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A Soldier's Daugher Never Cries

movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell


Kris Kristofferson as the father. (©1998 October Films. All rights reserved.)

Leelee Sobieski as Channe and Anthony Roth Costanzo as Channe's fey friend. (©1998 October Films. All rights reserved.)

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The name Merchant-Ivory evokes quiet period pieces, sumptuous settings, and expressive detail. Most of their elaborately-staged, indie-budget opuses were mood-driven dramas based on books by E.M. Forster. For so many, they embody the novelist’s recurring motifs of constraint and class conflicts—as well as his more universal musings on tolerance. In some ways, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries seems unlike their earlier epics. Set in the 1960s and '70s, it centers on an expatriate American family living in Paris. Despite the semi- contemporary location, the film retains their familiar focus on feelings of societal isolation. Adapted from Kaylie Jones’ autobiographical 1990 novel, strong in characterization, it offers the family as a refreshingly healthy archetype of human interaction—rather than the overwrought clichés of the catch-phrase "dysfunctional."

Told through chapters, the story reads like prose. Every scene must hold meaning. Dialogue, uttered so sparingly, develops greater significance. Classic foreign films usually work this clever, delivering information through action and observation, not talky exposition. The point of view revolves around Channe, the novelist’s alter-ego, and her relationships with male figures—especially her father, Bill Willis (played by a gravely-voiced Kris Kristofferson), an acclaimed writer who pens tough-talking paperbacks about his World War II battles. Kaylie’s father, James Jones, serves as this character’s model. (Two movies have been scripted from his works—From Here to Eternity in 1953 and The Thin Red Line to be released during this coming Christmas season.) The film’s first segment, "Billy," begins when the 6-year-old French boy is embraced by Channe’s family—much to her chagrin. He keeps his suitcase packed in case he’s sent to another orphanage. We know little about his parents’ whereabouts, but the opening scenes lend clues. The camera pans a desolate seascape where a wary, young mother-to-be keeps watch and scribbles in her grid-lined diary.

The children have their own troubles, trying to navigate the integrated school system. Billy withdraws because he can’t speak English and his teacher locks him in the coat closet. After changing his name from Benoit, he begins a self- transformation that won’t culminate until he finally reads his birth mother’s writing. Channe shows a yearning for peer approval that conflicts with her burgeoning autonomy. Being female eventually requires a compromise of independence. When she investigates a neighbor boy’s tree house, the little satyr tells her to take off her shirt. Then he’ll let his pet snails slide around her bare chest.

"Francis," the film’s second chapter, chronicles the bond between Channe (the elegant Leelee Sobieski, soon to be featured in Kubrick’s long-awaited Eyes Wide Shut) and her fey friend (incredible newcomer Anthony Roth Costanzo—yes, that’s his voice warbling Mozart’s arias) who vows to "live a life of art." Director James Ivory admits he based some of Francis’ dramatic flair on his boyhood self. (It was Ivory who announced to his classmates he must leave early, lest he miss his mother’s dinner party.) The unlikely pair attend avant garde performances of Salomé and reenact melodramas during shrill slumber parties. Together they create a self-imposed exile of fantasy until Channe’s ailing father decides to seek medical treatment in the United States.

The last act, "Daddy," takes place on the East Coast during the 1970s. Channe still feels a misfit around the loud-talking American kids. In parked cars, she gives herself to boys in a misguided strain for acceptance. A Soldier’s Daughter should be commended for skimming erotic scenes (which so often become an excuse to titillate the audience) and focusing on the primary issue—how her liberal father shares a healthier view of sex as something precious, never wasted. Their frank conversations are courageous and compassionate—qualities often neglected in contemporary cinema.

Despite spanning large blocks of time, the picture moves at a natural pace, switching moods with each major character. Screenwriter virtuoso, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, adapts the material with unifying themes, (that of egocentrism and self-sacrifice) weaving multiple stories through characters that remain in your mind, long after the film has ended. In that way, the movie works like a novel, allowing the audience to empathize with Channe’s subjective point of view. It might draw criticism for skirting the classical Hollywood paradigm, but why can’t vignettes work as individual plot structures, each with their own rising action and crescendos? Because Channe’s perspective is so important, the tenser scenes that most movies would heighten to the point of cliché become fresh because they’re excluded. This is not a flaw in the screenplay. This is a mimicry of life’s revelations—none of which come with their own soaring soundtrack.

The film’s strength lies in theme. Again and again it reminds us how selfish behavior (from telling white lies to consuming people under the guise of love) destroys individuals—and how acts of selflessness grant wings. Merchant Ivory has found new flexibility in this different form of "period" location, resurfacing themes of estrangement and acceptance. A soldier’s daughter never cries. But a writer’s daughter cries all the time.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]

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