Magill's Survey of Cinema
This exchange sums up both Kazan's view of the strangeness of the damaged human heart and Kazan's methods, as a screenwriter, of keeping that strangeness tantalizingly mysterious and ultimately unknowable. Each of Kazan's previous screenplays--FRANCES (1982), AT CLOSE RANGE (1986), PATTY HEARST (1988), and REVERSAL OF FORTUNE--has at its core strange, damaged characters and the twisted relationships they form, between mother and daughter, father and son, a captive and her kidnappers, a potentially murderous husband and a potentially suicidal wife. Yet each screenplay also uses devices that distance the audience from the true horror of these relationships by showing the characters' own unawareness of that horror.
In FRANCES, the glamour of Hollywood conceals from Frances Farmer her pathological struggle with her mother. The desire of the characters played by Sean and Chris Penn to be close to their father in AT CLOSE RANGE blinds them to his criminal madness. Telling Patty Hearst's story entirely from her point of view merely accentuates the mystery of how she gave herself over to her captors' cause. Finally, Sunny von Bulow's blackly comical narration from a coma in REVERSAL OF FORTUNE coyly refuses to tell whether she or her husband is responsible for her condition--and intimates that she does not care. Thus Kazan's screenplays provide more questions than answers, dealing in labyrinths of guilt and responsibility. Kazan makes it impossible for the audience to fathom completely the damage at the hearts of his characters because the characters cannot fathom it themselves--they merely act out the damage, with tragic results. His characters are engaged in dances of death.
In DREAM LOVER, his directorial debut, Kazan makes this theme of the dance of death, of the impossibility of one damaged individual's truly knowing another, the center of his film noir plot. A man whose cool, stylish demeanor and milieu conceal his violent impulses even from himself falls in love with a beautiful woman and discovers--too late--both that she is not who she seems to be and that he is not the docile man he thought he was. Unfortunately, this time out, Kazan takes his tendency to make his characters unknowable too far. Whereas Kazan's making real-life characters such as Frances Farmer, Patty Hearst, and Claus and Sunny von Bulow inscrutable allows the audience to ponder the complexity of their real tragedies and to see their loneliness, his making fictional characters inscrutable diminishes them to the point where it feels like cheating.
In DREAM LOVER, Kazan's two main characters are so oversimplified that they become cardboard pawns at the mercy of a complex film noir plot. Oddly, Kazan dispenses with his usually acute understanding of the psychology of damaged characters and gives his characters here so little substance that the film's plot ultimately comes to seem as manipulative as the film's femme fatale antagonist. Kazan seems shackled, like so many other contemporary filmmakers, by the outdated conventions of the noir genre.
Ray Reardon (James Spader) is a thirtyish, recently divorced architect whose days seem to have the quality of waking dreams. Ray spends most of his time in upscale offices, in galleries, and at tony wedding receptions where white, glass, aluminum, blond wood, and fancy suits dominate. Ray's sleep, however, is filled with nightmares of seedy carnivals inhabited by clowns and sideshow hags. Even Ray's dreams seem shallow caricatures of scary dreams that betray Ray's fear that the thin, stylish veneer of his waking life conceals a grotesque freak show.
In the film's first waking scene, Ray ceases to contest his unfaithful former wife's divorce settlement, apparently because he wants to be a nice guy. In the following scene, however, Kazan begins to question Ray's values: Ray refuses to lend his "best" friend Norman (Larry Miller) $10,000, ostensibly because "it isn't my job to rescue you from yourself." Kazan implies, by contrasting Norman's annoying pushiness and penchant for sweating with Ray's expansive office, that in fact Ray refuses Norman because Norman is simply not as attractive as the former wife to whom he has just given half his estate. In addition to Ray's obsession with appearances, Kazan provides one other salient detail: When Ray found out that his wife was having an affair, he slapped her. Unfortunately, this dichotomy in Ray's personality, between the shallow obsession with appearances and a "violent" undercurrent, remains largely undeveloped. Thus his transition from yuppie to violent, desperate man seems mechanistic, fated.
Ray then meets the mysterious and alluring Lena (Madchen Amick), who seems the embodiment of everything he wants: Her body and face are beautiful; her remarks are suggestive; her smile is feral. Ray does business in Japan; Lena speaks Chinese. Ray becomes instantly obsessed with her, and within a few dreamlike scenes, they have made love, gotten married, and had a child. Lena reveals, however, that she was severely abused by her parents: "My mother used to hit me a lot.... My father watched."
Ray, however, feels blessed that "the most beautiful creature on Earth" has chosen him and vows to take care of her. Kazan effectively uses extreme close-ups and disorienting jumps in time and place during this sequence to convey the dreamlike nature of how Ray experiences life and his two-year whirlwind romance with Lena. Yet this device is ultimately the film's fatal flaw: By deliberately collapsing the early part of their relationship into a dreamlike fugue, Kazan omits scenes in which Ray and Lena would presumably have to have gotten to know each other. When Lena's deceptions crop up later on, it seems odd that Ray would not have caught on earlier. His obsession with her appearance as the sole explanation for his blindness seems more imposed by Kazan than deriving from a full-bodied character.
Doubts about Lena's identity now begin to surface--fellow restaurant diners recognize her as someone else from Texas, and Ray catches her in a lie about the college she claims to have attended. The mounting discrepancies in Lena's past finally send Ray on a trip to Texas to ferret out his wife's true identity. He finds her parents, and, far from being abusive, they seem merely boring and banal. They welcome Ray, who brings them home to force a confrontation. Lena admits to Ray that she invented herself and was "afraid if you knew the real me I would lose you." Says Ray, "No matter who you were, no matter who you are, no matter who you will be, I will always love you."
What Ray cannot know is that Lena is a sociopath--perhaps not abused the way she described, but the victim of some type of damage early on. Ray begins to find evidence that she is having an affair--hotel bills, telephone conversations cut short when he enters the room, a "friend" of Lena's showing up in his office as a temporary secretary. When Ray becomes violent and Lena has him committed to an institution, the final deception is revealed: Lena picked Ray years ago as a potentially rich husband and played her part as "dream lover" to the hilt. She then coaxed out the violent, jealous instincts she knew lurked beneath Ray's need to look good and to be in control so she could inherit his estate.
The notion that Lena has maneuvered Ray into both marriage and an insane asylum--that in this dance of death she has led every step of the way--is a big conceit to swallow, and it sinks the film. Kazan's excuse that, in Lena's words, "doesn't life seem sometimes ... like this very strange dream?" by this time looks more like an excuse to keep the incredible plot in motion than a governing aesthetic. By contrast, the dreamscape in David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992) is revealed to be the world as seen through the mind of a desperate, sexually abused teenager acting out psychotically; the seemingly mad dreamscape in fact has a tragic, moral center. In DREAM LOVER, the dreamscape is revealed to be the result of one woman's expert psychological manipulation of one man's neuroses and insecurities, more a function of plot than of real tragedy.
So little information is given about each character's life beneath the surface that both Ray and Lena seem paper-thin by film's end--Ray an object example of the unexamined life gone wrong, and Lena merely a catalyst for Ray's transformation. The film's final twist--Ray's outwitting Lena as his true, violent nature comes to the surface--seems predetermined, rather than emerging from believable characters. Kazan has simply not provided enough information about his characters to begin with to allow him to withhold even more as required by the intricate plotting of the mystery genre.
In his previous films, Kazan, by refusing to settle for simple, pop psychological explanations for his characters' actions, created a body of work that underlined the impossibility of understanding an individual in his or her full complexity, yet ennobled the search of flawed protagonists--Frances Farmer, Patty Hearst, Alan Dershowitz--for the truth. In DREAM LOVER, Kazan attempts to infuse the noir genre with that sensibility: It may simply be a genre that cannot take the weight. (Reviewed by Paul Mittelbach.)
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