Screen Tests

In reality it's Merlet who loses control. Though the film strongly implies that Artemisia's sexual activity with Tassi was consensual and invited, the press kit states that in real life Tassi was tried for the rape of Artemisia. The activity that we see on-screen leads us to believe that the trial is little more than an attempt by Orazio to get Tassi to "save" Artemisia's reputation. (God knows what we're supposed to think when her remarkably visceral painting of the biblical Judith beheading Holofernes is introduced as evidence in court.) At any rate the heroine -- almost like the nameless, faceless women artists who preceded her -- seems to disappear inside her own story, a tiny character in the pissing contest between the men around her. (Monday, February 2, 7 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

Roy, the letter carrier protagonist of Norwegian director Pol Sletaune's engaging debut, Budbringeren (Junk Mail), makes one of the strangest movie entrances in recent memory. When we first see him, he's jumping up and down like a puppy begging for a treat while his supervisor holds a box of cigarettes just out of reach. When Roy finally gets the box, he discovers it's empty. It's this sort of cruel joke that dogs Roy throughout his mail route, his nightly dinners of canned spaghetti, and his whole bleary existence. We're meant to laugh at him; that's easy given that Roy can't even get mugged -- unless it's by a sinister version of the Three Stooges.

At first Roy seems like a loser in, say, a Coen brothers film -- a guy who can't escape the institutional green paint of his surroundings any more than he get away from the gloom and dreariness of his emotional life. But Roy is no mere hapless drone who lives and works in an unidentified Norwegian town. Rather he's the puppet of bizarre cosmic forces. The surprise lurking in Junk Mail -- which has already claimed First Prize, International Critics Week, at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and is Norway's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards -- is that Sletaune's story is not just another slacker fable; it's an oddball vision of a repulsive universe with a sweet candy center.

Despite his dismal lifestyle, Roy does have his diversions. He steals mail and reads it, then returns it soiled and torn. He throws letters away. One day he picks up the keys a woman has left in her mailbox and lets himself into her apartment. Here he not only interrupts her plans for the evening but walks into an intrigue. The woman, it seems, is mixed up in a caper that's gone wrong. Roy can't resist shadowing her to find out more. The result is a picaresque black comedy that involves, among other things, one of the strangest karaoke renditions of "Born to Be Wild" that you'd ever want to see.

As a debut feature film, Junk Mail is more than a little charming. Sletaune isn't afraid to make his hero a spiteful misfit and then expect us to cheer for him. The world Roy lives in isn't just mean -- it physically menaces him with blood, barf, and hallways painted the color of phlegm. As Roy, Robert Skj3/4rstad gives a deft performance, creating a character who seems to defy the ineptness of his entire existence. As Line, the woman Roy stalks, Andrine S3/4ther is both wily and childlike at the same time.

But Junk Mail suffers from a pat and shallow ending. At its heart it's nothing more than a movie about a guy we're meant to applaud for stalking a girl, breaking into her apartment, and "saving" her from a bad situation. Gee, doesn't anyone meet at parties any more? Of course Sletaune and screenplay cowriter Jonny Halberg (with Sletaune) are not alone in this all-too-common filmmaking fantasy. In fact, conceived any other way, Roy would be the rare movie hero who doesn't become obsessed with the object of his desire and is later rewarded by following her around in inappropriate ways. Those of you who have never been stalked may well wonder, "What's the big deal?" Among other things, there's nothing about Line that convinces us she's meant for him, or that he's meant for her. And if we don't believe that, it doesn't matter what's in the mail. (Tuesday, February 3, 7 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

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