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By Mike Watt | July 9, 2005

Dramas are a tough sell these days. Modern audiences like their glitz and car wrecks… at least, that’s what Hollywood keeps telling us, with their “to hell with the story” philosophy. When a drama does come along, it’s invariably of the schmaltzy Oscar-nod variety, so manipulative that all the film lacks is a little flashing “emotion-prompt” (“feel sad in four seconds…three…two…”).

On the independent level, dramas only seem to exist as Sundance calling cards, rarely seen outside of the festival circuit. That’s because, as distributors will tell you, “dramas won’t sell… particularly dramas without stars.” So when dramas are made, they are usually made out of love and affection and deep belief in the source material. These are stories the filmmakers desperately want to tell, regardless of the salability. “Death Defying Acts” feels like one of these examples.

Narrated in a black and white wrap-around by indie superstar Debbie Rochon, “Death Defying Acts” collects four short stories by Guy de Maupassant. Writer/director Norris intercut the quartet of narratives all dealing with infidelity—the husband who discovers his late wife had led a double-life; the cheating husband who can’t bear the thought of his own wife’s affair; an old man who dreams of the married woman who got away; and the comedic antics of a woman who enlists her friends in helping her hide her dead paramour from her husband—and the consequences (or, at least, results) of the affairs.

Each story is presented in little chunks, with each scene designed to whet the appetite for the one to follow, and as each story progresses throughout the film, we get a little more information. This results in a little bit of a stuttering pace and requires the viewer to pay attention to remember who is who and what is happening (made particularly difficult in the beginning as most of the male leads are very similar in appearance).

As de Maupassant’s stories weren’t applauded for their car chases or violent conflicts, rather for their quiet tensions and questions of human interrelationships. So while there are deaths, there are no shoot-outs or screaming matches. Instead, we get tension, doubt, unease, grief, regret, loss and rediscovery. We get real stories being superbly acted by very real people.

The acting across the board is top-notch and the movie is beautifully photographed. The best story of the bunch involves the man who discovers her wife’s affair after she has died. The weakest involves the farcical “dead lover” sequence. The pace is strictly for the patient, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t rewards to be had throughout.

“Death Defying Acts” is an intelligent rarity of either end of the industry. It’s a measured, thoughtful and deliberate film about relationships, love and the true meaning of marriage. It’s recommended viewing for adults who want to spend some time with real people once in a while.

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