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Friday, March 23, 2012
The Majestic Jessica Chastain, In Pacino's Tragicomedy
Jessica Chastain as Salomé in the Oscar Wilde play "Salomé", as captured on film
by Al Pacino, in "Wilde Salomé".
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
Friday, March 23,
Though it was given on stage in 2006, I can't imagine a better
performance captured on film that Jessica Chastain has ever given than her
extraordinary work in
Al Pacino's "Wilde Salomé", which had its U.S.
premiere this week in San Francisco. To my best knowledge this is the
first film Ms. Chastain starred in, and whenever "Wilde Salomé" finally gets a
genuine U.S. theatrical release, audiences will see just how great she is in it.
Unfortunately, Mr. Pacino's documentary is not about Ms. Chastain, who plays the
legendary playwright and wit Oscar Wilde's character Salomé on stage in Estelle
Parsons' theatre direction at the Wadsworth Theatre in Los Angeles. Nor
does it offer up Ms. Chastain's unfiltered perspective on her character.
(She mentions a thing or two about Salomé, but that's about all.) Even so,
"Wilde Salomé" is brilliant and fascinating, with Mr. Pacino playing multiple
roles, including as raconteur and anguished director stressed about trying to
achieve the near impossible -- capture in five shooting days the spontaneity of
the 90-minute read-through play Ms. Parsons directs while he stars in it as
Herod, and make Ms. Parsons' theatrical production look and feel like a film --
all at the same time. When the iconic actor verbalizes what he endeavors
to do, we're flabbergasted.
Yet impossible is nothing, as the phrase goes, and Mr. Pacino goes to some
lengths to not only get the play staged as cinema but also to understand and
immerse himself in his idol Oscar Wilde. He travels to Ireland, the birth
place of Mr. Wilde, giving us a thorough lesson on the personal life and
accomplishments of the writer, who passed at age 46 in 1900. Uninitiated
viewers will learn of Mr. Wilde's dual lives, his awakening and rediscovering of
self, his passions, his affairs, his works (particularly "Salomé", which Mr.
Wilde wrote when he was still in his twenties, and in French no less, his second
language. A play dubbed "scandalous", "Salomé" was banned in a number of
places.) Mr. Pacino also pays his own personal homage to Mr. Wilde,
saluting him on a number of occasions and giving insights to the things that
connect him as a bread-and-butter thespian to Mr. Wilde. "Thank you so
much. I am in debt to you. So much debt," Mr. Pacino says sincerely,
looking at a statue of Mr. Wilde perched on a wall.
In much the same vein as "Looking For Richard" (1996), "Wilde Salomé" captures
the artist as explorer, as stager, as crisis-engager and performer. "Wilde
Salomé" is well-balanced, and its writer-director Mr. Pacino knows when to take
his foot off the gas pedal and put on the brakes when things become either too
intense or too irreverent. Usually the contrasts are abrupt. One
minute you are plunged into a cauldron of heat, tension, violence, the
forbidden, the sexual. Then you're thrown into a speeding train with Mr.
Pacino thoughtfully exploring Wilde's works, hungering for more, shaping his own
vision. Or wisecracking. "Imagine me as Oscar Wilde," says
Mr. Pacino, his face in close-up. "Someone's got to do it."
Clearly a personal project, "Wilde Salomé" is an ambitious and entertaining
work. It's a cheeky mix of comedy, dramatic tension, education and
fan-idol worship, both on stage and off. When Mr. Pacino is in Ireland he
is playfully mocked by one fan, who reprises a moment from "Scarface", which
gets the actor smiling. It's a wink-nod in the double-sided mirror of art
and life. Idol idolized by idol, who himself is idolized.
There's great stagecraft in the grainy off-stage parts of "Wilde Salomé", which
are shot with a hand-held HD digital camera. Some of the funniest parts of
the film come in the documentary segments especially from Gore Vidal, as he
opines about Mr. Wilde's chief male lover. Playwright Tom Stoppard and U2
front man Bono also provide humorous insights. In some respects this
segment of the film is Pacino as mockumentary man, honing his own natural born
theater skills into a comedy of honesty and bluster, enlivening a genre that can
often be so self-serious and pedantic. Mr. Pacino never lets himself get
that way however during "Wilde Salomé", though he does come close to letting the
audience in on his own neuroses as an actor as he prepares his Herod.
"Wilde Salomé" is about obsession and passion: Mr. Pacino's as well as the title
character's in Mr. Wilde's "Salomé", and a document of Mr. Wilde's obsessions.
There are notable moments with Mr. Pacino's producer Barry Nevidi as they
discuss the film process and money. "It's all about money," the actor
says. Scenes with Mr. Pacino's French cinematographer Benôit Delhomme are
pure fun. Mr. Delhomme throws up his hands and rolls his eyes in
puzzlement and frustration at some of the director's commands, but we see Mr.
Pacino direct with a serious, no-frills fervor. There's a playful smile
from Ms. Chastain after the actor gives her direction, and I wasn't sure if she
was being eager to please or getting in on a joke she may have been
So acutely and cleverly crafted is "Wilde Salomé" that it often feels like a
huge in-joke, and maybe it is. But there's no joke about Mr. Pacino's
total commitment to this fine, charismatic and engaging film, or to Mr. Wilde or
Ms. Parsons (with whom he butts heads, pacifying her with a "darling".)
He's all-in, one thousand percent. Mr. Pacino vigorously and joyously
captures the thirst of life and the zeal of living in the moment and in memory,
through centuries, in process and in the here-and-now. It's the theater of
theater, somewhat satirical but always well-intended and sincere. Mr.
Pacino's work symbolizes and represents the absurdity of ambition, the nature of
desire and the recklessness of both, and he succeeds on each and every level of
adventure and direction that his restless, relentless wandering soul takes him.
Inevitably though, it's worth returning to Ms. Chastain. She is
commanding, dazzling, sexy, penetrating and haunting as Salomé, the stepdaughter
Herod lusts after. At all times she had me in the palm of her hand.
It's a confident and fearless stage performance, powerfully delivered and
uncompromised for a like character. Ms. Chastain's excellent work here is
one of the best efforts I've seen in a number of years, a performance that is so
startlingly alive. There's full-blood, guts and body to Ms. Chastain's
Salomé, and she thunders in a superb tour-de-force. Mr. Pacino's 35mm
cameras succeed in making Ms. Chastain's stage work a memorable cinematic
showcase, and it's vibrant and indelible.
Though theatre's here-and-now dynamic is ephemeral and immediate, Mr. Pacino
captures a blood-lusting Salomé in Ms. Chastain that lingers and is intense and
unsettling, yet transfixing and glorious, etched in the mind long after the
film's end credits arrive. Mr. Pacino transcends theatre better here than
he ordinarily does on the big screen in strictly theatrical performances.
And as Herod on stage he stirs lust, torment, despair and compassion, writhing
in them all in equal measure, resigned to his station as a guilty facilitator of
taboo and desires of varying carnality.
Herod promises to deliver anything Salomé desires but first she must dance.
Over the objections of her mother (a fine Roxanne Hart) she complies.
Salomé wants the imprisoned Jockhaanan aka John The Baptist's head on a platter,
and will stop at nothing until (and even after) she gets it. The
hedonistic Herod tries distractions and all the gold and glass-encrusted
slippers and trinkets in the world, but alas, in vain. That head will
With: Kevin Anderson, Jack Huston, Geoffrey Owens, Poncho Hodges.
"Wilde Salomé" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America but
contains nudity, sexuality, disturbing scenes containing bloody violence, and
language. The film's running time is one hour and 36 minutes.
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