Michael Mann’s Beguiling “Ferrari”

Near the beginning of the new Michael Mann film, “Ferrari,” we are treated to a fine visual gag. The year is 1957, and the setting is a tranquil country house, where Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), the founder of the company that bears his name, awakes beside his beloved. Having dressed, Enzo leaves the house as quietly as a cat, approaches a car, and doesn’t start it. (Also, the car is not a Ferrari. This is like Alice Waters kicking off her day with an Egg McMuffin.) Instead, he releases the brake and pushes, jumping in and gunning the motor only halfway down the drive. Why so? Because his bedmate is his mistress, Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), and she’s still asleep. Enzo needs to hasten back to his wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz), in the nearby city of Modena, thus allowing her to fire a pistol at him before he’s even had a shave. In short, an average morning for the enterprising postwar Italian male.

By design, the film catches Enzo at a moment of frailty and strain. His son Dino, whom he adored, died of Duchenne muscular dystrophy in 1956. Although Enzo and Laura pay daily visits to the cemetery where Dino is entombed, they go separately; so cracked is their marriage that they cannot grieve together. Enzo has another child, Piero (Giuseppe Festinese), the secret fruit of his relationship with Lina (of which Laura, though suspicious, is unaware), but postpones the boy’s confirmation rather than publicly bless, or burden, him with the name Ferrari. In business, too, conditions are tough. “The production cars pay for the racing,” Enzo says, but Ferrari built and sold fewer than a hundred such cars in the previous year; that number has to increase fourfold. Only with spectacular racing results, it is decided, can the marque reclaim its lustre. The ideal would be victory in the Mille Miglia, which Laura describes as “a thousand miles across bad roads with sheep and dogs.” Bring it on.

“Ferrari” has been in the workshop for quite a while. The screenplay is by Troy Kennedy Martin, who died in 2009. It features the trusty components of a Mann movie: the smooth mechanics of professional labor, plus—or, more often, versus—the exhaust manifold of men’s emotional lives. “When a thing works better, usually it is more beautiful to the eye,” Enzo explains to Piero, retooling diagrams of an engine, and there are passages of “Ferrari” in which sheer velocity becomes a state of grace. The cinematographer, Erik Messerschmidt, likes to mount a camera down low, next to the left wheel arch of a race car, or else behind the cockpit, staring ahead. How swiftly we come to share the driver’s hunger, wanting nothing on God’s Earth except to eat up the track.

Here’s the peculiar thing: Driver is not one of the drivers. In Mann’s best films, the phrase “action hero” is revealed to be a tautology. Heroism, riven with risk, is available only to those who take action. Hence James Caan in “Thief” (1981), Daniel Day-Lewis—as fleet as a Ferrari, and never once running out of gas—in “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992), Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as the cop and the robber, respectively, in “Heat” (1995), and Tom Cruise as the assassin in “Collateral” (2004). The new film may begin with a brief, black-and-white remembrance of Enzo as a competitor, grinning with exultation at the wheel. (The glory days of early road racing happened to coincide with the reckless acceleration of silent cinema. A movie about that symbiosis could be fun.) The fact is, however, that Ferrari hung up his goggles in 1931, and for the rest of this story he is, in essence, a manager, arguing with his accountant, bullying journalists, and chiding his pack of daredevils if their will to win seems insufficiently brutal. Motorsport in the era of “Ferrari” is a matter not of do or die but, as Enzo understands, of do and die. Yet he is not doing the dying.

To an extent, Driver is an odd choice for the leading role. In no respect does he resemble the real Ferrari, who looked like a hybrid of Rodney Dangerfield and Salman Rushdie. For a closer approximation, I refer you to Adolfo Celi, who played a Ferrari-like boss in “Grand Prix” (1966), having limbered up as a Bond villain, complete with eye patch, in “Thunderball,” the year before. But Driver does get at the undentable—one might say indispensable—hardness of heart in the character, and, for all his bonhomie at the barbershop or at a convivial lunch, and despite his doughty stride, there is an inwardness in Enzo that the camera constantly probes. For a film about automobiles, “Ferrari” is surprisingly crammed with closeups, often in stillness and shadow. We can but imagine what Driver thought when he read the script of “Ferrari” and realized that, so alarmingly soon after “House of Gucci” (2021), he would once again be obliged not only to wrap his tongue around a piccante Italian accent but also to make spur-of-the-moment love with his co-star (first Lady Gaga, now Cruz) athwart a tabletop, negotiating highly complex lingerie along the way. As typecasting goes, it doesn’t get much more niche than that.

The climax, in narrative terms, comes with the Mille Miglia. The spiffiest driver is Piero Taruffi—fifty years old, white-haired, immortally dashing, and played with evident relish by Patrick Dempsey, who has raced for real at Le Mans and Daytona, and who has confessed that he would happily renounce acting for motorsport. (Guess what: you can do both!) And the most touching sight in the whole movie, to my eyes, is that of the Ferrari aces sitting quietly in hotel rooms and writing letters to their loved ones, on the eve of the race, like soldiers heading off to war. A wise precaution. The contest commences before dawn, and we watch Enzo giving final instructions as he dispatches his men into the gloom, in their impossibly gorgeous machines. Red cars at night: spectators’ delight. What follows, in daylight hours, shows Mann in his element. Vehicles roar through elegant cities—Ravenna, Bologna, Palma, Brescia—or jostle, hub to hub, through hairpin bends, in vast volcanic landscapes that evoke another world. Here, as throughout this beguiling film, there is a hint of elegy amid the thrills; we sense that the classic age of speed, aglow with glamour and enshrined in the driven soul of Enzo Ferrari, will and must be drawing to a close. One burst tire, on a straight road, and the dream can crash forever.

To be accused of an offense that you haven’t committed is a terrible slur, and it can lead to a galling miscarriage of justice. To be innocent of an offense and yet to confess your guilt—not for pathological reasons but purely to get ahead in the world—takes a certain panache. Such is the scheme hatched in François Ozon’s new film, “The Crime Is Mine,” by a couple of young roommates, in Paris, in 1935. Pauline Mauléon (Rebecca Marder) is a lawyer who can’t get a break. Madeleine Verdier (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) is an actress who can’t get a part. Hoping for a change in fortune, Madeleine goes to see a producer, a portly creep who assaults her. She escapes, returns home, and learns that he has been shot dead. Hallelujah! Why not fess up, take the witness stand, hire Pauline to defend her, and reap the fame that ensues? What can go wrong?

The movie is one of those pointed and prickly farces, like “8 Women” (2002) and “Potiche” (2011), that Ozon tends to scatter among his more solemn projects, as if to keep his comic hand in. The dramatis personae are boldly drawn and, let us say, broadly performed. Fabrice Luchini, who was merely bewildered as a schoolmaster in Ozon’s “In the House” (2013), is now completely clueless as Rabusset, the investigating judge in Madeleine’s case. Isabelle Huppert, in a mad red wig, portrays a former empress of the silent screen, Odette Chaumette, who makes Norma Desmond look like a blushing maiden. Odette’s first entrance is greeted by an ascending parp of brass on the soundtrack, and deservedly so. One actor hamming it up while everybody else plays it straight is an embarrassment; but a movie such as this, in which almost the entire cast contributes to the hamminess, is a platter of fine charcuterie.

Ozon, as ever, is not just having fun. He is also making mischief with the sexual politics of the plot. Pauline—the most interesting figure in the film, whose wistful love for Madeleine remains unspoken—rouses the courtroom with a very modern blast against the patriarchy, observing that women are “considered children for our rights but adults for our mistakes.” The period detailing is far more than decorative. The costumes may be fabulous, as are the Art Deco interiors; the producer’s villa is worth murdering for; and Madeleine is initiated into pastis, “a new drink from the south.” Amid the charm and the silliness, however, it’s a shock to hear of a wife being pursued for the size of her dowry, and to reflect that French women would not be able to vote until the elections of 1945.

At the end of “The Crime Is Mine,” I found myself picturing a sequel, set only five years later, during the German Occupation of Paris, and wondering how the characters would fare. Pauline would stand up for the people’s rights, and suffer greatly. Rabusset would round up Jews. Odette, armor-plated in self-belief, would soldier on. And the resourceful Madeleine? She, I suspect, might do very well indeed. ♦

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