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Life Changings

Assassination Tango (United Artists)
That Girl from Paris (Films Philos)

Has Robert Duvall gone out of his professional mind? The worry seems legitimate, especially for an admirer, after Assassination Tango. Ever since I first saw him, in an Off-Broadway production of Miller's A View From the Bridge in 1965, Duvall has seemed to me one of the few American actors in both theater and film who needed only to decide to be great in order to reach classical greatness. That Miller performance, his later theater work in Wait Until Dark and American Buffalo, and his film performances (to name only a few) in Apocalypse Now, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The Eagle Has Landed, and, above all, Tender Mercies affirmed that Duvall had astonishing range and gravity. Long ago I began hoping in print that we would see him--on stage and, yes, on screen--as Macbeth and as Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman and as Ridgeon in Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, which are only some of the major roles that seemed to be waiting for him to take them on. Duvall's films kept coming steadily, but usually within the compass that steady film work allows. An exception was The Apostle, which he also wrote and directed, an overlong and unoriginal work about a Southern preacher that at least had serious intent. But now … 

Now in his early seventies, Duvall writes, directs, and stars in a film about a New York hit man who is hired to go to Buenos Aires to kill a political tyrant, and who there falls in love with the tango and a tango teacher. This strange combination might have produced either a dark comedy or a drama of belated realizations. Neither happens. The combination itself doesn't happen--thematically, anyway. Assassination Tango is a series of disconnected scenes alternating between two story lines, neither of which is cogent or concluded. The picture is tinged with the irrational.

The clunks start with the first scene. Duvall is at a nightclub table with a twelve-year-old girl--his girlfriend's daughter, we learn--and is teasing her about dancing with him. The sequence could bear a subtitle asking us to note that this man, despite what happens later, has heart. The pieces of the plot are then slapped in, often with Duvall speaking what sounds like improvised staccato dialogue, as he accepts his hit assignment, goes to Buenos Aires, and meets the aggrieved people who have hired him through some Argentinean criminals. He makes preparations for his job that are unexplained and unbelievable; then he happens to see the lovely Luciana Pedraza tangoing marvelously in a dance hall, and cannot, as Yeats said, know the dancer from the dance. The businesslike hit man goes tango-mad.

To this plot mélange add factual slips. Duvall travels with one smallish bag, yet his wardrobe is inexhaustible. The tyrant-target is delayed out of town by an accident, yet turns up when expected. He is heavily guarded, yet Duvall walks into his garden simply by flourishing a bunch of flowers and pretending that he is there to deliver them.

Duvall returns to New York one evening--after his tango rhapsody, after having murdered two men--to the little suburban house where he lives with his girlfriend and her child. They go inside and he closes the door, as if he were putting an ironic finish on a completed film. But it is a bag of bits--loose ends that smack of hurried stitching and adjusting.

Through the story--the two stories--moves this wrinkled man who wears a ponytail apparently to show that he is young at heart, rapidly running and climbing as often as possible to show that he is not arthritic. The worst is that he seems not to be proving anything to us but to Pedraza, who is described in the publicity packet as his "longtime girlfriend." The film has been awkwardly contrived to launch her almost as much as to give Duvall youthful elbow room. The publicity also tells us that Duvall and Pedraza did a tango at a White House state dinner in 1999; thus to all the troubles of the presidency was added the discomfiting sight of a beautiful dancer partnered by an elderly man wishing that he were young. That discomfit happens here, often.

Duvall has directed several times before, especially well with a documentary about a Nebraska rodeo family called We're Not the Jet Set. His direction of Assassination Tango is his best contribution to the film--strong, almost like a series of punches. In Buenos Aires, he splices in some acute glimpses of the city's life and quirks. (In one shot a "living statue" Jesus lies down on the lap of a truly statuary Madonna.) But despite the muscular directing, Assassination Tango seems an aberration. Temporary, Duvall's admirers will hope.

Film-making countries often develop signature plot devices. For instance, many recent American films dwell on strange relationships between criminals and police. (Dark Blue, discussed here a few weeks ago, isn't even the latest of them.) In France one of the recurrent devices has been the conjunction of people who wouldn't ordinarily meet. It's not the "they gotta meet cute" of Hollywood romantic formula: these French films sometimes have no romance in them. Years ago, its title forgotten, there was a French comedy about a judge, motoring on holiday, whose car breaks down and who has to stay at an inn run by (although he doesn't know it) professional thieves. In The Two of Us a Jewish child is quartered in wartime with an old man who is a rabid anti-Semite. Now comes That Girl From Paris.

A hip Parisienne of twenty-nine, a computer expert, has always longed to be a farmer. After a breakup with her boyfriend, she buys a goat farm in the Rhine Alps from an old farmer. The farmer doesn't like her and doesn't think she can manage the farm; still, he sells the place to her--with one proviso. For family reasons, he won't be able to move out for eighteen months. So, in separate houses, the vigorous young woman and the unfriendly old farmer have to live together for a time.

Of course we know that reconciliation will come. Precisely the point of films in this genre is to provide pleasant predictability. We collaborate, in a way: we chuckle silently as, so to speak, we make the film ourselves. The screenplay by Christian Carion, who directed, and Eric Assous pulls no punches about farm life. The ancient wisdom about farming is that it consists of sex and murder--breeding things and harvesting things--and Carion doesn't spare us the murder part: the slaughter of a pig, the birthing of kids, the decapitation of sick cattle.

The film is helped considerably by the straightforward Mathilde Seigner, who convinces us--well, almost--that this woman wanted to make such a complete change in her life and can handle it. Anyway, we want to believe it so that the film can exist. The old man is the veteran Michel Serrault, who began in films in 1954 and who takes care of his role with delighting ease. In contrast, this is Carion's first picture. He has directed it with fidelity to the genre, rather than with exceptional talent. The cinematography was by Antoine Heberle, who offers the breathtaking Rhine Alps to replenish us whenever the film gets thin. 

This article originally ran in the April 7, 2003, issue of the magazine.