PASSION FISH (1992) ***
The moment Chantelle (Alfre Woodard) shows up, any film or TV-watcher over age 9 knows that between the once spoiled, now hostile white woman and the pan-faced black graduate of the school of hard knocks, there will be bonding. Predictable too are the sparks that will fly in the process of generating a rapport between the two, as well as alleviation of the women's aches. But writer-director Sayles has a way of taking the foreseeable and giving it, if not total originality, at least freshness.
In a photographic darkroom of her house, May-Alice finds a Leica M-3 camera. This is a model introduced several decades ago, a classic without the gadgetry and automation of no-think modern cameras. It still works beautifully, it is still used by photographers. Like the Leica, "Passion Fish" is something of a classic movie story plot, one that generally works well, without having to resort to audience manipulation or gimmickry.
>From the start to about the midpoint the film engrosses and captivates. McDonnell's acting, natural looks and appeal (even when she bitches), the script and the direction, make May-Alice's rage entirely understandable. There is self-pity here, of course, but not of the viewer-alienating kind.
What is really a tour-de-force is that without fake sentimentality, without condescension, and without diminishing May-Alice's hurt, John Sayles's film entertains and makes you laugh. The writer-director also holds in reserve some minor surprises, mostly dealing with Chantelle's own problems.
Sayles has a good stock of ingenious, inventive and funny touches or scenes, most of them plausible. Among the best: three satirically treated visits to May-Alice; by former schoolmates; her soap opera colleagues; and her producer. All of them stress that no matter how sad May-Alice's situation is now, her former life was one of immense inanity. By "life" I mean her professional life, since, oddly, we learn almost nothing about her private existence before the accident.
Also bizarre is the nature of new romances that develop for both women. It is no doubt unintended, but I have the feeling that Chantelle and May-Alice are slumming sentimentally.
Chantelle meets Sugar (Vondie Curtis-Hall), a local Don Juan, bon vivant and rake. As for May-Alice, there is a serious rekindling of attraction for Rennie (David Strathairn), erstwhile "wild boy" school chum, now a subdued gas-pumper, handyman and bayou guide, father of five and husband of a prudish, puritanical termagant. Like much else that is left to one's imagination in the film, Rennie's wife is heard about but not seen.
Sayles, an independent and "different" filmmaker, has respect for his audience and does not spell out everything. But extending this sketchiness to the women's new male relationships makes me rather uncomfortable.
These are not matches made in Heaven. Sugar's past record and present attitudes do not bode well for the kind of steady, supportive rapport that Chantelle needs. Granted, too, that May-Alice is not presented as a thinker (the dialogues are naturalistic but of no particular depth or interest), she still towers, in appeal and sophistication, above Rennie the Redneck.
The slow, deliberate tempo of the film works very well initially. It is around the halfway mark that one starts becoming conscious of slowness -- and of some arbitrariness. One example: when May-Alice starts shooting pictures, this, we realize, will help her psyche. But photographers' eyebrows will go way up as May-Alice develops and prints her work with antique chemicals and paper that must be moldy by now -- and all this without assistance or special equipment.
"Passion Fish" has the appeal of a solid subject done without Hollywodian preaching or moralizing. All-around performances are good, Woodard's and McDonnell's are excellent. The movie feels like a "Kammerspiel " (a chamber play) opened up, with the best sections happening in and around the house. May-Alice, for example, starts taking pictures. Whether she realizes it or not, the audience knows that this will help her psychological rehabilitation -- a plus point in the film.
No matter how warmly you might feel about some of the characters, except for May-Alice's plight, there is nothing that's particularly strong or involving about the problems of the rest. And neither the protagonists nor the supporting cast are given many dimensions.
To put it differently, Sayle's script, especially when it is ironical, is more interesting than the creatures it contains.