Thursday 23 February 2023

Zandalee (1991)

Director: Sam Pillsbury
Writer: Mari Kornhauser
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Judge Reinhold and Erika Anderson

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

I let Zandalee sit for a few days to percolate inside my brain before putting pen to virtual paper, because I wanted to be fair and not let instant impressions rule the day. But it didn’t matter. I don’t just dislike this movie. I found it abhorrent.

Now, it’s a tragedy, so don’t expect to go in and have a grand old time, but we’re supposed to build up to tragedies, enjoy moments before the worst thing happens and then we can feel the heartbreak. Here, I felt the tragedy begin at the beginning and keep on escalating until the end. That’s not an emotional rollercoaster. It’s a steady slide into the abyss.

The Zandalee of the title is a young lady, an attractive and sensual young lady who strips off about ten seconds into the film and shows us everything she has, dancing around in her apartment on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. She’s played by Erika Anderson and her beauty is one of the few good things about this movie.

Zandalee is married to Thierry Martin, in a surprisingly adult role for Judge Reinhold. I’m used to seeing him in teen comedies. The last time I saw him was in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in a scene with Nicolas Cage as a silent backdrop. This isn’t remotely a teen comedy.

Thierry is struggling with himself, because he’s a poet, a published poet at that with one book at least to his name, but he’s now a vice president at his father’s company, Southern Comm, which does something corporate.

The theme of the film is about being true to yourself and Thierry isn’t. He’s sold his soul to the corporate world and he’s paying the price in literal impotence. He has a beautiful young wife dancing around naked and he can’t get it up to satisfy her. He doesn’t have time for this. I don’t have time for his southern accent. We all see an easy solution to his troubles but he’s not going to follow it and therein lies the first tragedy.

Of course, if a sensual young thing living in the French Quarter can’t get what she needs at home, she’s going to go elsewhere, and it takes very little time for us to figure out where. You guessed it, Nicolas Cage wanders into a party like an Elvis silhouette in his mullet and boots and the second tragedy starts warming up.

He’s Johnny Collins, an artist who grew up on the same street as Thierry. He got his own chance to sell out but he refused it. “If I can’t paint,” he says, “everything just turns to shit.” So he paints and he smokes and, when he isn’t working his day job at Thierry’s company as a grunt, he pursues Zandalee with no shame.

And I do mean no shame. He kisses her with passion in her own apartment, with Thierry in the next room talking to his grandma. A scene or two later and he’s waiting for her outside. “We’re inevitable,” he informs her. “I want to shake you naked and eat you alive.” She tells him to get lost. He talks her into taking off her knickers in the rain, going back to his studio and opening her legs for him.

Sure, he has artistry and passion, but he’s a bastard when we meet him and he gets worse from there. It isn’t long before he screws her in Thierry’s laundry room during dinner with family and guests. He even follows her to her church and screws her in the confessional. He may have his artistic soul intact but it’s not much of a soul.

The problem is that, while Johnny is clearly never going to elicit any sympathy from us in the cheap seats, unless we’re incels who tune into his weird dominance fantasies so we can get off on a beautiful woman being degraded, nobody else is worth it either.

Zandalee doesn’t start this and she makes a few token efforts to stop Johnny, but she could have actually done that and she doesn’t. She’s utterly complicit in the whole thing. So we’re left with Thierry, right? Wrong. I wouldn’t say that he deserves everything he gets because nobody should have to go through this, but I couldn’t care less about him either.

There are a total of two characters whom I felt deserved some respect.

The first is Tatta, Thierry’s grandmother, in the form of Viveca Lindfors, a Swedish actor of the classic era who clearly hadn’t lost any of the power she’d been demonstrating in films ever since the forties. She’s excellent here and she nails the tough scene she has late on.

The other is Gerri, played by Joe Pantoliano in drag. He hangs around the vintage clothing store that Zandalee presumably runs, helping her out here and there and clearly caring for her in ways that nobody else in this film does. I’m not sure if he’s a transvestite, she’s a drag queen always in character or they’re trans, but it’s a rivetting supporting performance and, in the end, when everything goes totally south, it was Gerri I felt acute sympathy for.

I struggled with this film from the outset. It seemed like it was eager to objectify women, but it was written by one, Mari Kornhauser, who’s a creative writing professor. After the fact, I learned that it’s a retelling of an Émile Zola novel called Thérèse Raquin, transformed into a contemporary New Orleans story.

As it went on, I just felt less and less reason to continue. I finished the film, because I’m a professional and I’m not going to quit on you, but it became quite the slog. Sure, Anderson is pleasing to the eyes but a movie needs more than a beautiful leading lady to work.

There were only two scenes that I enjoyed in more than a purely visual sense. The first is a minor scene featuring a minor character, an unnamed prisoner on a work program in the city played by Steve Buscemi. We’ve seen him a few times, but this scene has him run down a street with a stolen TV, only to be grabbed and carried away, his feet climbing up a shop front in a failed attempt to resist. The second comes late on, when the tragedy is about to escalate, but Cage and a drunk Reinhold literally dance together at the coast and it’s a moment of joy.

Does Cage do a bad job here? No, I wouldn’t say that. He’s there to be a devil, a dangerous option for a lonely lady who should know a lot better than to fall for him, and he’s exactly that. He lives for his passions. In some ways, he’s Ronny from Moonstruck, just as an artist in New Orleans rather than a baker in New York, but still all overblown operatic melodrama. Of course, Ronny was a good man who’s not good to himself while Johnny’s a bad man who’s not good to anyone else.

I know which of those two that I’d prefer to hang with and which I’d prefer to watch. And neither of them are Johnny Collins.

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