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Movie of the Day: To Die For (1995)

“You're not anybody in America unless you're on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody's watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.”
Gus Van Sant is part of the fixture in American independent cinema and although "To Die For" was a piece of work that came from the studios, he films the story of this female go-getter ready for anything to accede glory and fame in a very personal way.
It's built on an alternation of present moments in which various characters who crossed Nicole Kidman's path talk about her and flashes-back that relate the turn of events.
Characters including her parents, her former young lover and friends express their thoughts about her without succeeding in understanding her. There, appears the first quality of Van Sant's work: the somewhat elusive personality of her main female character who especially manipulated her close relatives to go up the social ladder and to achieve her ends.
Manipulation is very present throughout the work with the conspicuous presence of TV and camera. And you have to see the contrast between the dynamic Suzanne Maretto (Nicole Kidman) and her rather listless husband Larry acted by Matt Dillon and especially the teenagers who hang around us like Jimmy Emmett (a young and good Joaquin Phoenix) or Lydia Mertz (Alison Folland). There, appears Van Sant's signature.
"To Die For" includes some of the filmmaker's obsessions revolving around an American youth who is adrift and lacks of marks for their future and security. What Jimmy and timid, hung-up Lydia need is true love, something that Suzanne can't really give them. And her plan to report on an American high school is only a means to establish a little more her galloping ambition. Van Sant will resume his set of themes about a ramshackle American youth and will hone it with his masterful "Elephant" (2003).
The choice of the scenery (Moretto's house) and the brightness of the cinematography, Nicole Kidman's make-up fuel the somewhat quirky side of the venture and Van Sant doesn't deprive himself of gently laughing at her female heroine. I dig the moments when she goes to the office held by Wayne Knight to ask for a job and ends up hosting the weather forecast on a little local area. A task she painstakingly fulfills. Nicole Kidman holds her role at arms' length and has a tremendous screen presence. It's just a shame that Van Sant doesn't emphasis enough on the madness that seizes Suzanne after the murder when she is interviewed by the journalists.
But see it anyway for Kidman and the manner Van Sant tells this story of ambition, manipulation and hypocrisy. And David Cronenberg has a surprising cameo at a well-appropriated moment in a vital step of the heroine's fate… 8/10


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