Bel Canto movie review: Stockholm syndrome, a love story

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Bel Canto red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

This tonal misfire never hits the notes of drama and romance it aims for with its ickily problematic terrorist-hostage relationships. Facile and uncomfortably implausible, emotionally and practically.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

So it turns out that being held prisoner in a protracted hostage situation isn’t as bad as you have perhaps imagined: You get to hang out in a really nice mansion, make new friends, learn new skills, maybe even fall in love. This is accurate, right? It’s what happens when world-famous opera singer Roxanne Coss (Julianne Moore [Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Freeheld], with actual opera singer Renee Fleming providing the vocals) is hired to perform at an exclusive gathering of politicians and industrialists in an unnamed South American city and the evening gets busted up by rebel guerrillas who storm Vice President Ruben Ochoa’s (Eddie Martinez: A Better Life) home looking to snag the president. Joke’s on them, though, cuz the president skipped the event to stay home and watch his favorite telenovela. So now the guerrillas are stuck with a bunch of hostages they really didn’t want and it all gets a bit awkward.

I suspect that the nuances of Ann Patchett’s acclaimed and multi-award-winning novel have been lost in translation.

The thing with the president’s excuse never quite scratches an itch of comedy or satire, and is but the first of the many tonal misfires of Bel Canto. I mean, this isn’t a comedy or a satire, so perhaps it felt right to Paul Weitz (Grandma, Admission), director and cowriter with Anthony Weintraub, not to play that element as one. But it’s also an ill fit for the drama and the romance the film wants to be. Although, to be fair, nothing here quite works as romance or drama, either. Maybe it’s not authentically Stockholm syndrome if you develop a relationship with one of your fellow hostages, but it still feels icky and problematic, so there really isn’t anything “romantic” in Coss getting it on with Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe: Isle of Dogs, Transformers: Age of Extinction); and yet neither does it seem like they cling together seeking respite from loneliness or fear. (It is unambiguously Stockholm syndrome, however, when Hosokawa’s interpreter, Gen [Ryo Kase: Silence, Letters from Iwo Jima], begins to teach guerrilla Carmen [María Mercedes Coroy] Spanish and English before they move on to other, nonverbal communication.)

Bel Canto Julianne Moore Ken Watanabe
“I love these little hostage-terrorist dinner-party get-togethers. We should totally do this more often.”

The wrongness of Coss and Hosokawa’s pairing is compounded by the fact that Coss was specifically hired by Ochoa in order to woo Hosokawa into building a factory locally… because Hosokawa is a Coss fanboy who has been billionaire-stalking her around the planet. So, like, stalking pays? At least if you’re lucky enough to get caught up in a months-long hostage situation with the person you’re obsessed with? Gross.

Weitz probably thought he was downplaying the creepy feel of Bel Canto as delusional sexual fantasy by keeping everything so elegant and subdued, and certainly Moore and Watanabe are far too dignified, as always, to let this descend into the outright alarming. But the whole endeavor never rises above the facile, from the poverty porn of its generic “South American” setting to Hosokawa’s off-brand work: he was going to build a Business Factory, maybe? (I suspect that the nuances of Ann Patchett’s acclaimed and multi-award-winning novel, which I have not read, have been lost in translation.) Eventually everyone, terrorist and hostage alike, is playing football together, bonding over music, and learning how to play chess. Bel Canto may want to feel as if it’s capturing confused people in a complicated mess, but it just ends up uncomfortably implausible and emotionally flat.

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