for hugh the bell tolls

Hello everybody. Another day, another blog post in which I review four Hugh Grant movies of wildly variable quality and which, at this stage in his career, contain wildly variable amounts of Hugh Grant. Let’s start straight away with:


Hugh Grant had a weird habit of getting cast as Chopin. He first played the role in a short film named Nocturnes in 1988 which I’ve been unable to source. But apparently he did such a good job that somebody decided to cast him in a full-length movie in 1991. Also he does an accent again. Hurrah! And I’ll admit to being a bit confused by his choice to do an accent in this film because it’s set in France and virtually all the characters are French, but all of the English actors do English accents except for Hugh Grant and the guy playing Liszt. And I suppose this does indicate that they are not from the country in which the film is set but since their point of origin is wholly irrelevant for most of the time it does kind of stand out when you have George Sand, Alfred de Musset, Marie d’Agoult and Felicien Mallefille all doing really RP English accents while Liszt and Chopin attempt German and Polish respectively.

Anyway this film is basically about the relationship between George Sands and Frederic Chopin. Just as Rowing with the Wind is mostly about Mary Shelley, which was quite cool, this film is mostly about George Sand, which is also quite cool. Because George Sand was basically awesome. It’s got the usual problem biopics have in that it’s trying to spin an emotionally satisfying narrative from a bunch of stuff that just happened. This makes the end of the film in particular extremely abrupt because it just stops at the point they’re running away together to Majorca.  Which, in film language, is sort of the equivalent of them riding off into the sunset to go and live happily ever after. But which in reality was just a thing that they did that probably wasn’t very good for either of them (especially Chopin who did not respond at all well to the climate). And, indeed, I can’t really tell what the film was trying to say about Sand’s influence on Chopin, especially as regards his illness because I keep butting up against this difficult mix of cinematic convention, real world knowledge, and knowledge about the limits of my real world knowledge.

Throughout the film she’s very keen for him get out into the fresh air and do more and be more active, and he does respond positively to this (although he also keeps fainting) and I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to be interpreting this behaviour though the lens of the cinematic convention that says encouraging someone to believe in themselves and feel that they can do anything if they try is the highest possible moral good or through a more nuanced lens that recognises that Chopin was genuinely seriously physically ill (apparently scholars are now somewhat uncertain whether he had TB or cystic fibrosis). It seems odd that we’d be asked to see as romantic a set of behaviours that encourage Chopin to do things that would actively hasten his death but then I’m not actually sure if lying around on a sofa coughing prettily would extend your longevity any more than running to Majorca or getting it on with a hot cross-dressing author. Although probably it’s better for your life expectancy than fighting an actual duel.

The thing is, I actually really liked this film. As a romance, it has a pleasingly subversive dynamic and, okay, at times it’s a little bit heavy handed (there’s a scene in which Bernadette Peters’ character tells George that Chopin is a woman, and she has to pursue him as a man pursues a woman, which is problematically gendered, although, y’know, 1838) but the whole pattern of their relationship is a sequence of strongly archetypal romance beats with the gender roles twisted around. So George is first attracted to Chopin because she hears his music like she’s Eric in The Phantom of the Opera, a letter she writes is repurposed by a rival lover like in Cyrano de Bergerac and their big black moment comes when Bernadette Peters tells Chopin that Sand is only after him for a bet, like he’s the heroine of every high school drama or Regency romance ever. The film also almost leaves the door open to interpret Sand and Chopin as having a legitimately ace relationship. Once they’ve got together, she talks to him quite specifically about how hard she wants to bang him, and he’s all like well no, I don’t really do that because consumption. And she’s actually kind of fine with that, which is really cool. Of course it’s somewhat let down by the fact that seven seconds later he grabs hers, kisses her passionately and seems to be making a spirited effort to tear her clothes off. So boo. As far as I can tell they were happy to present Chopin as atypically masculine in most contexts (he faints during a duel for pity’s sake) but they stopped just short of suggesting that he didn’t bone.

I mentioned at the start of this section that Hugh Grant has been cast as Chopin more than once. And, well, you can kind of see why, can’t you? It’s an almost parodically Hugh Granty role: he’s effete, stumbling, socially hidebound, wholly unable to express his emotions and prone to nervous collapse.

Goodness of film: 4. I liked this about as much as Rowing in the Wind and for similar reasons. I really, really liked George Sand and it’s got a bunch of fantastic actors in it being fantastic. Mandy Patinkin is in it for about five seconds as one of George’s outrageously drunk ex-lovers, but he’s film-stealing fabulous. On the other hand, it has the biopic issue where it’s not hugely about anything and doesn’t go anywhere. So, yeah, solid 4.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 5. Chopin was basically the Hugh Grant of the 1830s.

Bitter Moon

1992 and 1993 were bad years for Hugh Grant, and subsequently bad times for me. In Bitter Moon he plays an Englishman named Nigel who meets an American named Oscar who has a hot wife named Mimi. For no reason that I can really understand, he takes to visiting Oscar in his cabin (Oscar is in a wheelchair) and Oscar narrates in great detail the story of his deeply fucked up and highly pornographic relationship with his much younger wife. Hugh Grant gets weirdly fixated with Oscar and Mimi but completely fails to bang either of them. Irritated by his distraction, Hugh Grant’s wife (who is Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Fiona in Four Weddings and a Funeral and, confusingly, also plays a woman called Fiona in this movie) shows him how it’s done by fucking Mimi herself. Then Oscar shoots Mimi. Then Oscar commits suicide. Then Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas hug. Then the film ends.

What is this? I don’t even.

Hugh Grant’s role in this film is odd because he’s sort of the main character but also sort of not in it because most of the film is flashbacks in which Oscar explains his relationship with Mimi. These flashbacks are occasionally interspersed with scenes of him actually narrating the events of that relationship. Thus we are treated to sequences of Oscar telling Hugh Grant how much he enjoyed licking his wife’s clitoris, and how much it turned on him when she pissed in his face, and Hugh Grant just kind of sitting there blankly like a Hugh Grant character in a Hugh Grant film. I mean, maybe I’m in the minority here but I think if a guy asked me to his cabin for a drink and then started giving me a really detailed description of his wife’s vagina (for those of you who are interested, the description in question being: “Her pussy was a neat, discreet little cleft but as soon as the animal within was roused by my caresses it would stir, draw aside the silken curtain covering its lair and become a carnivorous flower”) I’d have made a polite excuse and left.

Although, actually, it’s not really the explicitness of the carnivorous flower speech that skeeves me out so much as the way it’s indicative of a much more problematic aspect of Oscar’s attitude to Mimi. Whenever he talks about her there’s this deliberate juxtaposition between the virginal and innocent, and the debased and insatiable. When they first meet, she is wearing white sneakers and he specifically describes her as childlike (lifehack: if you ever find yourself using the word ‘child’ when describing someone, do not fuck them) and two scenes later they’re having hot, if as yet, vanilla sex. A little while later she’s drinking milk from a bottle, then letting it spill over her boobs in a way that I think is supposed to be seductive (and possibly reminiscent of semen?) while also hitting the “innocence” and “do me” buttons as hard as it possibly can. Basically, I feel that this is a worryingly established archetype – sort of a more sexually explicit version of the manic pixie dream girl, which I’m tempted to describe as the “nymphomaniac ingenue” or more coarsely as the “naive fuckmonster.” Like that awful description of Mimi’s vagina, she’s simultaneously unworldly and rapacious, vulnerable and deadly, she knows nothing of life, or of love or of men, but she wants your big hard dick in her right now. None of which has anything to do with who this theoretical woman is as an actual person. We discover absolutely nothing about Mimi over the course of the film except for who she had sex with and in what circumstances and who she might be having sex with in the future. It’s so ridiculous it could almost be a deconstruction of that very archetype (all of her scenes are mediated through either Oscar’s perception or Nigel’s so you could make an argument that this is about two men hijacking a woman’s life story) except … it just isn’t. The film never allows Mimi to show that she has or wants to have a reality outside of that which is projected on her by Nigel, Oscar and Roman Polanski.

Goodness of film: I’m struggling here because I really want to give it a 1 but it is at least moderately competent. I mean, if you want you really want to do is wank over the idea of a child you can bang then this film does at least give you that. And, hey, I’m not going to judge what you may or may not be looking for in a movie. Still, I’m not giving this more than a 2.

Hugh Grantiness of film: Like 3? He’s in it quite a lot, and he’s doing the usual Hugh Grant thing of just kind of nodding while other people say stuff, but a lot of the action happens in flashbacks he’s not involved in. I almost want to give this film one extra Hugh Grant point for the fact it ends with his wife having sex with the woman he’s obsessed with, because that seems like a really Hugh Grant way for a film to end. But I can’t quite.

Night Train to Venice (or Train to Hell in some regions)

I honestly could not swear that I stayed awake for the whole of this movie. Not because it was boring (although it kind of was) but because if I had shut my eyes and drifted off into an over-caffeinated fever dream filled with neo Nazis and incomprehensible dialogue I do not think it could have been less coherent than this movie. I suspect, or at least hope, that Night Train to Venice was trying to achieve something genuinely unusual and artistic. I do not think it did.

I can’t even summarise the plot for you because I don’t know that it had one. Hugh Grant plays a journalist with a Scottish accent who is writing a book about neo Nazis and he gets on the Orient Express going to Venice (hence the name of the film) and then neo Nazis sneak onto the train and try to attack him and he gives a floppy disc with his book on it to a hot actress with a daughter and Malcom McDowell is wandering around possibly actually giving people nightmares and then they get to Venice and then Hugh Grant is in an accident which gives him amnesia, possibly caused by magic Malcom McDowell, and then Hugh Grant has sex with the actress, and then the actress’s daughter falls off a balcony like in the actress’s dream on the train with neo Nazis, then Hugh Grant catches her, then possibly he has his memory back maybe. The end.

Hugh Grant has been interviewed saying this was the worst film he has ever been in and I kind of agree. The thing is, I found both The Bengali Night and Bitter Moon skeevy and offensive for different (although arguably related) reasons. But at least they both succeeded in being films. Night Train to Venice is the kind of film a 2nd year undergraduate would make, having decided they don’t want to be restrained by the conventions of cinema, but having failed to learn what any of the conventions of cinema actually are.

Goodness of film: 0. Just genuinely this is not anything. This is not even so bad it’s good. It’s not even so bad it’s interesting. It doesn’t even do the thing where it’s so bad it makes you angry enough to rant about it and then people are like oh well it made you think, didn’t it? It’s just mist, noise, and Malcom McDowell in a long coat.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. He’s on screen most of the time but it’s not clear what he, or anyone else, is doing.

Remains of the Day

This film is actually a good film in its own right. And I appreciate that of Hugh Grant’s early canon the only films I’ve said that about have been Merchant Ivory movies. He’s kind of barely in this. He plays the old Lord’s godson who seems like a decent chap and who—spoiler—dies off-screen in the Second World War.

Remains of the Day is the melancholiest film ever. It’s so melancholy it doesn’t even allow you the catharsis of having a good cry at the end. It just leaves you with this crushing sense of futility and the unbearable lostness of the past. I’m not even sure I can even unpick the complex inter-layered strata of sadness that make up this film. It’s basically two and a bit hours of Anthony Hopkins reflecting on his regrets and the regrets of other people, occasionally punctuated by poignant reminders of missed opportunities. Nothing happens in it and so much happens in it. Very few of these things involve Hugh Grant. Although, the one thing that does, and arguably tells you everything you need to know about the film, is a sequence about six hours in (so about a third of the way into the run time) where Lord Darlington tells Anthony Hopkins that he needs to explain the facts of life to his twenty-something godson (Hugh Grant) but that he has so far failed to do so and asks Anthony Hopkins to do it in his place because he feels (somehow) that his would be less awkward. Anthony Hopkins agrees and attempts to have a conversation with Hugh Grant in which he attempts to explain the facts of life to him and also fails to do so. They make plans to continue this conversation but fail to do so. That right there is Remains of the Day in the proverbial nutshell.

Goodness of film: 5. This is actually really good. I know I’ve been a bit glib about it but that’s how I’m processing my emotions. If you enjoy feeling unrewardly sad or like Anthony Hopkins or Emma Thompson, or very small amounts of Hugh Grant, watch Remains of the Day. You can get it on Amazon.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 3. He’s not in it very much but he’s got quite a Hugh Granty role and he’s not doing a terrible accent. I think you know it’s a good Hugh Grant film when somebody tries to talk to him about sex and he responds by saying “I’ve always been more of a fish man myself.”

Aaaand that’s it. Tune in next time when we finally get to Hugh Grant movies that people have actually heard of.

PS – I’ve got a book out tomorrow. Yay!

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3 Responses to for hugh the bell tolls

  1. Shelby says:

    I saw Bitter Moon in the theater and fell deeply in love with Kristen Scott Thomas and would have run off with her had I been given the choice. Other than that, it was terrible. I didn’t even remember Hugh being in that one.

    I so enjoy your Hugh opinions. In the ultimate scheme of things (er, I mean my daily existence), he’s not at all important, which just makes this so AWESOME. 🙂

  2. Shelby says:

    …However, a new Alexis book is the BEST NEWS EVER! Happy happy happy sales, my friend! I’m really looking forward to this one!

  3. Maarja says:

    Your description of Remains of the Day sort of reminds me of how a friend just today recommended a play to me: “You’ll feel terrible after watching it, but it is very well done!” Which might be what theatre (at least drama) is all about, really? Though sometimes I also appreciate feeling good when watching a play. 😀
    Anyway, your blog post was as entertaining as ever, and I’m definitely contemplating watching Impromptu and Remains of the Day at some point. So thank you! 🙂 And happy release day!

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