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The novel by Patrick McGrath on which “Asylum” is based may have some subtext that gives its tale of an unhappy wife who abandons her family for a mad passion a deeper resonance, but in this adaptation by David Mackenzie (from a script by Patrick Marber and Chrys Balis) it comes across as essentially an elegant but dramatically opaque period soap opera, an old-fashioned woman’s picture decked out like an episode of “Masterpiece Theatre,” but with a bit of steaminess added to distinguish it as big-screen fare.

Natasha Richardson stars as Stella Raphael, the beautiful wife of Dr. Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville). As the story opens in the late 1950s, the two arrive with their son Charlie (Gus Lewis) at the rural facility for the criminally insane where Max has taken a position that may involve succeeding the institution’s aging director (Joss Ackland)–much to the chagrin of long-time staffer Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), who believes he should ascend to the top post. Though Stella is affectionate toward her son, she’s a rebellious sort of woman who obviously feels stifled in her almost businesslike relationship with her husband, and it’s not long before she’s become involved in a sultry fling with Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), an artist and long-time patient whom Dr. Cleave allows to assist in repairing the Raphaels’ greenhouse (and who quickly befriends young Charlie). The duo’s initial coyness soon develops into a lusty affair, setting tongues wagging throughout the primly controlled staff and threatening Max’s status. And when Edgar escapes, Stella contrives to meet him at his London refuge and, when her trysts are discovered, abandons her family to join him there–even though she’s well aware that he was institutionalized for killing his wife in a fit of jealous rage. Things do not turn out happily for them. Edgar’s madness reemerges, Stella is captured and returned to her ruined husband, her efforts to reconnect with Charlie lead to tragedy, and Edgar comes looking for her again. By the last act Stella herself has been committed to Dr. Cleave’s care, and though she still pines away for the (recaptured) Stark, Cleave longs for her himself.

This is a lot of territory to cover in little over ninety minutes, but the curious thing about “Asylum” is that it seems both rushed and solemn. The picture is literally stuffed with incident, but it all seems arbitrary and disconnected because the characters aren’t drawn much beyond the sketch stage and their motivations remain obstinately obscure. Yes, we realize quickly that Stella’s been forced to repress her wild side, but that hardly explains her willingness to embrace self-destruction, and Cleave’s ambition is clear, but whether his longing for Stella is anything more than a desire to take everything his rival possessed is never revealed. In short, more attention seems to have been lavished on sets and costumes than on the people who inhabit them, so that while the film looks authentic in every insignificant detail, it never seems remotely real from an emotional standpoint. Even such fine actors as Richardson and McKellen appear to be striking poses rather than registering genuine feelings, and Csokas and Bonneville are even more stilted and unconvincing. Judy Parfitt, meanwhile, is a sheer caricature of snobbish rectitude as Max’s unforgiving mother, and the usually reliable Ackland putters about too much as the elderly director. Only young Lewis manages to be natural and unforced as the Raphaels’ son. As for the intimate scenes between Richardson and Csokas, they’re less explicit than those in Mackenzie’s last film, “Young Adam,” but like them they strike no real sparks.

A good deal of craftsmanship and intelligence has been expended on “Asylum”–Laurence Dorman’s production design, Consolata Boyle’s costumes and Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography are all admirable. But the end result is a film that, while visually lustrous, is dramatically parched and claustrophobic.


Francois Ozon’s previous films have been extraordinary, in terms of both style and content, so it’s sad to have to report that his latest is a dud. “5×2,” the story of the unraveling of a marriage from the first meeting of the couple to their divorce, certainly tries to tell its familiar tale in a different way. Not only does it narrate the unhappy story in discrete chapters or segments–the “5” of the title–but it arranges them in reverse order, so that we move from the divorce proceedings to a tension-fraught dinner party with the husband’s gay brother and his newest partner, to the events surrounding the birth of the couple’s son, to their wedding and finally to the beach resort where they first got to know one another while vacationing. The idea of telling a story in reverse is no great innovation, of course; such different artists as Harold Pinter (“Betrayal”) and Stephen Sondheim (“Merrily We Roll Along”) have tried that. To multiply the structural peculiarity, though, Ozon, who’s known for his technical skill, also shoots each episode in a somewhat distinctive style, beginning with a brutally Bergmanesque opening and gradually moving to a brighter, almost ebullient tone by the end. But even in this respect the film lacks the exquisite attention to detail that Ozon’s earlier ones exhibited; the five parts don’t stand apart from each other as strongly as they might have done.

Still, the picture might have worked if the characters of Marion and Gilles that the director and co-writer Emmanuele Bernheim have created, and actors Valeria Bruni-Tadeschi and Stephane Freiss play, were a more compelling or credible couple. Taking the relationship in chronological order rather than that adopted by the film, we watch as they first become involved at a vacation retreat where he’s come with an earlier girlfriend (Geraldine Pailhas) and she, a rather mousy type, arrives alone. By the end of the stay they’ve found one another and literally walk off into the sunset. But though the wedding that “follows” is a celebratory affair, it ends with Marion betraying her new husband by linking up with a handsome stranger after Gilles has collapsed dead-drunk in the marital bed. Segue to the birth of their son–an event that introduces Marion’s abrasive, quarreling parents (Francoise Fabian and Michael Lonsdale) and depicts Gilles’ curious reluctance to be present at the hospital. The next episode, however, shows him a loving father (if he is in fact the boy’s biological dad), even as–at a dinner party with his gay brother Christophe (Antoine Chappey) and Christophe’s current boyfriend, a much younger man named Mathieu (Marc Ruchmann), the longevity of whose relationship are in question–Gilles describes an incident of infidelity to Marion on his part. Before long, it appears, they’re finalizing their divorce, agreeing to a division of property and custody of their son. But they follow the legal proceedings by going to a hotel room and having rough sex–with Gilles eventually forcing Marion in the act.

The reverse ordering of these episodes does bring a few surprises (that is, one might be inclined to feel more for Marion until the fact of her earlier dalliance on their wedding night is revealed), but it’s hard not to dismiss that as a narrative stunt; much the same effect could have been gotten by presenting the tale straightforwardly if the mode of telling were astute. And the effort to distinguish the “acts” stylistically doesn’t make up for the narrative weaknesses, the most notably of which is the essential opacity of the lead characters, who as a result also come across as strangely unsympathetic. One suspects that’s more the fault of the writing than the acting, but still Bruni-Tedeschi and Freiss don’t do much to alleviate the problem. (The more heart-on-sleeve attitudes of the supporting characters, as unpleasant as some of them might be, is rather a refreshing change.) The picture looks okay without ever matching the elegance of Ozon’s previous work, but the musical choice (presumably of Philippe Rombi) in closing each episode with the fragment of an Italian song seems a bit tacky–as though we needed to be informed that a new chapter was beginning.

In the final analysis watching “5×2” is rather like reading a book from which most of the connective chapters have been removed, backwards–and in which the writing isn’t sufficiently remarkable to make up for diffuseness in substance. Let’s hope that it proves a momentary bump in the road for this fine writer-director.