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Dignity and deception: Christie shines in 'Away from Her'; 'Valet' is energetic farce.

Away from Her, a movie on the effects of Alzheimer's disease, will seem a daunting experience for many, even if it includes Julie Christie, the star of such classic 1960s films as "Darling" and "Doctor Zhivago." But young Canadian writer/director Sarah Polley has made a powerfully tender work from her painful material. Based on a short story by Alice Munro, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," Ms. Polley has filled "Away From Her" with incredible grace, warmth and humor. The aging but still stunning Ms. Christie plays Fiona, a woman who is slowly losing her battle with illness. Closely observed by her college professor husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), she moves from forgetfulness to increasing cognitive failures that require her placement in a care facility.

The story is about the deep changes the move brings to both of them. Moving in and out of confusion, Fiona shows a surprising acceptance of her illness, while Grant begins a long struggle with denial. Once in the home, she quickly develops a relationship with another male patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), whose illness is more advanced than hers. She constantly caters to her new friend, much to Grant's dismay, since she now fails to recognize him as her husband when he makes his daily visits.

He lumbers like a great wounded bear through much of the film, as helplessness and jealousy press in on his normally rational psyche. At one point, he feels she is punishing him for long-ago indiscretions with his young coed students--affairs that ironically are some of the last memories she has retained. He adopts an uneasy restraint and mutely accepts his fate until he visits Aubrey's no-nonsense wife (Olympia Dukakis), initially in an effort to help his wife. Strangely, they too begin to connect in a slow and strained manner.

Ultimately, "Away from Her" is an intimate reflection on the continuing need we have for others; in the end, we are made human by the strength of the relationships we make and nurture. The film establishes this understanding with a marvelous combination of humanity and humor, its supporting characters offering both. The day nurse (Kristen Thomson), in whom Grant confides daily, is a rock of realism, while the ex-sportscaster patient who loudly announces the play-by-play doings of fellow residents provides welcome bursts of humor.

Early on in her illness, Fiona says she feels as if she is disappearing, and the director gives us that fragile look throughout the film. A true winter's tale, it is shot in the snow-laden Ontario woods, where the white flatness of the landscape matches the evolving blankness of Fiona's mind. The cinematography creates an ethereal world in which the actors, overlit in many scenes, appear so frail one is afraid they will evaporate into the screen. And through the use of several lap dissolves, people do disappear, just as visitors to the home slowly slip away from their loved ones.

There are strong performances in this film, but Ms. Christie's stands out. Like all great actresses, she does some of her best work when she has no lines at all. She is able to transmit bewilderment and confidence within the same shot, through the simplest movements and facial turnings.

When we first see her at home, early into her illness, she moves across her kitchen, slowly coming into focus carrying a frying pan. As she enters into close-up, we see her age, her wrinkles and her beauty. She calmly places the hot pan in the refrigerator, giving us the first clue of her decline, and yet there is dignity in her gesture. Only a handful of actresses today could provide such a subtle, silent performance.

"Away from Her" is enhanced by Jonathan Goldsmith's original music, which provides an understated sound track that includes two Neil Young songs, "Harvest Moon" and "Helpless." The latter responds to the texture of this film, but both are signature pieces for Mr. Young's fragile, ghost-like themes.

The Valet is a successful French farce from writer-director Francis Veber, who demonstrated mastery of the form with his earlier "The Dinner Game." A story put in motion by unscrupulous schemers, it encourages total contempt for its central figure, Pierre Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil), a billionaire industrialist who consistently lies both to his wife and the workers in his factories.

A paparazzo has published a photo of Pierre rushing after Elena (Alice Taglioni), a spectacular supermodel who has been his mistress for more than two years. Elena had just delivered the ultimate threat: Divorce your wife or it's all over. But Pierre is afraid of his wife. She owns 60 percent of his business.

The only solution Maitre Foix, his corrupt lawyer (Richard Berry), can see is to convince everyone that Elena's lover is really Francois Pignon (Gad Elmaleh), the blurred third figure in the photograph, who must be paid to pretend he is living happily with her. Foix's scheme includes 20 million euros for Elena, to be returned when Pierre gets a divorce, as well as 34,450 euros for Francois, which he intends to hand over to his childhood sweetheart Emilie (Virginie Ledoyen) who had borrowed that amount to open a bookstore.

Francois' generosity is especially impressive since Emilie has just turned down his proposal of marriage, and he is working as a parking valet at a fancy Paris hotel. At first Elena startles the valet service by greeting Francois there, but when she starts living with him in his down-at-the-heels apartment, she begins to realize he's a decent guy who is really in love with Emilie. We are grateful that the movie avoids scenes of sexual titillation, but there is a cost: The presentation of Elena's softer side diminishes "The Valet's" comic energy.

Though less cynical than "The Dinner Game," "The Valet" has time shots of Pierre's outsize temper and inability to tell the truth. We also enjoy the farcical reactions of Richard, Francois' valet coworker and former housemate, who can't believe that his pal has snagged such a fantastic model, while he is now forced to live with his mother, a long-time alcoholic.

[Kevin Doherty ( and Joseph Cunneen ( are NCR's co-conspirators against your local multiplex.]
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Title Annotation:MOVIES/COLUMN
Author:Cunneen, Joseph; Doherty, Kevin
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Jun 8, 2007
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