Combustible Celluloid
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With: Mira Sorvino, Ben Kingsley, Fiona Shaw, Jay Rodan
Written by: Bernardo Bertolucci, Clare Peploe and Marilyn Goldin, based on the play by Marivaux
Directed by: Clare Peploe
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some nudity and sensuality
Running Time: 112
Date: 03/18/2013

Triumph of Love (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Love' A Many-Splendored Thing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The response thus far for Clare Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci'sTriumph of Love has been less than warm, and I suspect that's becausea) the movie dares to have fun with its 270 year-old source play andbecause b) Mira Sorvino plays a princess.

For some reason, most critics enjoy the stodgy, repressed, deadly dull Merchant-Ivory way of adapting old books and plays to the screen -- to stay completely faithful to the source and never put anything personal or playful in. I prefer it when movies play with the costume formula and have fun with it, like Triumph of Love, Michael Almereyda's Hamlet and Robert Altman's Gosford Park.

As for Sorvino playing a princess, I think people have a perception of her as a dumb blonde after her spectacular comic turns in Mighty Aphrodite and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, which is just wrong.

Moreover, I'm sure her father Paul Sorvino considers her a princess -- and who are we to disagree with him?

The truth is, all you have to do to really enjoy Triumph of Love is to fall in love a little bit with Sorvino. And, folks, that's not much to ask.

Sorvino's princess has a problem. She's fallen in love with a man whose rightful seat on the throne was usurped long ago by her parents. She's inherited this not-quite-kosher throne, and the man, Agic (Jay Rodan) has been taught over the years to hate her. If she can get him to love her back -- and perhaps marry her -- she can right the wrong and remain on the throne at the same time.

Agic lives with a philosopher, Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his sister Leontine (Fiona Shaw) in a beautiful, huge remote villa. They keep him on a short leash, never allowed to leave the grounds or to know the joys of love. Indeed, he's been taught to hate and mistrust women.

So the princess disguises herself as a boy and attempts to get herself invited to stay, during which time she'll woo Agic. But in order to secure a proper invitation, she must also seduce Hermocrates (revealing herself as a woman) and Leontine (remaining disguised as a boy).

At the same time, she must keep paying off the philosopher's servants who have discovered her secret. At one point, she slumps down and asks, "What have I gotten myself into?"

Peploe, her husband Bernardo Bertolucci and screenwriter Marilyn Goldin (Camille Claudel) adapted the play by Marivaux, and in translating it from the French, they've made it sound wonderfully current as well as poetic and flowery. (It doesn't have any "thees" or "thous.")

And in the interest of keeping current, Peploe shoots in a jittery, modern style complete with jump cuts -- but without forsaking the poetry of the movie. When it counts, her precise framing hits the scene right on the head, as when Hermocrates and his sister descend staircases heading in opposite directions. Peploe keeps them both in frame and emphasizes the distance that grows between them.

Ironically, critics who grumble about this style in Triumph of Love seemed to like it three years ago in Bertolucci's Besieged, which was co-written by Peploe. Incidentally, Peploe need not rest on her husband's laurels. She has an impressive resume of her own, having co-written Bertolucci's Luna, Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point and co-written and directed two other films, High Season and Rough Magic.

In addition, Peploe occasionally gives us glimpses of a modern-day audience watching the proceedings, and reveals the cast singing and wearing their street clothes at the end. Many have complained about this tactic, but it reminded me of Louis Malle's brilliant Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), another classic play cracked open in new and innovative ways.

I generally can't stand costume movies, and I confess I was not looking forward to seeing this film, but I found myself full of glee while watching Triumph of Love. Merchant-Ivory could learn a thing or two from it, and the rest of us should simply bask in its joy.

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