The truth about Charlie is that everyone knows him better than his wife. It’s every newlywed’s worst fear: finding that you’ve fallen in love with a person who doesn’t exist. In 1963’s Hitchcock knockoff, Charade (1963), the female lead falls into a dark and shadowy world after leaving her husband. Jonathan Demme’s updated remake contains fewer sexual politics and more visual pzazz, modeled after the French Nouvelle Vague auteurs of the era. It’s a postmodern pastiche of styles and attitudes, best represented in the world music score (from David Byrne of Talking Heads fame), with snippets of rain-streaked jazz à la Henry Mancini, and glimmering, twitching electronica.
Like the globetrotting soundtrack, which borrows synth lullabies from various ports, this freewheeling film combines various sources, but never merges as something greater than the sum of its parts. It steals clips from Truffaut’s Tirez Sur Le Pianiste (Shoot The Pianist, 1960) and even includes hilarious cameos by New Wave director Agnes Varda and seductive crooner Charles Aznavour, who materializes like a ghost when someone punches "play" on a portable stereo. Although the French film buffs adored American movies, like gangster films and suspense-thrillers, they didn’t try to duplicate Hollywood. Instead, they honed new techniques and styles, which crafty cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, imitates in The Truth About Charlie: sweeping pans and jittery montages, hand-held camerawork that never lets us forget this is a film, someone’s personal take on the world, not a heavy-handed portrait of reality.
Thandie Newton takes over Audrey Hepburn’s role as the harried wife, a suspect in Charlie’s mysterious murder. Regina, our resident gamine, wants to divorce her art collector hubby, a wheeler-dealer so consumed by business that she rarely sees him. She returns to Paris and finds their spacious apartment ransacked. The looters have left nothing except holes in the walls. With a slew of mysterious strangers on her trail and the bullying police close behind, Regina finds herself in a mess of triple-crossing misdeeds involving mercenaries and $6 million in stolen diamonds. She runs to the dimpled American, Joshua Peters (played by a wooden Mark Wahlberg, sporting fedoras and berets), and the silly plot veers off course. The accordions swell. The lights go up. Does it matter whether this ridiculous mystery is solved?
Demme knows his puffball of a film is more concerned with getting the good-looking leads in a romantic clench than unraveling a crime. The same is true of the original Charade, which seemed more self-conscious, as though everyone, audience and actors, already knew the punchline. The Truth About Charlie sponges off the old suspense movie clichés with a liberal dose of parody and satire.
Such a playful film deserves kudos for dusting off the suspense-thriller storyline and injecting it with contemporary quotations and a knowing smirk. Charade was just the kind of popcorn movie the New Wave directors reinvented without the usual conventions (linear chronology, plot, suspense, character development). The Truth About Charlie isn’t a remake of a classic Hollywood film, but rather, a smart, rose-coloured reinvention, built in an age when even the New Wave’s camera trickery has gone mainstream. Demme tried to update the clunky storyline with a multi-ethnic cast and modern-day politics. The addition of lesbian and bisexual women, like the tough lady cop, are interesting, if simply female substitutes for the big, bad men whom the newly-single Regina confronts outside her perfect home. But divorce is no longer a social taboo. Paris is still a fairy-tale on the big screen, even when it’s covered in pacifist graffiti. Regina is still looking for her happily-ever-after formula, but she will only find it at the movies.