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JULY 18, 2008

Wedding Belles

True Love in Mongolia in Tuya's Marriage, Perverse Passion in France in The Last Mistress, and Musical Depravity in Greece in Mamma Mia!

By Mark Jenkins

Practical Bigamy in Mongolia: Yu Nan in Tuya's Marriage. (Music Box.)

Also this week: Reviews of THE DARK KNIGHT and ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED. Also opening: TELL NO ONE, which I reviewed for National Public Radio's website. Clicking on the title of the last film will take you to my review at

THE STEPPES AND MOUNTAINS OF MONGOLIA — both Inner and Outer — are among the hot new filmmaking locations, offering epic backdrops for simple fables about camels, dogs, and ping pong balls. The latest movie from that exotic clime, TUYA'S MARRIAGE, offers the usual geographic and cultural distance, yet it's far from a simple tale. The story's clashes turn not only on the opposition between tradition and modernity, but also on a strong-willed woman's desire to have it both ways.

On the arid plains of Inner (that is, Chinese) Mongolia, spirited Tuya and her children run the family sheep farm. Tuya's husband, Batoer, does what he can, but he crippled himself digging a well and is of little use. Everyone tells Tuya she should divorce and take a new, able-bodied husband, and she agrees, but with one condition: that Batoer be allowed to live with the new couple. Tuya attracts many suitors, from a hard-drinking but well-meaning neighbor to a longtime admirer who got rich in the oil business. The idea that Batoer would stay is generally not popular with them. Tuya briefly tries to be flexible on her demand, but that doesn't work out. Her original plan, she and the film conclude, is a messy option, but the best one.

Director and co-writer Wang Quanan makes the customary use of Mongolia's big-skied landscape and defiantly traditional culture, but the movie (winner of the top prize at last year's Berlin Film Festival) is not simply pretty or exotic. Tuya's Wedding is a full-blooded drama, not a wispy blend of parable and documentary. While the bulk of the cast is composed of nonprofessional actors, they're clearly not just reconstituting their daily lives for the camera. And Yu Nan gives a powerful performance as Tuya, whose protective instincts can turn fierce. In scene after scene — notably one in which she stands up for Batoer at a hospital — she easily upstages the dramatic setting. In a world where nature asserts its authority over human attempts to thrive, Tuya demonstrates that few forces are stronger than love. (2006, 86 min; at Landmark E Street)

NO EPOCH IS SEXUALLY LIBERATED ENOUGH for French writer-director Catherine Breillat, who flees the uptight 21st century for the buttoned-up 19th in THE LAST MISTRESS. Based on a 1851 Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly novel, this is the story of a man who must abandon his (slightly) older mistress to marry a beautiful and rich, if somewhat bland, younger woman. Naturally, he fails, even though he genuinely loves his new bride. As Breillat has suggested previously in such films as the ironically titled Romance, vanilla love is no much for the dark chocolate of erotic obsession.

Pretty-boy Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) is transfixed by the striking, if not quite beautiful, Vellini (Asia Argento). A smoldering Spaniard married to a much older English nobleman, Vellini spurns Ryno until he enters a pistol duel with her husband, and allows himself to be shot. Then, she licks the blood from Ryno's chest, sealing a bond that cannot be sundered by anything: death, more blood, or marriage to Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida, who had a much rougher time in Breillat's Fat Girl). The bulk of the story proceeds in flashback, often punctuated by the observations of the older generation: the disapproving countess (Yolande Moreau) and vicomte (Michael Lonsdale) who help arrange the marriage, and the bride's grandmother (Claude Sarraute), who is dedicated to protecting Hermangarde, yet greatly enjoys the tale of Ryno's amour fou. She is, she explains, from "the age of Laclos," author of Dangerous Liaisons. "We weren't so narrow-minded in the 17th century as in this one."

Exactly what age the film depicts is ambiguous, although it opens with a date: 1835. Argento, who by her standards underplays, can't help but seem modern, and the acrobatic sex scenes also subvert the conventions of the costume drama. Otherwise, however, Breillat plays it surprisingly straight, as if enjoying a holiday from her own era (if not her usual preoccupations). The result is a bit tamer than might be expected, but with outbursts of raw emotion that are unforgettable. (A quick insert of sex next to a funeral pyre is stunning.) Like Jacques Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais, Breillat's film shows that, in France at least, there have always been people who weren't so narrow minded. Although its soundtrack features Beethoven and Purcell, and Ryno and Hermangarde's wedding is conducted by a priest whose teachings are positively medieval, The Last Mistress is powerfully, disturbingly modern, (2007, 104 min; at Landmark E Street and Bethesda Row)

THE STAGE SHOW MAMMA MIA! is no masterpiece, but it's pretty clever, marrying ABBA's too-sweet '70s standards to a tangy tale of reverse generational resentment: Mom and her pals can't believe that Sophie wants to get married at 20 and settle down, skipping the boho phase that they still haven't outgrown in their 40s. While all that stuff remains in the cruddy new film of the musical, the show's charms are abused, neglected, and ultimately buried. Director Phyllida Lloyd apparently decided that a movie of the show had to be movie-ish. So big stars were enlisted, without regard to their abilities, and an authentic Greek-isle location was chartered, even though it's more distraction than attraction.

It's no family secret that Mamma Mia! involves a young woman's wedding and parentage. On the verge of her nuptials, fatherless Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) sneakily reads her always-single mom's 20-year-old diary; she learns that Donna (Meryl Streep) had sex with three men the summer her daughter was conceived. Sophie invites all three — Sam, Bill, and Harry — to the wedding, not imagining that they'll be Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, and Colin Firth, none of whom can sing or dance. (Remember Richard Gere in Chicago? He's looking better now.)

Never one to under-act, Streep shows more skill as a vocalist, but not as a vocalist of ABBA's precise little Scandi-pop ditties. Emoting outrageously, she performs "Dancing Queen" and "The Winner Takes It All" as if auditioning for something by Puccini — or Aeschylus. (Christine Baranski, as one of Donna's pals and former backup singers, does better with "Does Your Mother Know.") Lloyd sacrifices the songs, the show's very basis, to sloppy edits and ill-advised closeups, shoving the cast's overly broad gestures into the viewer's face. This is one musical that is best watched from the back row. And if you can get farther away than that, all the better. (2008, 108 min; at all the usual places)