Ennui of suffering souls makes for potent fare

Good movies are subtext,” says Leonardo DiCaprio, “they’re about what’s not said.”

The “Titanic” star was speaking of what drew him to “Revolutionary Road,” one of several intensely character-driven films vying for awards consideration as 2008 rounds toward the finish line. Two others are writer-director Tom McCarthy’s “The Visitor” and Phillipe Claudel’s “I’ve Loved You So Long.”

Each of these films deals openly with anxiety and malaise. These intangible emotions even drive the suspense. This raises compelling questions: How do such films beat the odds against getting made at all? How does a filmmaker hold an audience in thrall when transformations and big movements are primarily psychological?

In “The Visitor,” the lonely widower played by Richard Jenkins is brought back to life when he suddenly and unexpectedly befriends a family of Muslim immigrants in Manhattan who suffer the hardships of illegal status in the wake of 9/11. In “I’ve Loved You So Long,” the former doctor played by “English Patient” star Kristin Scott Thomas has just emerged from prison after a 15-year sentence for a murder whose suppressed circumstances are a source of abiding torment for herself and an agonizing mystery to her younger sister, played by Elsa Zylberstein.

“I use the camera like a microscope,” says Claudel. “Framing close up at first, without movement — a prison metaphor to accompany the sadness and silence, the embarrassment. After, little by little, as (Scott Thomas’ character) is ‘reborn,’ I put life into the framing: more complex sounds, more shining colors, details — a book, a photograph, a street, a jacket, a cigarette — to accompany a sense of her rebirth.”

“I’ve Loved You So Long” marks the directorial debut of Claudel, a well-established novelist and screenwriter in France who is confident that such “interior” states are audience-friendly: “I don’t make a film for the audience; I try to make a film with the audience. In my film, there are many doors they can open.”

Building empathy through performance is key for these filmmakers. A working actor himself, Tom McCarthy trusts in “The Visitor” that placing lesser-known actors in lead roles is a powerful artistic strategy.

Jenkins has a deliberate everyman quality. The young woman he meets (Danai Gurira), her musician lover (Haaz Sleiman), and the lover’s mother (Hiam Abbass) are new to most audiences, yet they are more deeply involving as strangers.

Richard Yates’ 1961 novel “Revolutionary Road,” which Kurt Vonnegut called “‘The Great Gatsby’ of my generation,” illuminates the tragic spiral of Frank and April Wheeler, a passionate young couple in 1955 who wish a richer life for themselves and their children but are sabotaged and confused by their diverging fears and needs as well as the siren song of suburban security and the clucking disapproval of nearly everyone they encounter.

“Serious movies are seldom in fashion,” admits the film’s director, Sam Mendes, “and ‘Revolutionary Road’ was particularly actor-dependent.”

Mendes, no stranger to Academy plaudits for suburban angst (his “American Beauty” won best pic and director honors), found that despite the near half-century of cult acclaim for Yates’ book, and the scrupulous fidelity of Justin Haythe’s screenplay, “Road” required no less than a reunion of DiCaprio and his “Titanic” co-star Kate Winslet to get greenlit.

“Nothing happened until Kate and Leonardo decided to do it,” Mendes emphasizes. “Then it snowballed.”

“April and Frank have so much potential, it’s literally killing them,” DiCaprio says. “After I read the script, I read the novel, and I was almost embarrassed, I felt so much like a fly on the wall at these savagely intimate conversations.”

He was drawn even more forcefully to what is not said, to what Winslet calls “that voice we hear in our heads when we say the wrong things to our spouses.”

At a recent preview screening, one woman in the audience, citing Winslet’s 2006 exploration of malaise in “Little Children,” bluntly asked: “Kate, why are you attracted to these empty suburbanite women?”

Winslet’s answer could serve as an anthem for such films, past and present — why they’re made and why they often succeed at Oscar time.

“I’m attracted to the human condition,” she explained. “You can’t choose who you fall in love with. We all experience huge doubts about what life is for. April is strong enough to admit she is unhappy, and that makes her heroic. She is still searching for the truth, even within her demise.”

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