One can only imagine the reactions of the 20th Century Fox executives when Steven Soderbergh told them he wanted to remake Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. While the 1972 original is a sacred text among hard-core cinephiles, Tarkovsky’s abstruse, contemplative–and action-deficient–films don’t travel well beyond the rarefied realm of urban art houses. In the wake of his astonishing success in recent years, it’s a testament to Soderbergh’s power in Hollywood that he could actually get this film made.

Tarkovsky’s story, adapted from a 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem, mostly takes place on a space station hovering over the mysterious planet from which the film derives its name. After strange occurrences at the station, researcher Chris Kelvin goes to investigate. Finding the ship nearly deserted, Chris eventually discovers that Solaris is more than just a planet. It’s an entity that, among other things, brings people into contact with the dead. Lem and Tarkovsky considered Solaris a “sentient ocean”–a physical mass containing the totality of history and experience. In material terms, it’s a collective consciousness that transcends time, matter and space. In Christian terms, it’s something like heaven.

In both versions of the film, Chris encounters his late wife, apparently very much alive and well despite having killed herself back on Earth. In the Tarkovsky film what follows is a gorgeous and subtly moving meditation on love, life and memory.

Those who know and love that film have wondered how Soderbergh could do justice to the original’s themes of mortality and grief in the face of a vast, indifferent universe–while producing a flick that could possibly turn a profit in America’s multiplexes.

From the outset, Soderbergh makes a point of identifying the narrative issues–at times, it seems, almost with a yellow highlight pen. When his Chris (the redoubtable George Clooney) arrives on board, he immediately asks the two remaining inhabitants the obvious questions: “Can you tell me what’s happening here? Why didn’t you come home?” The surviving crew members, too far gone to be of much assistance, are Snow (gratingly played by Jeremy Davies), a geek who speaks in elliptical pot-head koans, and Gordon (Viola Davis), an unrepentantly rationalist doctor who simply wants to get the hell out.

As in the Tarkovsky film, Clooney’s Chris first encounters his dead wife in dreams, and then when he is awake. Though the wives’ names change (Hari in the original, Rheya in this version), Natascha McElhone, like Tarkovsky’s Natalya Bondarchuk, is an ethereal, high-cheekboned beauty.

Clooney and McElhone make a gorgeous movie couple, and the film’s dream sequences that recreate their life on Earth are quite lovely. (As usual, Soderbergh himself did the camerawork, under the pseudonym “Peter Andrews.”) Though Cliff Martinez’s minimalist, Glassian score suits the mood nicely in these lyrical sections, there’s nothing as utterly breathtaking as the home-movie sequence scored with Bach’s Choral Prelude in C-minor in the original.

Soderbergh provides more information than Tartovsky about Chris’ relationship with his wife: their courtship, a conflict over having children, and his inattentiveness to her emotional needs. By particularizing them, Soderbergh hews to the Hollywood emphatic tradition of making characters familiar, everyday and likable. By contrast, the marriage in Tarkovsky’s version was archetypal, with the wife more a symbol of vanished love and irretrievable beauty.

What Soderbergh’s film gains in audience empathy by providing so much detail, it loses in universality. The film becomes the story of Chris and Rheya, and less about the rest of us.

Soderbergh’s Solaris is a crisp, concise film. Unfortunately, however judiciously and carefully Soderbergh has remade this film, his Solaris is as slow as molasses compared to the bang-bang popcorn fare to which multiplex audiences are accustomed. It faces an uphill climb to commercial success.

Moreover, Soderbergh’s film does not haunt and stimulate the imagination the way Tarkovsky’s Solaris does. While an honorable effort, it doesn’t enrich the original. Nor does it deliver the action and thrills of an Alien or even the thematically related Blade Runner. As such, this Solaris resides in something of a no-man’s land, suggesting the limitations of trying to popularize difficult films.

Soderbergh’s motives in trying to broaden the audience for Solaris may be laudable. Still, Tarkovsky’s original was high art, an art that demands intellectual commitment from its consumers. Soderbergh’s film, on the other hand, is a readily digestible 100-minute entertainment that, for all of its noble intent, ends up resembling an interstellar Ghost.

Merci Pour Le Chocolat
Since Claude Chabrol’s latest film, Merci pour le chocolat, slipped into Chapel Hill’s Varsity Theater last Friday with little warning, it could just as easily steal out of town after Thanksgiving Day. Triangle cinephiles should push it to the top of the must-see list.

In it, Isabel Huppert, Chabrol’s longtime leading lady, plays Mika Muller, an heiress to a Swiss chocolate fortune. The film opens with her wedding to a famous concert pianist, André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc), in an affluent community on the shore of Lake Lucerne. After the nuptials, the couple, along with André’s aimless 18 year-old son Guillaume, returns to Mika’s mansion, which is suitably equipped with a pair of grand pianos.

Elsewhere in town, news of the wedding reaches Dr. Pollet, a local coroner and Jeanne, her 18-year-old daughter. It turns out there had initially been a maternity ward mix-up between Jeanne and Guillaume. Though the parents resolved the confusion to their satisfaction, Jeanne now has suspicions. Her principal one: She, like the famous man across the lake, is a serious pianist.

Seizing on this fragment of a clue, she insinuates herself into the household of André, Mika and Guillaume, who regard her with a mixture of warmth, suspicion and resentment. Huppert’s Mika is particularly gracious at the outset, but before long André has taken charge of Jeanne’s piano training, and Mika’s behavior gets more ambiguous.

Like earlier Chabrol efforts (Le Boucher, This Man Must Die and La Cérémonie), Merci is nominally a genre thriller. But Chabrol’s real genius is in macabre, surreal comedy and the defiance of expectations. The film’s plot doesn’t withstand close scrutiny, but Chabrol’s interest is in the mysteries of identity, and the plot works because he plays it for chilly, subtle comedy. It’s comedy with fangs, though: We know that someone’s going to get it by film’s end.

As Mika, Isabelle Huppert extends her fine body of work with Chabrol. In his films, she explores morally conflicted character, unconstrained by good manners, sentimentality or a superego. She has been an ambitious Emma Bovary, an opportunistic abortionist and a sadistic murderer of a bourgeois family for Chabrol.

Here, as a desperately insecure society matron, Huppert gives a restrained and constrained performance that becomes overpowering by the film’s final frames. Although those who saw her in spring’s The Piano Teacher may feel their flight instincts kick in at the sight of her anywhere near a piano, they should rest assured that no blood is drawn in this thriller.

Someone says of Mika, “She does nothing by halves.” The same is true of Huppert herself, and even truer of Chabrol, now in his sixth decade of filmmaking. He’s made a career of skewering the bourgeoisie, a proclivity made more merciless because of Chabrol’s own obvious membership in that class. He understands the inherent cruelty of bourgeois existence, just as he appreciates a well-brewed cup of café au lait in the morning, and the subtleties of a forgotten Britten piano composition in the evening.

Chabrol’s bourgeoisie may be doomed, but theirs is still a life worth living, and Merci pour le chocolat is as intelligent, surreal and seductively dangerous as anything he’s ever done: Merci pour le Chabrol. EndBlock