What were they thinking?
In Up at the Villa, Sean Penn plays a wealthy American rapscallion tearing around 1938’s Europe, arching his eyebrow by way of seducing rich ladies. This would be the same Sean Penn who invented the great Spicoli, the same Sean Penn who partied hardy, punched out paparazzi, tied Madonna to chairs before he settled down with Robin Wright, and then began writing and directing ambitiously anguished films, acting his ass off for Tim Robbins and Woody Allen, and calling out Nic Cage for losing his art. This would also be the same Sean Penn who was threatening a few years back (before Dead Man Walking and then again, just after) because he was increasingly frustrated by the business.
Up At the Villa
Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox, Jeremy Davies, Derek Jacobi
With Up at the Villa, Penn appears to have given up on that threat and taken a part that is precisely the sort of thing you might think he would turn down. Rowley Flint is a swaggering and heartbreaker infamous among a certain circle of upper-crusty women, married to someone with whom he has an “arrangement.” You hear about Rowley before you meet him. Specifically, one of the older expatriate women hanging around Florence, the U.S.-born and titled by marriage Princess of San Bernadino (Anne Bancroft), tells her young friend Mary (Kristin Scott Thomas) that he’d be an appropriate, post-soiree ride home to the villa she’s renting (this would be the film’s titular villa, in fact). The Princess observes that because Rowley is married, he poses no “threat” to Mary, who is about to become engaged to an older fellow, Edgar (Edward Fox), who is in turn about to be appointed the Governor of Bengal.
Here, colonialism is a reference rather than a plot point, backdrop for the protagonists’s bad behavior and sense of entitlement. Put another way, this means Edgar’s career is a concern for Mary only as it provides her with a title and security. Apparently she’s one of those widowed women who gets by on the kindness of her friends, and she’s beginning to feel a smidgen of guilt and worse, self-consciousness, about it. Marrying Edgar, 25 years her senior, will make Mary secure in terms of finances and title. She wouldn’t have to trouble her so-called friends anymore. One night while mulling over the proposal and recovering from what she takes as an offensive proposal from Rowley on that fateful ride back to the villa, Mary decides to do a good deed. That is, believing she’s bestowing some kind of gift on him, she beds a poverty-stricken and musically inept Austrian refugee (Jeremy Davies, as ludicrous and heavily-accented in this role as you would guess). From there, she runs headlong into a crisis involving poor manners, real needs, and likely murder charges (to be blunt: the refugee shoots himself in the chest when she rebuffs him the day after their Big Night, but only after telling her in no uncertain terms how evil and self-indulgent and colonialist she is). That Mary must come up with a way out of her mess while falling in love with Rowley is only one of many incongruities in this profoundly superficial film.
There’s something ferocious and important about this colonialist not-so-subtext, primarily because the film pretends that it is not. Or rather, the film treats it in an oblique way, focusing its overt outrage instead on the Fascists who are fast making incursions into the Florentine resident aliens’ la-de-da lifestyle. In this strategy, the film is not unlike the previous one by the husband-wife team, director Philip and writer-editor Belinda Haas, Angels and Insects. In the first movie, colonialist abuses of natives and resources were displaced onto a horror-movie-style display of brother-sister incest, discovered, it so happens, by a pleasant-enough student of insects and a fellow worker at his wife’s estate, played by one Kristin Scott Thomas. In Up at the Villa, the displacement is slightly less spectacular visually (the image of his wife fucking her brother startles the clueless bugman, even if you’ve figured it out long before he does), though in the abstract, a violent death might be deemed at least as horrible as a sex act. That the death is technically not a murder, but rather a suicide brought on by classist and nationalist carelessness doesn’t sit well: it lets Mary off the legal hook (and that of her own snooty-classed ethics), but it may leave viewers with something less than a sense of satisfaction by film’s end.
While the refugee’s corpse does represent a moment of displacement, the film is really more about process, and in this respect, Up at the Villa is slightly subtler and much more venal than Angels and Insects. Dear Mary must figure out her moral, romantic, and, if you like, spiritual place in the world, apart from the artificial and so, suspect, “position” lent her by the impending marriage. But in order to do so, she must get over her feelings of betrayal by her dead wastrel husband (who was terminally alcoholic and emotionally abusive, which, of course, made her love him all the more) and learn to love again. That Rowley is the designated vehicle for this lesson would be laughable, were it not treated with such seriousness by the film, a seriousness that condescends to Mary and viewers equally. He’s clearly supercilious and selfish, and warns her that he is and will continue to be. I suppose the case could be made that the story is emulating a popular bodice-ripper and that both Mary and viewers believe her love will transform him, though whether as parody or as homage is difficult to figure.
Mary and Rowley find a way to displace her culpability in the dead body business by focusing on her unbelievable naivete and “wish” to do good (this is, of course, the typical defense mounted by colonialists who ravage or ruin the objects of their exploitations). Rowley, being a regular, above-board rapscallion, at first has a tenuous part in all this increasingly messy subterfuge (disposing of the body, performing innocence in front of all their friends), except that he inevitably takes on Mary’s plight as a gentleman should, putting himself in more danger than he might have to. In addition, the conspiring duo is allowed a get-out-of-jail-free card by the film’s narrative/moral structure, which pits them against the Italian Fascists, just beginning to make themselves annoying in Florence These barbarians are embodied by a stereotypical black-booted officer (Massimo Ghini), who starts sniffing around Mary’s villa as soon as his uniforms discover the refugee’s corpse somewhere nearby (handily, for the film’s visual scheme, by a giant statue of Neptune, which is featured in numerous shots).
After setting up some tension that Mary will be found out, the film drops that ball in favor of the romance (though Rowley is offscreen for much of her developing affection for him, which we can only hope was contractual on Penn’s part). The movie’s most colorful and pleasantly distracting moments actually have very little to do with either plot, and instead feature Derek Jacobi as a flaming and besandaled art aficionado (also, it seems, a friend to Mary because he poses no “threat”). But the most bizarre moments belong to Penn. And it may be some small comfort that these never make sense.