Despite the presence of the celestial Catherine Deneuve, Judge Steve Evans does not find this romantic drama heavenly.
An affair to forget.
The great French actress Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour) slogs through an unbelievable romance written specifically for her.
Facts of the Case
Aging art historian Fanette (Deneuve) still holds a torch for Phillippe, her first great love. Decades after they parted ways, Fanette fancies she sees him on the streets of Paris—in shadows, the occasional glimpse, fleeting movements across her peripheral vision. Her obsession extends to compulsive viewings of An Affair to Remember, the Cary Grant–Deborah Kerr tearjerker (which seems to play permanently at an old Parisian movie palace; quite handy to the plot). Her need to marinate in the movie is so great that she sneaks into the cinema when tickets are sold out, standing in back of the auditorium near the exits.
Fanette's work requires her to travel to New York City, where she must photograph a private collection of abstract paintings. Unexpectedly, her old flame leaves a note—an invitation to meet him in three days on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. This wildly romantic sentiment, lifted straight from her favorite film, spurs Fanette to cross the Atlantic with a heart full of hope and a head overflowing with neuroses. As her cab winds through midtown Manhattan, she stares at the Empire State Building towering over Fifth Avenue, where tragedy conspired against the lovers of An Affair to Remember.
Fanette meets a freelance photographer (William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman), an intense, pensive man who soon tries to seduce her. A functional alcoholic, the photographer speaks in elliptical sentences as he attempts to woo the distant Fanette, who remains preoccupied with her own demons. As they drive from New York to Boston, where more paintings wait to be photographed, Fanette struggles with her obsession for an unattainable past versus a chance at love today. They must eventually return to New York so Fanette can catch her return flight to Paris. And there is a certain rendezevous to be made atop the tallest skyscraper in Manhattan.
That's about it. Nearest to Heaven (Au Plus Près du Paradis), moves at a glacial pace to a foregone conclusion. We know where this is going long before the characters arrive at their destination, which is long delayed by plot contrivances so transparent that suspension of disbelief requires viewers to deny their own intelligence. Sterling work from Deneuve and Hurt provide modest compensation while we wait for the inevitable. Deneuve's performance is actually a toned-down riff on her deranged character in Roman Polanski's psychological horror film Repulsion, released 40 years ago. As for Hurt, is there any actor working today who broods and conveys inner turmoil better than this Oscar winner?
The problem centers on a weak narrative in the unsure hands of cowriter and director Tonie Marshall (Venus Beauty Institute), who presents this fantastic scenario as a dreamlike state. If the intent was to portray Fanette's hallucinatory obsessions strictly from her perspective, then as a character study the film could be seen as a modest success. Deneuve occupies virtually every frame. But she is so cold and aloof that it's hard to fathom why any man would be drawn to this woman aside from her beauty (Deneuve would have been 59 when this film was made, and she is stunning). Some desperately needed back story would make Fanette more sympathetic. Hurt's photographer is introspective and possibly yearning to atone for some past failure—twin attributes that certain women find alluring—but he is also brusque and strange. Maybe love can find a way, but these characters defy the laws of probability.
During an interview on the special features menu, director Marshall declares she would not have made the film without Deneuve in the lead role. Why Deneuve signed on remains a mystery. Extras also include a nice selection of trailers for more recent Deneuve films, a standard-issue making-of featurette, filmographies for the director, Deneuve, and Hurt, and six deleted scenes—all wisely left on the cutting-room floor, as the material is merely redundant in underscoring Fanette's neurotic behavior.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Elegantly photographed and well acted, the film is too preposterous to take as serious drama. Instead, Nearest to Heaven flies closer to annoyance. Its 1957 inspiration, An Affair to Remember, plumbed new depths of maudlin sentiment. This updated homage hardly charts new territory.
Fans of Deneuve might get a kick out of comparing her performance here with her twisted-sister role in Repulsion; the similarities are fascinating and too obvious to dismiss. The film may also appeal to hopeless romantics with hearts fragile as gossamer thread; others beware.
Nearest to Heaven tastes like saccharine: It's artificial, syrupy sweet, and possibly carcinogenic.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• Interview with the Director
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