a light touch, opts for misplaced sincerity.
Set in a sun-glazed paradise on Australia’s East coast, where the rainforest meets the beach, the story centers on two friends since childhood, Lil (Watts) and Roz (Wright), now living in neighboring houses perched above the ocean. In a succession of clunky flash-forwards, we encounter them as girls, then as adults at the funeral of Lil’s husband, and then a few years later, when their respective sons, Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (James Frecheville), have grown into strapping surfers at the tail end of their teens.
The sultry air is so pregnant with sensuality that it’s only a matter of time before the inter-generational coupling commences. No sooner has Roz’s husband Harold (Ben Mendelsohn, in a thankless role) gone south for a Sydney University position, expecting his wife and son to follow, than Ian starts shooting longing glances at his best bud’s mother.
Roz responds immediately to Ian’s advances. When a stunned Tom realizes what’s going on, he puts similar moves on Lil, who gives in after initially resisting. The taboo-busting nature of these twin affairs is addressed almost nonchalantly, with Lil offering up the understatement that they have “crossed a line.” But any potential emotional conflict from the situation yields only mild humor and awkwardness. Considering the unorthodox scenario, this is a film almost entirely without psychological depth or tension.
Neither couple follows through on their half-hearted resolve to end the relationships, and two years later the passion still burns. Roz’s marriage has quietly dissolved in the meantime, with Harold starting a new family in Sydney. Tom goes to the city for a temporary job and meets a more age-appropriate love interest in Mary (Jessica Tovey). Lil is hurt when this comes to light, and with both women aware that their advancing age will lead to complications down the line, Roz declares the menage a quatre over.
The most vehemently opposed to Roz’s decree is Ian. While, like Tom, he moves on and starts a family, he displays few signs of emotional commitment in his new life, continuing to simmer with resentment. Inevitably the truth spills out, hurting a number of innocents in the process.
There’s a potentially interesting attempt here to explore without judgment what older women might be drawn to in relationships with much younger men – physical pleasure, respect, reassurance against the march of time and unencumbered freedoms that often vanish over the course of conventional long-term unions. But the film sticks to the surfaces, like a tonally unsure comedy of manners right up to the climactic exposure. That makes these characters not much more than irresponsible narcissists living in self-satisfied isolation.
Looking effortlessly beautiful, Watts and Wright bring intelligence and dignity that’s unmerited, and with lesser actresses in the roles this would be far sillier. A late scene in which Lil comes clean to Roz about her and Tom’s post-breakup transgressions has a welcome emotional delicacy that’s rare in this script. Samuel and Frecheville similarly give it their all to play their hot-and-heavy roles with conviction, but Fontaine mostly reduces them to pouting Abercrombie & Fitch models.
The aptly named cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne brings a soft, warm glow to the ample displays of toned, gorgeously bronzed flesh, the idyllic setting and chic homes right out of a beach-living decor spread. And the lush orchestral score by Christopher Gordon and Antony Partos reflects the director’s earnest intentions. But basically, this is tasteful MILF porn.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Naomi Watts, Robin Wright, Xavier Samuel, James Frenchville, Sophie Lowe, Jessica Tovey, Gary Sweet, Ben Mendelsohn
Production companies: Hopscotch Features, Cine-@, Mon Voisin Productions, France 2 Cinema
Director: Anne Fontaine
Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton, based on the short story “The Grandmothers,” by Doris Lessing
Producers: Philippe Carcassonne, Andrew Mason, Michael Feller, Barbara Gibbs
Executive producers: Naomi Watts, Troy Lum, Sidonie Dumas
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Production designer: Annie Beauchamp
Music: Christopher Gordon, Antony Partos
Costume designer: Joanna Mae Park
Editors: Luc Barnier, Ceinwen Berry
No rating, 111 minutes.
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