by ETHAN PETERSON
creators Neil Jordan & John Banville
Julia Stiles is an actress who spent her twenties relegated to a variety of smaller roles. She was never really suited to being a young woman. In Riviera, as the widow of a prominent European banker, she inhabits middle age with a comfort and assurance that turns her in a completely different person than the agreeable girl she once was. Stiles’ character, an art dealer named Georgina, married her wealthy client Constantine Clios (Anthony LaPaglia) a year before his death from a fiery explosion on a yacht.
Georgina is rendered shaken by the events that follow her husband’s murder – a will held pending a criminal investigation, a secret apartment in Monaco and a safe in the basement of her house, an ex-wife who is about as wholesome as a cigarette. The children of her husband also occupy a central focus in Riviera. One is a compensating boy addicted to heroin and sunglasses; another is a lesbian teenager with a predilection for stripping; the last and most sinister is one Ramsay Bolton.
Neil Jordan sets much of Riviera in Monaco. This seaside metropolis is both overwhelmingly white and gorgeous, and yet sinister in its flimsiness. On the intensely saccharine walls of every house, the Clios family keeps photographs of themselves as they were. Having their family as witness to their indiscretions diminishes the individual guilt: Riviera is as heady an indictment of the fabulously rich as you are likely to witness.
Georgina’s main friend in the art world is Robert Carver (the incomparably talented British actor Adrian Lester). He reveals several of her husband’s various double dealings, and when an Interpol investigator named Jukes (Phil Davis) goes after Georgina, he protects her. Meanwhile, the naturally sinister Lena Olin plays Clios’ ex-wife with a devastating aplomb. “I want my life back,” she informs a co-conspirator, as the odds against Georgina continue to mount.
Riviera gives us a nuanced and unique perspective on the vagaries of the art world. He uses work by Egon Schiele and others that seems to reflect the basic dysfunction at work in this community. There is a serious cruelty and evil accommodated in this part of the world, and those who were not born into this strata of wealth seem to resent and fear being excluded by it.
In one harrowing scene, Georgina is forced to spend a single night in jail. In any other movie, this would be a quick shot and no more. Jordan gives Stiles’ character such a sustained and believable history that we recognize what a nightmare even a moment of imprisonment is for her, even as we are forced to admit she may in some part be complicit in her husband’s crimes, to whatever minuscule extent.
Jordan has always been really in tune with how the tangible things we keep for ourselves reflect who we are. Chains and handcuffs play a consistent role in the drama; even a single locked door might be the difference between exoneration and incarceration. A local detective (Igal Naor) attempts to help Georgina, but she is no more trusting of law enforcement than she is of the husband who unintentionally or intentionally abandoned her to this fate.
Jordan’s last venture in television was the dreary The Borgias, which never had any of the playful fun of his best cinematic work. Riviera never gets too bogged down in its somewhat intricate plot, humming along with a lively electronic-hip/hop soundtrack and relentless pace charted by a sensational group of directors.
Despite the rapidfire plot and eclectic cast of characters, Riviera is at its most enjoyable when we discover we don’t quite know Julia Stiles’ character as well as we thought we did. In private moments, in the rooms of her massive villa, she explores a depth of personality we have never seen before. Smashing her husband’s watches with a ball-peen hammer, a glint of malice takes over her normally steely countenance. We might never know exactly who we are.
Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.