Francois Truffaut has surpassed himself, in a stupefying sort of way, with "The Green Room," which opens today at the K-B Cerberus. Between major achievements, he has directed three frivolous movies of more or less equal inanity: "Bed and Board," "Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me" and "Love on the Run." Before "The Green Room" stumbled into view, "Mississippi Mermaid" reigned supreme as his most embarrassing serious effort. Nothing lasts forever, alas:
"The Green Room" may deserve a special place in the annals of misbegotten literary adaptations. Truffaut's scenario is painfully extracted from stories by Henry James: a good deal of "The Altar of the Dead" and a segment of "The Beast in the Jungle." Although obviously conceived in utterly sincere homage to James, the resulting hybrid is so stilted and literalminded -- and so trivialized by Truffaut's own autobiographical marginalia -- that it would surely have James himself fit to be tied.
james' orginals may be regarded as tragic love stories or psychological horror stories about the futility of unlived lives. The protagonists have embraced forms of rectitude and denial that they ultimately realize are misguided and loveless.
While the recognition comes too late, it comes with undeniable emotional impact, justifying the often difficult trek through James' thickets of prose and resolving the undercurrents of sexual repression and unfulfilled passion. Moreover, James achieved an illusion of psychological mystery and discovery. Truffaut's fundamental mistake is toying with the original material in ways that obliterate just those qualities.
The protagonist of "The Altar of the Dead" was an Englishman, George Stransom, whose devotion to the memory of his intended bride leads him to expanded devotions including all his dear departed. Utimately, these private remembrances acquire a semi-public memorial, an alcove altar in a secluded suburban church where Stransom keeps candles burning.
A solitary woman mourner is attracted to Stransom's shrine. He makes her acquaintance, and a peculiar emotional bond is formed over the years. The stability of this pious, devotional passion is disrupted when Stransom learns that they have more in common than he realized.
Truffaut casts himself in the Stransom role -- a Frenchman named Julien Davenne -- in a provincial town a decade after World War I. While retaining the motive that animated Stransom, Truffaut endows Davenne with an obtrusive clutter of motives. The movie begins with images that echo Truffaut's "Jules and Jim": tinted battle footage of the war. Now he super-imposes his own mournful visage over the souvenirs of war. Before even getting around to Davenne's fixation on a lost love, Truffaut defuses it by suggesting a more vas source of grief: the war dead.
Eventually, both these sources are trivialized by the discovery that Truffaut is more preoccupied with celebrating his own little shrine of literary favorites, culture heroes and old acquaintances.
Davenne ends up endowing a many-splendored mausoleum decorated with s photos of everyone for whom Truffant feels like lighting a candle, from Henry James to Oskar Werner. Lamely accounting for that astonishing photo of James, Davenne-Truffaut tells his fellow mourner, played by Nathalie Baye, "I hardly knew him, but he taught me the importance of respecting the dead."
Paying literal homage to Henry James in a film adaptation of "The Altar of the Dead" exposes a truly awesome obtuseness. Moviegoers will recall the episode in "The 400 Blows" in which the juvenile hero accidentally started a fire by lighting a candle to Balzac, his literary idol, in a little homemade shrine. In "The Green Room" Truffaut is calling attention to his own cultural piety. He erects a shrine to the memory of James that goes up in flames of absurdity.
Truffaut doesn't confront death sincerely or humorously, although he sustains a doggedly humorless tone. Perhaps his shockingly trivial outlook was there all the time and is now maturing into senile prominence.
"Love on the Run" exposed Truffaut's need for fresh subject matter. It was virtually a collection of clips from his old movies. "The Green Room," made just before "Love on the Run," turns out to suffer from the same lack. All Henry James to do for Truffaut is jog memories from "Jules and Jim," awaken a desire to platitudinize and generally encourage him to make an insipid spectacle of himself.
"The Green Room" might have profited from a vivid recollection of the obsessive behavior of the heroine in Truffautt's "Story of Adele H." The relationship between Truffaut and Baye ought to smolder with repressed or sublimated passion, but it unfolds with all the drama of an instructional pamphlet on etiquette.
When the central characters aren't exchanging explicit summaries of their motives, subsidiary characters tell us exactly what we're supposed to know and feel.
Much of the dialogue defies belief. It's impossible to adjust to the sound of actors trading the sort of editorial commentary that could be effective only in a satirical short about How Not to Write Dialogue. And it only invites further ridicule to characterize Davenne as a hack writer for a dying periodical, give him a mute child, show him botching an obituary and commissioning a wax likeness of his late wife.
For Truffaut's sake, let's hope this movie is an inexplicable aberration.