'House of the Spirits' crumbles under burden of flawed story line

"The House of the Spirits" seems more like the "House of Wax" than anything else. It's a museum of stiffs clumsily pretending to human behavior while hoping their makeup doesn't melt.

It's also a wretched paradox: a big budget, star-driven art film whose very elements subvert its ambitions and turn it into the thing it least wants to be -- a listless '50s-style Hollywood melodrama. Perhaps a melancholy Dane like Bille August wasn't the right man to direct a tale of South American mysticism and violence, particularly when he had to work with a generic set of stars who never transcend their showbiz identities. And, even worse, instead of having Ingmar Bergman as screenwriter (as he did in his brilliant "The Best Intentions"), he had only himself.


Derived from the Isabel Allende worldwide best seller, the film is set in an anonymous South American country that is initially (in 1928) a kind of frontier paradise, with fortunes to be made in the undeveloped interior and a nation's course to be steered. Its subtext, of course, is the end of that development, and a terrifying descent into brutal military dictatorship (Allende is the niece of deposed and killed Chilean president Salvador Allende), which it views through the prism of that single family's tangled, ironic destiny over 80 years.

Unfortunately, that leads the movie into the self-destructive terrain where, by definition, a novel is prevented from entering.


If any movie conceit has displayed its fraudulence over the long years, it's the one where a single actor plays a character from the age of 20 to the age of 80. Poor "House of the Spirits" reiterates this madness not once but three times, with Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close and Meryl Streep as the subjects, chronicling their progress from lithe sprouts to doughty middle-agers to infirm codgers. At the end, it's not a movie, it's a latex festival. It's where the rubber meets the camera!

Irons is the principal victim. He never looks right. A sublimely gifted actor, his specialty is playing debauched, neurotic intellectuals and aristocrats. But to offer him as one Esteban Trueba -- miner, cowboy, rancher, lord of the estate and conservative senator -- is to trivialize him almost contemptibly.

Irons is a performer of arch irony and exquisite modulation. When tries to ape passion he looks ridiculous. Once he advances in age, his performance is lost.

The plot is a farrago of family mystery, ambition and intrigue, riddled with coincidence and bloated with irony. It's a grand symphony of a nation compacted into a single blood unit -- and turned ridiculous by movie stars. In 1928, the young Esteban proclaims his love for Rosa Del Valle, proud beauty of the wealthy but humane Del Valles. He heads to the interior, mines, ranches and builds himself an empire. He comes back to marry Rosa, but she is killed by her father's political opponents. Instead, he marries the younger sister, Clara (Meryl Streep), a serene and beautiful young woman who happens to be supernaturally gifted.

Clara's gifts lend the narrative its sense of magic realism, but the director-screenwriter seems baffled over what to do with something that clearly set the novel apart, but is difficult to render into film. Rather than simply cutting it, August dithers -- sometimes invoking it, sometimes not.

In that same diddling spirit, the movie moseys almost aimlessly through the next 40-odd years. It proceeds anecdotally, not linearly, equally weighting whimsy and atrocity. Esteban rapes a peasant woman (the savagery seems completely alien to Irons' sensibility; he cannot make us believe that the act is anything but a movie trick), then denies the child of issue, who will turn up like a bad penny over the next several decades.

Continually, his fury is at odds with Clara's serenity. He's one of the last of the old-time patriarchs, a ranting Lear on horseback, chewing out peasants, bitterly resenting his ugly sister Ferula (Glenn Close, under a fright wig), who comes to live with him and who engages his wife's sympathy.

Time passes, the movie passes, spring becomes fall, the '20s become the '40s, reel 19 becomes reel 20. He produces with Clara a daughter named Blanca, who will become Winona Ryder, who seems even more out of it than Irons himself. She hasn't made any effort to be anything else than Winona Ryder; one expects her to pull out the videocam from "Reality Bites."


Clara falls in love with the radical son of a peasant, who will lead a fight for land reform and eventually be driven from the ranch by the furious old man that is her father.

At the three-quarter mark, "The House of the Spirits" radically changes course, even style and tone. It abandons magic realism and the fussy, bitter politics of the Trueba family, to make the point that in the seeds of the family strife are the seeds of the

nation's strife. For Esteban, now a bitter old man irked over the leftward drift of the country, becomes instrumental in encouraging the military (and the CIA) in engineering the coup.

The film turns to what might be called unmagic realism: a close-up examination of what happens when commandos take over a country and begin a systematic campaign of elimination against "subversive forces," which pretty much includes anyone in a Beatles haircut. The staggering irony, however, is that old Esteban, who sought only to protect what he had, only endangers it, as the torturers turn to his own daughter. And so he learns: When we kill to protect, so many times we end up killing that which we were trying to protect.

Thus in his dotage, he becomes the last thing he would have believed possible -- a heroic rebel -- as he tries to save what must be saved.

There's no doubt "The House of the Spirits" improves majestically once it enters the house of the torturers; there, it seems to discover force and majesty and determines what it really wants to be about. It's a shame and a crime that it took so very long to get there.


"House of the Spirits"

Starring Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close and Meryl Streep

Directed by Bille August

Released by Miramax