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Art Direction’s Bounties: Splendor on a Shoestring

We’re accustomed to visual splendor in big films: “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” can produce gasps, but somewhere there lurks the feeling that it’s part of the experience, no more than we deserve and part of what we have come for.

Production design and its companion, art direction, is, after all, what positions films most precisely in our minds. They can work on the most obvious or the most subliminal level.

Two “small” movies, minuscule by the standards of “Lawrence” or “Munchausen,” have just opened that have production design and art direction of real daring and importance. “Paperhouse” and “Some Girls” are films that are even more than usually dependent on their visual style for their success. And what their artists have created, on shoestring budgets with unlimited ingenuity, figure spectacularly in the degree to which their movies work.

In “Paperhouse,” a carefully done crayon drawing by an imaginative and lonely 11-year-old girl becomes the landscape of her dreams, and the film hangs on the painterly evocation of her crayoned fancies. Gemma Jackson designed as well as constructed the central set, Anna’s neatly drawn house set squarely in the center of the page with a rounded fence in its front yard and a young boy in the upper window, behind carefully detailed window panes. At first the dream-world seems literal. Since young Anna has omitted legs on her stick-figure boy in the window, when we meet him as the dream boy Mark, he is ill and can barely drag his legs. The house is a place Anna looks forward to entering; then, as she becomes feverish, at odds with her mother and upset over her father’s long absences because of his work, the house becomes less a refuge than a terrifying place that holds Mark prisoner.

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Then Anna, in the “real” world, begins to draw in order to flesh out her dream. Because he’s stuck upstairs without a way to come down, Anna generously adds a staircase for herself and for Mark. Some of the details inside Anna’s house are faintly surreal, as though they’d been constructed directly from her drawings: an awkwardly-shaped bicycle and her version of a modern portable radio, which acts as the house’s eyes or a strange listening-post.

The film’s director, Bernard Rose, is another of those veterans of music videos, which probably gives him a special feel for the story’s dreamlike qualities, but it is Jackson’s marvelous visualizations that let us walk whole-heartedly into “Paperhouse’s” world. As Anna angrily scribbles out a window, for example, Jackson uses those very crayoned lines seen from inside but magnified 100-fold, so that the X-ed out window now has lines as thick and menacing as monster tarantula legs.

Outside, things are very painterly indeed. We are thrown under Magritte skies, near a Winslow Homer lighthouse and a soft hilly meadow, where Andrew Wyeth might have set his yearning girl in “Christina’s World” (complete even to the house at the top of the horizon). There are other, darker scenes: the earth splitting apart in a fiery upheaval, a family figure grown menacing and murderous, that have been underlined with pile-driver sound effects, so overproduced as to throw the film almost out of kilter, into a quasi-horror film genre. But “Paperhouse” rights itself at the end, under that brilliant white lighthouse (flagrant symbol of Anna’s approaching adolescence); and it never goes wrong in a single stroke of Jackson’s evocative design.

“Some Girls” is the obtuse title for an appealing movie about an eccentric family, rooted in the classical and artistic world, and living in the snowy picturesqueness of Quebec City. We see their amazing three-story stone house with the same wondering eyes as young Patrick Dempsey, the American interloper invited up for his Christmas holidays by the girl he loves, one of the family’s three beautiful daughters. It’s a fantasy place, a little medieval, a lot Art Nouveau, cluttered, eclectic, thoroughly inhabited by father-writer Andre Gregory, his wife Florinda Bolkan and the three girls.

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The film must stand or fall by the believability of this family’s world. In the work of production designer Eugenio Zanetti (and the art direction of Peter Paul Raubertas), the place is a pleasant, feverish unworldly disarray in which three daughters might be raised to think of themselves as Botticelli’s Three Graces (another of the film’s insistent visual references) and into which Dempsey might tumble like some invading figure out of mythology or grand opera.

It’s a heady, feminine hothouse, under the dragon-like guardianship of a strict, religious mother and the stewardship of an abstracted father. Deep in his six-year work on Pascal’s “Pensees,” Gregory writes in the nude because clothes constrict him.

Zanetti has created an almost operatic set for all these borderline farcical sexual roundelays. The room to which Jennifer Connelly retreats is at the end of a hall covered in a tapestry representing a unicorn and three medieval virgins. (There’s a doorway cut somewhere mid-virgin.) It’s a nice touch for the fickle daughter who, after having invited college mate Dempsey, turns hot and cold on him by baffling turns.

The house is paneled in extravagant Art Nouveau carving, with stained glass glowing like jewels in unexpected corners, and if producers are to be relied upon, Zanetti created all the film’s sets on a $100,000 budget, making his “wooden” panels from plastic molds which were then carefully painted to give them their wooden authenticity.

It’s a film with a lot of resonances, most of which work, and a tone that wobbles off a bit at its ending. But the rich, intelligent vision of that splendid nest is enough to carry “Some Girls” deep into that recess where we keep the very best movie memories.


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