by Edwin Jahiel

MEETING VENUS (GB, 1991) *** 3/4. Directed by Istvan Szabo. Written by Szabo and Michael Hirst. Photography, Lajos Koltai. Editor, Jim Clark. Music, Richard Wagner. Production design, Attila Kovacs. Produced by David Puttnam. Cast: Glenn Close, Niels Arestrup, Marian Labuda, Maite Nahyr, Victor Poletti, Erland Josephson, Johanna Ter Steege, Dorottya Udvaros, Maria de Medeiros, et al. A Warners release. 120 min. Rated PG-13. New Art Theatre.

After the marvelously simple Kurosawa movie, "Rhapsody In August," the Art theatre brings us the marvelously complicated "Meeting Venus," by another great, Istvan Szabo.

The director and several of his collaborators and performers are Hungarian, but many others are not. The film is an international effort, produced by quality-minded Britisher (and erstwhile Hollywood studio boss ) David Puttnam. In it , the American Glenn Close plays a Swedish diva, Frenchman Niels Arestrup a Hungarian maestro, Swede Erland Josephson a Catalan (amusingly named Picabia) , a Dutch actress plays a French singer, and on down the line. In culinary terms, this mix is a Russian salad or a Macedoine, terms that are particularly apt today .

The film's production is a microcosm of the New Europe of the 1990s , one that is a long way from becoming the United States of Europe but is trying. The film's subject is essentially the production of Richard Wagner's opera "Tannhauser." Szabo had directed this work on the stage, so that he speaks from experience, both bitter and exhilarating. And the film too is a reflection of and a metaphor for the new democracy and its multicultural chaos. It gains strength from Szabo's past handling of history and parables on politics, power and art, as in his superb movies "Mephisto" and "Colonel Redl."

Arestrup , talented but not too well-known abroad, arrives in Paris from Budapest to conduct "Tannhauser" for an Opera Europa stage production and telecast. He meets with suspiciousness at customs and with confusion at the Paris Opera . There , French people mix (or try to avoid mixing) with foreigners, expatriates, new immigrants or guests. Adults act like children, rivalries and ribaldries reign and idiosyncrasies contest the pecking order. Offense is taken when insults fly but also when none was meant.

While many women makes eyes at the Maestro, he has to face touchiness and temperament, ludicrous union rules and work stoppages, claims and counterclaims, demands, requests for favors, gripes . The elephantine officialdom and bureaucracy can be as vague, lying or sullen as in Arestrup's old communist regime.

The movie's wit, humor, irony and occasional surrealist touches sometimes remind you of Fellini, though Szabo is definitely his own man. The whole things works like a candid, behind- the-scenes documentary, real and fascinating. It is not a farce like the Marx Brothers' "A Night At The Opera" but a rich, sophisticated work, cynical yet idealistic, blasť yet fresh and done with Continental aplomb.

The Maestro brings to his job in Paris his complexes, insecurities and his fiery love of music. He meets Venus twice: first the hefty singer who plays Lady Venus and carries on with an Italian colleague, then Glenn Close who sings Elisabeth, whose face is on the posters and who arrives late for rehearsals, dispensing theatrical hugs and flouncing like the prima donna she is.

She starts singing (with the glorious, dubbed voice of Kiri Te Kanawa) and mesmerizes us, the public, and them, her fellow musicians. Suddenly, in mid-phrase, two dozen wrist-alarms go off. It's break time. Everyone quits. It is delicious comedy topped by Close's matter-of-fact acceptance of the situation.

By now, mini-subplots, asides and shenanigans have given us a host of types, backgrounds and deft characterizations. The actors are terrific, unglamorized, and believable. Close and Arestrup have no TV-Commercial looks but their character, personality and passion for music transfigure them.

The exotic Maestro is adulated by all, yet ignored, even snubbed, by Close. Then Arestrup's tolerance of the caprices of others reaches its limit. He explodes (musically) and Close joins him. This signals, in the closing words of "Casablanca," the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The trouble is that the friendship is between conductor Mars , married, with child, and diva Venus, the Goddess of Love and experienced in conductors. In a first phase, the amours work nicely and are reasonably plot-enriching, even though the affair's fervor seems far less convincing and interesting than the musical fervor.

In a second stage, Eros makes Arestrup do some silly , improbable and terribly immature things , more patched in than worked into the plot. The movie falters, but not enough to cause major damage.

Some things get sorted out ( very relatively ), others heat up, accidents and incidents multiply as we near the dress rehearsal then the actual performance. A last-minute super-glitch changes what was planned as a modern production of "Tannhauser" into a postmodern happening. But all's well that ends well, and the ending here is about sound and fury signifying music in an epiphany of opera rarely so well done in cinema.

[Review published 17 April 1992]