"Ask the Dust" has excellent elements that almost come together as a whole.
Like "End of the Affair" and "The White Countess", it surrounds a fraught love affair with exquisite looking period recreation that almost sucks the life out of it. (As with those films, the senior citizens at my matinée really enjoyed the period aspect.) Set in a sepia-tinged Depression-era Los Angeles of polluted palm trees, it is populated equally by youthful blond California girls and boys and old people at the end of the continent and their lines, as symbolized by Donald Sutherland's begging boarding house neighbor, like a ghost from his role in "The Day of the Locust".
What saves the film is the frank dialog and odd sparks between Colin Farrell, as repressed Italian-American writer from Colorado, novelist John Fante's alter ego with the even more ethnically redolent name of "Arturo Bandini", and Salma Hayak as a non-stereotyped Mexican spitfire "Camilla Lopez". Their repartee about their biases is raw and fresh.
Significantly, they are not the usual naive teen lovers, but are adults with mileage who are striving to change the trajectory of their lives. In this discrimination-filled, pre-celebration of the melting pot/rainbow environment (heavy-handedly demonstrated such as by their viewing Ruby Keeler's famous line from "Dames" "I'm free, white, and 21."), both are trying to make it in a specific image of the American Dream, a non-ethnic one, though we hear very little about their own sense of their ethnic identity. She is even dating a nasty guy named White in the vain hope of obtaining a green card and citizenship.
Hayak's character is the easier to understand, as we see her exuberate in vibrant blue moonlight when she feels free with him, especially in vivid ocean scenes (she is absolutely stunning swimming naked), and then in bright light at a seashore idyll. This gorgeous scene gives "From Here to Eternity" a run for its money as the sexiest crashing of waves coupling in the movies. Though after all her sexually aggressive seduction efforts, their lovemaking is lit beautifully in the dark but conventionally choreographed as I expected her to demand more equality in bed. But then she's already started coughing with Movie Star Disease, even if it's explained more in the plot than usual.
Even with his constant florid more than bordering on pretentious narration, sometimes in an exaggerated lower register, of his writing efforts (with the usual scenes of paper being ripped out a manual typewriter as he receives encouragement from H. L. Mencken) that doesn't really thematically integrate into the film until the end, it is harder to understand why it takes so long to get his uptight clothes off despite many importunings. There is an unusually sweet flirtation over literacy, but it seemed more like condescension on his part, especially to help her get citizenship, than sharing with her his love of words. The non-narrated scenes are a relief and are beautiful to look at, as the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel (dad of actresses Zoey and Emily) is consistently lovely.
But then Farrell is surrounded by eccentric characters who are all hiding emotional or physical scars until he can face up to his own to find his real writer's voice. Idina Menzel's "Vera Rifkin" is a well-educated Jewish housekeeper whose California dreams (or borderline crazed fantasies) are for some reason now focused on being a writer's muse.
Surprisingly, there is very little period music, maybe for budget reasons. A prominent and excellent selection is Artie Shaw's version of "Gloomy Sunday" which has its own legend of love and death. The score is sometimes intrusive and not as evocative of the clashing ethnic traditions as it could have been.
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