THE ICE STORM *** 1/4 (1997)
Five years after his arrival to the U.S. Lee was already directing pictures. At first shorter ones: "Dim Lake" (Best Taiwanese Film Award), "Fine Line" (NYU Festival, Best film and director).Then came three features that Lee also scripted: "Pushing Hands" (Best film, Asian Film Festival); "The Wedding Banquet" (US-Taiwan) (Golden Bear in Berlin, many other awards); and the Oscar-nominated "Eat Drink Man Woman,"(Taiwan).
In a radical shift, Lee filmed with huge success the very British novel by Jane Austen "Sense and Sensibility" which had seven Oscar nominations and a win for the scenario by its star Emma Thompson. This confounded the notion of directors being unable (or at least uncomfortable) with subjects on "alien" cultures. But then people forget that hordes of very American movies were made in Hollywood by Europeans who spoke with thick foreign accents. Think (among many) of Ernst Lubitsch. Or of Billy Wilder whose scripts are full of U.S. vernacular, including the linguistically-oriented comedy "Ball of Fire."
There should be no surprise that Lee adds to his repertory as entirely American-with-a-vengeance feature as "The Ice Storm." Or that the film continues Lee's brilliant career.
"The Ice Storm" is set just before, during and after Thanksgiving (an ironic choice) in 1973 (a year of transitions) in New Canaan, Connecticut, among the affluent WASP bourgeoisie. It concentrates on two families of friends and neighbors. Ben and Elena Hood, their children Wendy, 14 and Paul, 16; Janey and Jim Carver, their boys Mikey and Sandy.
The early 1970s are the inheritors and often the extension of the 1960s upheavals, sexual and political revolutions, hippie-ism, pot and drugs. But the film's characters are not all alike in conforming to non-conformism. The kids are of that in-between adolescent age that in all decades has known rebellion, confusion and sexual exploration. The most notable is Wendy who tries to experiment with both Carver brothers. She also has a political conscience, which seems to lack in others. 1973 is a year of national problems and of political corruption underlined by a defensive Richard Nixon who is much in evidence on TV as he alternates with weather reports.
If the young ones acts like adolescents, so do the children's parents and other grown-ups. They are the embodiment of the 60's slogan "Never trust people over 30," having settled for a materially "good life," have no interest in ideals, politics or causes. But they have retained the sexual sea-changes of the earlier years. Ben is having a "just sex" affair with Janey, whose husband is often on business trips. Other "adults," must have also opted for coveting their neighbor's wives (or husbands). While this is not shown at first, it becomes explicit when, after Thanksgiving Day, a dozen or more couples attend a "key party." For the uninitiated, that's when the male guests throw their car keys in a bowl. At evening's end, after some people leave, each woman fishes out a key and goes home with it owner. (Sign of the times: a hip, long-haired new clergyman leaves the party early but with strong hints that he has his eye on Elena).
The night of the party is also that of the worst ice storm in memory. Things happen, including a tragedy that sobers up many in several ways. The storm is beautifully photographed (with artificial ice), and exceptionally good too is the period reconstruction of sights and sounds, artifacts, clothing, paraphernalia.
The film's tone is one of ice-cold observation of people and mores, with several touches of humor and irony that illustrate how dysfunctional both generations are. Without heavy underlining how the uneasy relationships of adults and their essential egotism affect the children, there is a lack of rapport that is pin-pointed by details and by indirect symbolism. Ben has what he thinks is a heart-to-heart talk with his son but is in reality ludicrous. Wendy coolly shoplifts candy in a drugstore, and separately, her rich but disoriented mother lifts lipsticks there. In play, young Sandy, without understanding the causes, blows up toy airplanes and whips a flowering bush.
The problem with the young people is the older people , at least in part. The problem with the older people is that they are hollow men. The adults may be salacious, but are unfeeling. In "Something of Value," the Robert Ruark novel set in troubled Kenya and in the 1957 film, the epigraph says, more or less, "If a people lose their gods, they must replace them with something of value."
In Ang Lee's previous films about Taiwanese, old values and new values coexisted or else some new ones replaced older ones. But among the "The Ice Storm"'s characters there are no visible values of any sort. The people are hollow men, dead souls, running on empty. Yet the movie does not look at them in a reprimanding way but rather with a cool kind of pity. This makes for an absence (I am not saying "a lack"--there's a difference) of the dramatic tension that we have been conditioned to take for granted. It's no defect. Nor is the fact that the adults are shown as unidimensional stereotypes, since that's what they really are. And what they are is seen with a sharp eye for descriptions within a rapid succession of episodes. Many episodes.
The actual ice storm is a fine metaphor for the essential coldness of the grownups and their actions, transparent and brittle like ice, ice that breaks relationships as it breaks trees. The tragedy that concludes the movie is a bit too neat as divine punishment or nature's retribution, but at least the film has the good sense not to wrap up with simple sadness rather than fake, sentimental cliches of people forever changed for the better.
I have seen "The Ice Storm" twice, at Cannes and here, just the other day. Abroad, I worried about the viewers thinking that Yanks have it all over the French in the casual sex department. In real life the Gallic attitude is far more tolerant than in the States. The reaction to carnal sins by politicians and celebrities elicits shrugging shoulders and no headlines. As for French cinema, physical relations go more often than not with grand passions. In the U.S. I worried lest the movie be taken as a wholesale indictment of the 70s rather than what it is, a view of a given segment of the population.
Both times I suspected that "Ice" is overloaded with sign-post scenes to reinforce its themes of dysfunctionality, with too much cross-cutting between the young and the older. Another small quibble is that for those who stay (that is, almost no one) for the end credits, the overall very good music concludes with a mood-cutting vocal.
In a film with unusually sparse dialogue, the acting bears a heavy burden. It is superior, especially Kevin Kline's, Wendy Hood's, the other youngsters' and Sigourney Weaver's. Ms Weaver, with less screen-time than I wished for, looks gorgeous as an icy spider-lady and has the movie's best line. In bed with her, Kline post-coitally rambles on about being forced for business reasons to play hated golf, and about a rival colleague taking lessons. Sigourney turns to him coldly :" Ben, you are boring me. I have a husband. I don't particularly feel the need for another."