Defiance of expectation. I’d say that’s the basis of appreciation of a piece of art, but there’s too much to be found in satisfaction of expectation. Still, it’s the basis for a kind of appreciation, naturally the more surprising variety, or at least unexpected. All of us go in to movies or music with the expectation that some element tells us exactly what we should expect, or at least gives us a vague idea. Some of us use a knowledge base that informs us based on a director, producer or other behind-the-scenes element. Some go from trailers, actors, themes, hunches from general experience of movie going, history, descriptions from others, comparisons made and any number of other sources. Sometimes it’s bang-on reliable–few of us who know the name "Michael Bay" are ever surprised by a film that comes out with his name attached as director. Sometimes this is a pleasing comfort, sometimes a stimulus to avoid the end product like nothing else. I have a general wariness of French directors with reputations and Criterion releases. I’ve yet to see any Godard or Truffaut, for instance. This brings us to Louis Malle, who…quite honestly I had completely misplaced, in terms of his filmography.
Atlantic City is one of Malle’s films made after a move to the United States. Lou (Burt Lancaster) is a washed up old hood in that famed New Jersey gambling town, acting as servant to a woman with more money than he, Grace (Kate Reid), who met Lou and his pal "Cookie" Pinza in the city years ago. That marriage and her subsequent entry into a beauty contest have left her with the feeling that she is, or should be, a pampered princess. Across the way from Lou is Sally (Susan Sarandon), from Saskatchewan, who is attempting to work her way up to a casino dealer. Unfortunately for the both of them–or fortunately, for Lou, who harbors a voyeuristic yearning for Sally–her estranged husband, Dave (Robert Joy) and the woman he ran off with, Chrissie (Hollis McClaren), appear in Atlantic City carrying a stolen pound of cocaine and seeking help from Sally.
I realized in looking through Malle’s work that I had no idea what his filmography consisted of. This is ridiculous for a number of reasons, and interesting for a handful more. First, my aversion to French filmmakers stems from an Italian filmmaker. This isn’t due to any confusion between the countries or in which names come from which country or anything more than a mental association that developed behind the scenes. Fellini’s Satyricon is one of a handful of films I simply could not tolerate. Finding that Pauline Kael hated it makes me feel a little bit better but does not really resolve my embarrassment over the nonsensical associations I made. It’s not totally out of bounds–the logic went: Fellini was an arthouse director, a renowned one in circles that appreciate such films; Satyricon is a well-liked work of his; Fellini is associated with Italian Neorealism; Italian Neorealism is seen as part of the impetus behind the French New Wave; Malle is associated with the French New Wave, having made films in the same time frame and using some elements from it. This isn’t really an excuse, just symbolic of the mess of my understanding of arthouse film in the 60s and 70s.* Sorting this out has led me toward Malle’s other films, a number of which I would really like to see, as well as one that may finally provide the key to a question amongst friends: Jeremy Irons seems to be pretty awesome, but what on earth ever told us this? His filmography is beyond checkered and is not like that of some other respectable actors where it was solid until a certain point.
But I digress. Severely.
There was a point to that digression, though. The point is this: I expected to have a strangely half-intolerably slow or ponderous, possibly very internal or overly symbolic film filtered through well-known American actors, or techniques from such films shoehorned in to a more "normal" one, or some combination thereof. Instead, I got the elements of La Nouvelle Vague in an otherwise recognizable film. At least, my understanding of them. It was a pleasant surprise in this respect.
I am familiar with Burt Lancaster as a square-jawed man’s man-type actor, but have seen him in nothing but The Professionals up to this point. His performance is fantastic, sliding into the necessary roles for any given emotional motivation in Lou’s character throughout. He shifts whenever he enters Grace’s presence, whatever that presence means to him at that time, and when he sees the chance to win over the woman he desires, he transforms, but believably, into a slick and suave man of culture–or at least the kind with money and influence. It feels like a perfect revival of the young Lou that we never actually get a chance to see. A guy who uses money or knows how to use it, saw it used, to achieve goals without necessarily holding the culture that he conveys. When he finally achieves almost everything he can think of, the chance to prove he finally "made it" to all his old friends–he falls into a laughable-in-a-saw-way braggart. It’s not obnoxious so much as sad, we can see that this is what he wanted to be for all his life, and no one else particularly cares, but he acts as though they not only should, but do.
Sally is caught up in him and between her past with Dave and his current state. Make no mistake: Dave is, to quote Sally herself, "a shit." There’s no real way around it. He uses everyone around him, and manipulates everything he can find, but is also too stupid to realize that his skills are imperfect and do not work on everyone. For Sally, though, it’s bouncing between the well-intentioned manipulator and the utterly selfish one, slowly tearing down the miserable existence she has set out for herself, which is not much to be proud of, but is still something compared to what it could be, and moving along the road to what she does want for herself.
What’s fascinating about the film and instantly noticeable as peculiar when compared to the average American-made movie is the slim, trim soundtrack. There’s music, to be sure, but most of the film carries those traditions of the aforementioned schools of film-making: very little music except where legitimately present in a scene, and lots of natural light and sound. The absence of music never feels empty or claustrophobic, it just conveys a solid reality to all the scenes, helped along by a muddled set of characters who do not all seem to be pushing a pre-determined plot toward a pre-determined outcome.
I’ve mentioned before the tendency of people to decry sports films as having obvious endings–but they simply are binary. The team/athelete wins, or loses, most likely. And here, as with most films, we have the major options of primarily happy or primarily sad ending. Which of these it is does not matter so much as the believability of reaching it, whether the steps and the characters seem to deserve this ending–not morally, but in reflection of the actions they take on their journey toward it; does the work put in by these characters justify their reward, punishment, or normalized and continued existence?
This time, it most certainly does. It’s a good ending, happy or otherwise–and I think those descriptions would be imperfect and debated anyway.
*I am also well aware that many of those leaps actually do not follow. Satyricon is hardly indicative of Italian neorealism, after all.