One from the Heart
One from the Heart tells a simple story: two people living in Las Vegas (Frederic Forrest as Hank and Teri Garr as Frannie) are on the verge of splitting up. Hank wants to settle down and buy a house; Frannie wants to fly to Bora Bora for adventure. After a heated dinner conversation, the two break up and fall into the arms of their ideal lovers. For Frannie, it’s the handsome waiter and piano player Ray, played by an effortlessly suave Raúl Juliá. Hank’s love interest is Leila, a circus performer gifted with supernatural powers. Eventually, however, they realize that their love for each other is more enduring and valuable than these fleeting illusions, and they reunite in the final scene. It would be difficult to tell a simpler story in a hundred and ten minutes.
From the outset, though, we know that Francis Ford Coppola’s film is not interested in being a straightforward love story, despite that fact that, at its core, that is what it is. Formally, the film is a quasi-musical: none of the characters sing, at least not in a way that suspends the plot, but the score dominates the soundtrack and the songs, written by Tom Waits and sung by him and Crystal Gayle, often narrate the action, evoke what characters are feeling, or speak directly to the characters. Coppola conceived of the film as a stage musical/film hybrid, filled with live spontaneity and grace while also allowing him precise control over editing and mise-en-scène. His camera is usually in motion, gracefully gliding this way or that over neon-soaked sets and bodies. Edits can be elaborate and surreal, as when the film changes setting by juxtaposing two different scenes–one in the back and one in the front–before gently allowing the foreground to fade away. Other times, the transitions are even less clear. The reality of the world is an obviously filmic one, its sets entirely constructed on sound stages, filled with twelve kinds of ostentation, and filmed with long crane shots that reveal the artificiality of the setting. In that way, it gets Las Vegas perfectly right.
Unfortunately, Coppola’s “theatrical” strategy can leave the actors in the lurch. Forrest, Garr, Kinski, and Juliá all deliver good performances, but the camera doesn’t flatter them. Various screenplay problems don’t help either, but the strange hybrid of filmed play/staged film and the long takes can make certain scenes much more slowly paced than they ought to be.
The screenplay veers from tragedy to melodrama to romance to slapstick and surrealism, and these are often all contained in one or two shots. In one scene, Hank clumsily climbs onto the roof of the hotel room where Ray and Frannie are staying. After some genuinely funny slapstick moments where he falls through the ceiling, he picks up an unclothed Frannie and hauls her, caveman style, to his car. She offers no physical resistance and allows him to take her all the way back to the house they share. Within the first thirty minutes of the film, she is shown undressing three times, and is more often placed in a vulnerable position than not. Her eventual reunion with Hank caused me some incredulity; I expected it to be a dream, but alas it was not. While I think Hank is supposed to be an emblem of the hardworking, sensible American man, the antithesis of the brutality and exotic sensuality of Vegas, he ends up being a mostly unsympathetic brute. By the end of the film, despite some dramatic gestures to win her back, I did not believe for a minute that a rational person would want to spend two minutes much less a whole life with him. This is a consistent problem with the film; characters do things for reasons that are not adequately explained and they have implausible consequences.
Raúl Juliá’s character is charming and romantic, and though the actor struggles to pantomime piano playing, he infuses his scenes with the right mixture of romantic danger and intrigue. This is for the best, since slow pacing, often incongruous tone-mixing, and simplicity of the main story means that the film lacks narrative tension. I watched the film with a human, and she had a hard time forcing herself to watch all the way through. For me, the stunning visuals (along with some Coppola motifs I recognized from Apocalypse Now including fireworks) carried me through, but even those were not enough to cover for the film’s many flaws. I would credit Tom Waits’ perfect musical accompaniment as the primary reason to see the film, as the mordant and gravel-voiced singer-songwriter appears to understand the story better than Coppola did.
Unfortunately, One from the Heart also has a regressive view of women. In trying to celebrate or pay homage to 1950s musical spectacles, Coppola has absorbed their gender politics as well. The ending of the film is almost bizarrely pro-traditional American values, especially coming from Coppola, and while the constant barrage of objectified bodies and voyeuristic scenes certainly make the film a convincing male fantasy, it detracted from the my enjoyment. Far from conventional formally, the movie is almost politically reactionary, rejecting crass commercialism for the most milquetoast (and borderline abusive) relationship I’ve seen in some time. Approach with caution.
One from the Heart demonstrates the dangers of simplifying story in favour of spectacle. Even talented actors can’t ultimately save the screenplay from itself, and the visual fireworks are sexist just as much as they are beautiful. I give it credit for its wildness and experimentation, as well as for some moments of sublime playfulness, but I would recommend against watching this film except for historical interest.