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‘Zelly and Me’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 20, 1988

"Zellyand Me," the new film starring Isabella Rossellini, is a genuine oddity. To the extent that it can be said to be about anything, its subject is the relationship between a French governess known as Zelly (Rossellini) and her young charge, a orphan named Phoebe (Alexandra Johnes), whose parents were killed in an airplane crash. Since that tragedy, Phoebe has lived in the Virginia mansion owned by her grandmother, Coco (Glynis Johns). Fiercely jealous and sensitive to the pettiest slight, Coco is engaged in a battle with Zelly over Phoebe's affections. And the battle has decidedly peculiar manifestations.

In fact, everything about this movie is peculiar, if not downright inexplicable. On one level, "Zelly and Me" is an art film about child abuse -- both physical and psychological. But director Tina Rathborne, whose first film this is, seems too timid, or perhaps too tasteful, to dramatize her themes, or her characters' desires or motives, and so the events in the film often appear baffling.

In some filmmakers -- David Lynch, for example, who has a small role here as Willie, the mysterious neighbor who courts the governess -- this might represent an laudable disdain for psychology. But in Rathborne, it seems more a manifestation of an unsureness about what her themes are and what she's trying to get at. And this, combined with the film's uncertain tone, creates an atmosphere of suspense where none really exists.

Rathborne may be more of a decorator than a director (she also wrote the script). The objects in the film -- the dolls and stuffed animals that are Phoebe's companions, the costumes, the sterling matchbox from which Phoebe takes the matches she uses to mortify herself -- are extraordinarily handsome. This, along with the airy lightness of Mikael Salomon's photography, creates a sunny world of languorous well-being. Nothing, you think, could be wrong in this picture-book realm.

At times, what this tale brings to mind are Edwardian stories for girls. And in the tea party scene, in which Phoebe is seated at a miniature tea table with miniature tea cakes, there's even a hint of "Alice in Wonderland." Throughout the film, Rathborne opposes this bright world with intimations of darkness and perversity. During the tea party, Coco notices that the stuffed animal Phoebe has chosen is not the one she gave her, but another -- a creature named Wattles, who, as it turns out, plays a significant role -- and so punishes her by washing Wattles in ammonia.

There are other shadowy strokes, like the beetle graveyard Phoebe constructs (using Coco's best tea napkins). But these intimations never blossom; they simply swirl around in the subtext. Likewise, Phoebe's obsession with the story of Joan of Arc and all the talk about listening to your inner voices resonate less significantly than we might have expected.

In fact, the film as a whole feels less pointed than it should be. Still, there are moments to take pleasure in, such as the child's drawings in the opening credits. Rossellini has an appealing mixture of passion and restraint, but she's undone by the character's amorphousness. And I loved Lynch, especially in his dinner scenes with Rossellini. Lynch carries himself like an Old World aristocrat, but he talks like a Midwesterner (he's like a combination of Visconti and Henry Fonda). But his presence is destabilizing; all the unresolved resonances in the film attach themselves to him and are amplified, perhaps not to its benefit.

These things, though -- the bits of weirdness -- are the only reasons to see the film. Rathborne is said to have a great personal involvement in this story (Joan of Arc is an essential character for her, and both of her parents had died by the time she was 5), but her connection isn't evident. The events take place in a kind of shimmering but distant world, and if she has strong feelings about them, they remain buried in ambivalence and repression.

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