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Fashion, farce and two films from France.

There's been a lull in movie reviews resUlting from the space limitations of NCR's summer schedule. The present column, therefore, is made up of shorter notices, including films you may have already seen that seem worthy of discussion.

The Devil Wears Prada stars Meryl Streep, recently hailed for her portrayal of a loving partner in a folk-singing sister act in "Prairie Home Companion." Here she's Miranda Priestly, the imperious boss of Runway, a premier fashion magazine, who overwhelms her young assistant, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), with endless tasks and impossible deadlines. The movie's source, a novel by Lauren Weisberger, treats Miranda as a pure villain, but Ms. Streep makes her wonderfully entertaining, entering the office each day to spill her constantly changing high-style coats and bags onto Andy's desk with complete indifference. You wouldn't want to work for Miranda, but she is a fascinating emblem of power and professionalism.

The plot spends too much time on Andy's struggle with boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier), who wants her to quit the shallow world of fashion, but we are never brought to care much about their relationship. Apart from Miranda, what holds our interest is the knowledgeable advice on clothes and life in the fashion industry dispensed by Nigel (Stanley Tucci), who gives a fine performance as the sardonic top adviser at Runway, who takes a kindly interest in Andy. Nigel has boundless admiration if not affection for his boss, but longs to run his own fashion operation.

Many will be content to see the movie just to view the endless display of glamorous clothes and accessories that, as Miranda sternly reminds Andy, influence the daily lives of millions of women. Even more fascinating, however, are the subtle touches by which Ms. Streep makes her character entertaining, all the while remaining insufferably aristocratic.

If not one of his very best movies, Scoop is Woody Allen's funniest in years. He's found a perfect role for himself as an elderly magician, Splendini, who draws on the wonderfully inane patter he's used since his vaudeville days. He doesn't get the girl--Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), a charming but naively ambitious journalism student--but acts as her supposed father while she pursues the crime story of the decade.

Woody shows off his skill in narrative construction here; his early scenes, seemingly independent, set up the links needed for the complete plot. First, we're at a funeral where the preacher is eulogizing a Londoner named Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), a man who had lived a full life of travel and journalism. Next, a gathering of colleagues drinking around a table celebrate Joe as a reporter who would do anything for a story. Finally, we're on a ferry heading for the other world, with shadowy figures and death standing in the bow where Joe learns by chance the identity of the villain known to the London tabloids as the "tarot card killer." Joe jumps overboard; he's got to find someone who will write this story of the century.

Only then do we meet Woody with his magic show, soliciting Sondra Pransky to enter his trick closet, where the deceased Strombel suddenly materializes, telling her she's got to pursue the story he can't. She must get to know a suave young nobleman named Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) to check out Joe's suspicions.

This means Sondra and Splendini, posing as her father, must enter upper-crust English society, with Sondra using her wiles on Lyman, though she quickly finds him much too attractive. Woody refurbishes some of his old Borscht Belt jokes while playing card tricks for the Lyman family, "I was of the Hebrew persuasion," he tells them, "but converted to narcissism." Sondra continues to look for clues to the tarot killings in Lyman's home, and the story moves to its climax with Woody rushing to save her, driving a ridiculously small car on the American (that is, the wrong) side of the road, leading of course to off-stage disaster.

If all this sounds more like farce than Agatha Christie, that's the point. I won't unravel the ending, but Sondra is rewarded for her journalistic enterprise and there's a final scene on the ferry leading to the next life, with Woody reciting more of his old shtick for his fellow passengers.

Claude Chabrol has been making films since 1958, when "Le Beau Serge" launched the French New Wave. He had already written a fine book on Alfred Hitchcock with Eric Rohmer, and because his subject usually includes murder, some quickly identified him with that master of suspense. But Chabrol's scenes are never a series of thrills; they move slowly, drenched in the everyday. Drawing on a deep awareness of human psychology, they rivet spectators to their seats, emphasizing selfishness and greed.

In The Bridesmaid, Philippe (Benoit Magimel), a dutiful son with a good job selling bathroom fixtures, is suddenly overwhelmed by Senta (Laura Smet), the magnetically attractive bridesmaid at his sister's wedding. He thinks she may be crazy but responds totally to her passion. When Senta declares that to prove his devotion, a lover must accomplish a list of "must-do's," including the killing of a total stranger, Philippe is horrified but the next day he claims falsely that he has fulfilled her demand.

"The Bridesmaid" is based on a novel by Ruth Rendell, a master crime writer who emphasizes psychology over plot. A stone bust that once stood in Philippe's backyard and resembles both his mother and his lover seems to represent a special fixation. Chabrol says that when the film ends with Philippe's irrevocable decision to plunge into the abyss, he wants the audience to say, "If that were me, maybe I'd do the same."

Gabrielle, a profoundly inventive new French film, is based on Joseph Conrad's brutal short story, "The Return," set in London high society. The action is seen from the viewpoint of a coldly unloving husband who is psychologically shattered when his wife leaves him. Adapted by director Patrice Chereau and Anne-Louise Trividic, "Gabrielle" takes place in a coldly elegant early-20th-century Parisian home, where husband Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory), a successful publisher, returns to find a three-line note that his wife, Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert), is deserting him. Mr. Chereau is a stylist who allows us to note a roomful of mirrors in the background as the imperious male endures this jolt to his vanity.

Gabrielle returns quite soon but offers no support to Jean's shattered ego. She didn't have the self-confidence to carry out her resolution, but her wounded silences cut deeper than Jean's stunned outbursts. What makes this domestic battle especially powerful is that it is played out against a background of silently bustling uniformed servants and stiffly poised dinner guests. Mr. Greggory and Ms. Huppert deliver psychologically intricate performances.

It's a deliberately chilling film, moving back and forth in time, with cinematographer Eric Gautier offering lessons in lighting and how to shoot interiors. Mr. Chereau uses intertitles throughout, an odd device that somehow lends extra emotional force to this powerful yet subtle drama.

[Joseph Cunneen is the regular movie reviewer for NCR. His e-mail address is SCunn24219@aol.com.]
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Title Annotation:MOVIES; The Return; Prairie Home Companion
Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 1, 2006
Words:1182
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