Film-Forward Review: [FEAST OF LOVE]

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Radha Mitchell as Diana
Photo: Peter Sorel

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Directed by: Robert Benton.
Produced by: Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi & Richard S. Wright.
Written by: Allison Burnett, based on the novel by Charles Baxter.
Director of Photography: Kramer Morgenthau.
Edited by: Andrew Mondshein.
Music by: Stephen Trask.
Released by: MGM.
Country of Origin: USA. 102 min. Rated R.
With: Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, Selma Blair, Radha Mitchell, Alexa Davalos, Toby Hemingway, Jane Alexander, Fred Ward, Billy Burke & Stana Katic.

Is love just an evolutionary trick to make babies or does it give meaning to life? In the moonlight, the perambulating narrator of Feast of Love, a grieving father, observes and hears about different kinds of love as if he were spreading the magic potion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – between man and woman, woman and woman, parent and child, even pet and person, whether married or adulterous, tender or passionate, dewy new or comfortably mature.

At 75, director Robert Benton again shows, as with Nobody’s Fool, that he can beautifully bring to life literature about the intimacy of an interconnected community, now moved from the Midwest of Charles Baxter’s novel to the workers and customers at a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. Screenwriter Allison Burnett retains almost all of Baxter’s story and uses whole chunks of his dialogue, particularly the most moving ones, with a few restructurings for narrative flow and judicious trimming of the characters’ more extreme behavior.

Though narration is usually overused in film these days, the sonorous narrator is Morgan Freeman as Professor Harry Stevenson, philosophizing about people now instead of penguins. In the coffee shop owned by hapless and hopeless romantic Bradley Smith (Greg Kinnear), we can almost see Cupid’s arrow striking his young blond barrista Oscar (Toby Hemingway) as his Venus enters, Alexa Davalos as Chloé. Oscar later so sweetly rhapsodizes to her about his dream, a future of suburban bill-paying family life, that he makes it seem rapturously sexy.

The casting virtually embodies Baxter’s intent. Radha Mitchell matches his description of Diana as “orchestrating romances with icy, methodical self-interest.” Mitchell builds on the emotional range she demonstrated in Melinda and Melinda. Billy Burke, as her married paramour, frequently plays handsome cads, most recently in Fracture, so his naked challenge to her about having respect for love is a surprising twist; Fred Ward’s drunkenly violent father, nicknamed The Bat, is even toned down; and in just a cameo, Margo Martindale transfuses the buffoonish psychic in the book into a genuinely concerned messenger of tragic fate.

Every romance should be so lucky as to be lit by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, who photographs Baxter’s descriptions where “The feast of love is a feast of light,” and dappled lovers are struck by shooting stars and meteor showers. Although Stephen Trask’s hummable score is melodic, the pop song selections during montages of nude lovemaking are unoriginal, from Jeff Buckley’s overused “Hallelujah” to the Swell Season’s “Falling Slowly,” which is intrinsic to the film Once. Curiously, the book is full of detailed descriptions of men's bodies before, during, and after sex, but the film is pretty modest with the male anatomy.

The film does start off with the well-worn cliché about the gods inventing love for their amusement, but at least the people here learn that life, for all its heartbreak and pain, is short and love can fulfill their very human needs. Feast of Love proves that it's not only the French who can make touching and poignant ensemble movies (like The Taste of Others) about love and sex (with plenty of full-frontal female nudity), even while talking almost as much as in an Eric Rohmer film. Nora Lee Mandel
September 28, 2007



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