[Screen It]

(2001) (Sara Wynter, Vincent Perez) (R)

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Drama: An early 20th century woman finds herself ahead of her time and into the arms and beds of various famous artists that she inspires with her beauty, intelligence and strong-willed nature.
It's Vienna at the turn of the 20th century and Alma (SARA WYNTER) is a young woman known for freely speaking her mind when most women wouldn't dare do that. Such critical comments draw the attention of composer Gustav Mahler (JONATHAN PRYCE) who's enticed not only by her criticism of his work, but also her beauty. Despite him nearly being twice her age, the two quickly become lovers.

Several years later, they're married with kids, but Alma has grown unhappy with their relationship, mostly because Gustav wants her to serve him, is financially irresponsible and has strongly encouraged her to stop composing her own music. After one of their daughters dies, Alma goes off to a clinic to deal with her depression and meets Walter Gropius (SIMON VERHOEVEN), a renowned architect and kindred spirit.

The two have an affair, but she decides to stay with Gustav until his death several years later. It's then that she meets painter Oskar Kokoschka (VINCENT PEREZ), but WWI calls him away, thus allowing her to eventually meet novelist and poet Franz Werfel (GREGOR SEBERG). As she makes her way through the various men in her life over the years, Alma inspires their artistic endeavors while trying to cope with society and others' reactions to her lifestyle and persona.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In Greek mythology, the muses were nine goddess, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who each presided over a different art or science and were believed to inspire those involved in such endeavors. Highly worshipped in their time, they no doubt have been prayed to in more modern times by artists who needed a little jumpstart, kick in the pants, or divine intervention in some creative undertaking.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood has used such characters in certain films, such as those played by Rita Hayworth in "Down to Earth" and Olivia Newton-John in its remake, "Xanadu." More recently, Albert Brooks used that subject and theme in "The Muse," where Sharon Stone played such a character who not necessarily divine but apparently suffered from sort of identity crisis.

There's no doubt that there have been real life people who've inspired artists of all sorts through the ages, although it's unlikely that such behavior was a chosen occupation or the purposeful intent of their help. One such person was Alma Mahler, an early 20th century woman who reportedly inspired the likes of composer Gustav Mahler, painter Oskar Kokoschka, architect Walter Gropius and novelist Franz Werfel -- all of whom she was involved with in one way or another -- to produce some of their best work.

One really doesn't get the sense of what Alma possessed to do just that, however, in "Bride of the Wind," director Bruce Beresford's loose biographical look at the woman and the various artists in her life. A sumptuous and gorgeous looking costume drama, the picture is far too inert, sedate and dull in portraying the "muse" and telling her story. The end result in a film that ultimately feels a bit too removed and episodic to engage the viewer and make one understand or appreciate the effect she had on the men in her life.

Obviously ahead of her time, Alma was a woman who had no qualms about speaking her mind, was quite competent in composing her own music, and had various lovers and affairs, all of which contrasted with the societal norms of the time regarding how women should behave. That, and her reported beauty that could turn every eye toward her like a magnet obviously offers the potential for a compelling, if not riveting portrayal of a complex woman bucking the system and then facing the possible repercussions thereof.

Unfortunately, neither Beresford ("Double Jeopardy," "Driving Miss Daisy") nor lead actress Sarah Wynter ("The Sixth Day," "Lost Souls") manage to convey much of that in any sort of palatable or imaginative fashion. That's not to say that the director's effort is horrible or that Wynter delivers a bad performance or isn't attractive or ravishing enough for the part.

Instead, it's that the passion in both storytelling and acting is missing and that the protagonist doesn't seem as defined, structured and refined as it could have been from either a conceptual or acted standpoint. Certain motivational qualities feel as if they're either absent or not developed enough to explain or make the character really come alive, resulting in the viewer never really feeling like he or she knows or understands the protagonist and her behavior beyond a superficial level.

It doesn't help that the film suffers from the same storytelling malady that affects most biopics, and that's namely trying to cram too many years into just a short amount of screen time. Novice screenwriter Marilyn Levy's story spans some seventeen years from 1902 to 1919, and while Alma's affairs and relationships with the various artists were obviously separate chapters in her life, they don't feel as congruous in a storytelling sense as they should here, resulting in that nagging and somewhat disruptive, episodic quality.

Because of that and the lackluster way in which the filmmakers stage and re-create the various highlights and low points in Alma's life, few of the film's moments - even the death of a child -- have the power and/or emotional resonance that they should possess. The end result is a film that feels more like a staid and flat, if abridged history lesson rather than a living and breathing entity that engages the viewer.

It doesn't help that most of the performances are as uninspired and emotionally flat as the rest of the production. Wynter's take on her character is too subdued and lacking the spark that must have made her seem irresistible to all of those men. While we see that attraction, it feels forced from a storytelling perspective rather than a natural occurrence that we could also feel and wrap ourselves around.

Playing the various men in her life, Jonathan Pryce ("Stigmata," "Ronin"), Vincent Perez ("I Dreamed of Africa," "Swept From the Sea"), Simon Verhoeven ("Party Girl," "My Mother's Courage") and Gregor Seberg ("Helden in Tirol") all deliver competent performances, with a few of them getting to add a bit more zest to the characters than others. Yet, hampered by pedestrian dialogue and a plot that never delves deeply enough into those they're playing, the actors can't infuse their characters with enough life to make them interesting or engaging.

While there's a terrific story to be told somewhere within all of this material, this effort isn't the film to deliver it. Lacking the passion and vivaciousness, let alone a decently constructed screenplay, to deliver the goods, the film is far too staid and ultimately dull to explore the subject matter and/or make much of a lasting impression. "Bride of the Wind" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed May 30, 2001 / Posted June 15, 2001

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