Deja vu all over again

The cocktail party never ends in le cinema du Henry Jaglom

Henry Jaglom's movies offer everything that Americans hate about French films, but with little of the philosophical depth or visual daring that mark the best French cinema. He captures the annoying qualities of Woody Allen movies--the self-absorption, the feigned feminism, the pretentiousness--without achieving anything like Allen's humor and charm. Talky, earnest, and artificially "topical"--people always seem to be getting together spontaneously to discuss the "important" matters of the day--his movies are full of self-serious characters who mouth callow truisms and quote Kierkegaard in bed after sex.

Thanks to a great deal of family money and the longtime championing by the pseudo-intellectuals who fill Hollywood, Jaglom's been allowed to make film after film with an almost dizzying frequency. Projecting a craggy persona on- and off-screen, Jaglom and his ego have been able to expand indefinitely. (Some people can live up to their trademarks, others can't: Jaglom affects a black cap, which he pulls down nearly over his eyes, like a turtle's shell; he may think this makes him seem as cool as his idol Orson Welles, who brandished a cigar, or John Ford, who wore an eye patch. But it doesn't.) Of course, like Jerry Lewis, David Hasselhoff, and Jon Bon Jovi, he's big in Europe--which surely makes him think his countrymen are incapable of understanding a renegade auteur like him.

Jaglom's films aren't without their pleasures. He's a gifted chronicler of social awkwardness, especially sexual tension gone limp, and he's brought some interesting talents to the screen. His brother, Michael Emil, played his coarse, nebbishy alter ego in his '70s films; some of David Duchovny's earliest roles were for Jaglom; and the director's latest wife, Victoria Foyt, has become a radiant presence in his films. But too many of his movies, his new one included, feel like below-average cocktail parties that never end.

The maestro's latest, Deja vu, offers two good performances: Foyt, as Dana, an American businesswoman traveling abroad, and Stephen Dillane (Welcome to Sarajevo) as the mysterious and thoughtful Brit painter she meets along the white cliffs of Dover. Both flirt, come close to falling into bed, and then pull back, and meet again, "accidentally," at a London inn. And both, it turns out, are in relationships they can't easily renounce: Sean is married, and Dana is on the verge of marrying Alex (Michael Brandon)--and both significant others are with them at the inn. The film, when it's not getting sidetracked with pointless subplots, follows the resolution of this romantic complication. There's also a mysterious older woman who appears early in the film to speak of her lost love; her story will resonate--in a way that would be moving if credulity weren't eventually strained by a terribly literal device--throughout the rest of the movie.

Jaglom finds some pretty vistas of the film's various locations--Israel, Paris, England's south coast, and London. But the movie is full of trademark Jaglomisms: dialogue that drones on and on, the usual stereotypically pushy Jewish man (Brandon) who's a stand-in for Jaglom, a conveniently schematic division between characters' worldviews (some are cautious, some are risky, and you can see who's who a mile away), pedestrian composition and framing, and bits of corny popular music that nobody but Allen can render without seeming cutesy.

The film also reminds us of what's most frustrating about Jaglom (besides that goddamned hat): As a filmmaker he's drawn to provocative, even intriguing topics, but as a writer he's incapable of pursuing them in a fruitful way. Even though his characters discuss, discuss, discuss, we rarely hear a fresh or original insight. (In '92's Venice, Venice, for instance, we hear woman after woman talking about how the men they meet never live up to Clark Gable or Cary Grant, and life isn't as glamorous as it seems to be in old movies...true enough, but this is the insight of a supposedly original mind? It seems more like an undergraduate bull session--or a device designed by a man deeply insecure about his feminist credentials.)

Jaglom is a dedicated explicator of the obvious: In Deja vu, he hammers the same all-too-familiar point--that sometimes when people meet, they feel a connection from the very beginning, and sometimes they don't. It's an idea that can make a disarming and beautiful film--think of any of dozens of Hollywood romances from the 1940s, or, more recently, of Kieslowski's Red, from '94--but after we hear it mulled over a hundred times, we don't care anymore. (Similarly, by the time he's got the cast singing "The White Cliffs of Dover" en masse, you want to scream, even if you love the song.)

As in the majority of his films, most of Jaglom's characters are either out-and-out mouthpieces for his own ideas, or representative types: Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the spontaneous Skelly, who urges Dana to take chances, is little more than a stereotype of a hip, older British woman. Similarly, Brandon, who plays Dana's fiance Alex, is an undifferentiated gruff businessman with a Jewish twist. We never get any further into these characters.

As talky films go, this is no My Dinner with Andre. It's not even as good as Jaglom's Last Summer in the Hamptons, from '95, which offered a more lively group of supporting characters and a pretentious East Hampton milieu with which Jaglom seemed far more familiar.

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