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Review: Gaspar Noé’s Climax Trips the Light Fantastic

The camera captures every freak-out, recrimination, stolen kiss, and betrayal in what is a miracle of synchronicity.

3.5
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Climax
Photo: A24

Writer-director Gaspar Noé’s Climax begins with an intimation of a bygone horror, at once blissful and uneasy. A girl we later come to know as Lou (Souheila Yacoub) marches through snow, flailing her arms before hugging her bloodied midsection, the camera trailing her from a God’s-eye view until she falls into the sea of white. The scene is almost baptismal, as the earth would appear to receive her as a dedication, and in repose she brings to mind a child in utero. It’s an impression that’s difficult to avoid, then easily forgotten, only to be summoned anew when, not long into this film that delights in twinning states of ecstasy and agony, it’s understood that the girl died while miscarrying.

Unless Lou was never pregnant. But whether or not she actually was is of less consequence to Noé than the spectacle of performance, whether of the body or the mind, as when Lou desperately proclaims her innocence after it’s discovered that a member of her dance troupe spiked the communal sangria with LSD. Inside a cavernous building in the middle of nowhere, this racially and sexually diverse crew of krumpers, voguers, contortionists, and others gather to rehearse a routine that attests to the possibility of a new social order. And, indeed, the choreography of their first rehearsal so euphorically reflects the structure of the music, a remix of Cerrone’s “Supernature,” that it’s almost impossible to imagine these dancers apart.

“My worst nightmare? To find myself alone,” says one girl in a direct-to-camera address transmitted from a television set that’s flanked on one side by books and on the other by films in VHS cases. And those cases are just about the only thing that roots the events of Climax, according to the opening end scroll, in France in the winter of 1996. Which is to say, a time when it’s a little easier to imagine black dancers abroad dreaming of an America that’s “heaven on Earth.” And right out of the gate, Noé parallels his desires with that of his characters, asking us to contemplate his own worst nightmare—a world without Zulawski’s Possession, without Kobayashi’s Harakiri, without Argento’s Suspiria—before then dazzling us with the means by which he staves off that nightmare: his will to create.

The self-absorption writ large of Noé’s Love—all those movie posters that exist only to proclaim Noé’s favorite things—is put to purposeful and irreverent use here. Not for nothing is Buñuel’s Un Chien Analou nestled in between Fassbinder’s Querelle and Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom on the left side of the TV set from which Climax’s characters broadcast their dreams. Chaos, of course, will reign in Noé’s film, which takes place in a kind of purgatorial space not unlike the one at the center of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, where a privileged group is unable—or, more likely, unwilling—to leave a drawing room that comes to reflect a world’s ills. But when the dust settles in this film—or, rather, the drugs wear off—who will claim responsibility for the performance of its chaos?

There’s humor, too, in our first glimpse of one dancer’s young son, Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant), taking a sip of the LSD-spiked sangria. This is Noé winking a philosophical thought experiment into being: “If a little boy appears in a Gaspar Noé film in act one, will he make it past act three?” And while anyone who’s ever seen one of Noé films, including Irréversible and Enter the Void, probably knows and fears the answer to that question, the collective response to Tito’s fate is less cruel than you might imagine because, like every other feat in the film, it projects itself as a kind of hallucination. It’s the ultimate gag—so much so that you almost expect the voguers in the room to death drop on cue.

But Climax is less comedy than it is musical, and the film arrives at a rather profound message about how all incivility isn’t equal—how bias, like blight or beauty, is in eye of the beholder—more successfully through the sheer force of dance than through the words exchanged between characters. (None of these dancers are particularly deep, though some of their chatter is quite funny, like one discussion about the “occupational hazard” of rimming.) As these young men and women increasingly lose themselves to the effects of LSD—walking, pushing, worming, writhing, and sometimes sprinting through the building’s rooms and hallways as if in suspended animation—Noé’s camera anchors itself to them in rhythmic lockstep, capturing every freak-out, recrimination, stolen kiss, and betrayal in what is a miracle of synchronicity.

Throughout Climax, the camera itself feels as if it’s slowly experiencing the effects of a drug. Early on, Noé happily cedes the stage to his characters, shooting them from above as they take turns plying their signature moves before capping the spectacle with a montage of the names of the dancers, as well as the musicians on the soundtrack. And then the camera becomes increasingly one with the dancers and the music, as in the film’s most extraordinary sequence, which locks on to the group’s de facto leader, Selva (Sofia Boutella), as if in a trance, following her as she submits to the throes of a Possession-inspired freak-out, and all the way to her collecting herself and walking past Taylor (Taylor Kastle) as he contorts his body into what seems like an optical illusion. The ultimate gag—no, masterstroke—of Noé’s career may be this perfect communion between his art and that of these bodies: a thrilling expression of the fear that to stop moving is to undo the social fabric of the world.

Cast: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle, Thea Carla Schott, Sharleen Temple, Lea Vlamos, Alaia Alsafir, Kendall Mugler, Lakdhar Dridi, Adrien Sissoko, Mamadou Bathily, Alou Sidibe, Ashley Biscette, Vince Galliot Cumant Director: Gaspar Noé Screenwriter: Gaspar Noé Distributor: A24 Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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Berlinale 2021: I’m Your Man, Souad, and Ninjababy

Maria Schrader has a solution for the rom-com’s revitalization: embrace its constructs.

Pat Brown

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Berlinale 2021: I’m Your Man, Souad, and Ninjababy
Photo: Christine Fenzl/Berl

It has been widely remarked that the romantic comedy, perhaps at its peak in the 1990s, has more or less evaporated as a popular mainstream genre over the course of the last two decades. The rom-com is at least in part a casualty of studios’ devaluing of mid-budget films, but perhaps its decline, as with any genre, has to do with its formula, after generations of repetition, finally becoming recognized for their inherent artificiality.

If true, filmmaker Maria Schrader has a solution for the rom-com’s revitalization: embrace its constructs. I’m Your Man presents us with the same outline as any number of rom-coms, in that two will-be lovers must overcome some inner flaw that prevents them from being together. For Alma (Maren Eggert), that would be the restraint that she shows in all things emotional, spurred by recent heartbreak and a resulting identity crisis. For Tom (Dan Stevens), it’s that he’s literally an artificial man, a robot programmed to respond to and fulfill Alma’s every desire—which, if you think about it, would be rather aggravating with or without Alma’s ingrained self-defense mechanism of revolting at the slightest sign of happiness.

Schrader gives her high-concept comedy a light touch that Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder would appreciate, embedding most of the story’s humor in variations on the Turing test, where conversations between Tom and real people throw that whole human-machine divide into question. I’m Your Man might reasonably be described as a gender-flipped version of familiar cinematic explorations of the question of the artificial being as a projection of male desire—think Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Spike Jonze’s Her, Andrew Niccol’s S1m0ne, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and its sequel—though its foregrounding of the complex contours of a woman’s desire makes Schrader’s film more than a simple inversion.

I’m Your Man more closely resembles “In Theory,” the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Brent Spiner’s Data begins dating a fellow crewmember. Akin to Data, Tom is an ever-so-slightly too perfect human-like being who’s risible at first for his divergence from the real deal, eventually demanding, from both Alma and the viewer, recognition as a form of life. Schrader’s camera, along with Alma, likes to linger on Tom’s face, not (only) in an erotic sense, but also in the philosophical sense—for the way she ponders the invisible difference between electronic algorithm and neurotransmitter charges. At once a wry romantic comedy about the complications of sexual desire and a science-fiction allegory about the confusions that singularity may be leading us toward, I’m Your Man assembles familiar ideas into something no less pleasurable for being a plainly artificial construct.

Ayten Amin’s Souad, screening in Berlinale’s Panorama section, could hardly strike more of a contrast with Schrader’s precisely executed and polished film. Set within a conservative Muslim community in Egypt, and shot in a verité, handheld style that seems to be reacting to the story rather than making space for it. But there’s a connection between the films in that Souad, too, is about the role of technology in women’s sexuality, from the very specific standpoint of young women coming of age amid the manifold contradictions produced by the injection of smart technologies and social media into traditional societies.

When we meet Souad (played with an elusive sullenness by Bassant Ahmed), she’s telling an old woman on the bus about her fiancé, who’s stationed in Sinai with the army, and his lovely sister; a smash cut later and she’s talking to a younger woman, telling her an entirely different story about her doctor boyfriend and his disapproving sister. Both stories are fabrications. Souad turns out to be living two lives, but not in the sense that she’s actually got boys in different area codes: While in person she appears to be one of the more conservative ones among her friends, she has a long-distance lover, a budding social media star named Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem)—though she might not be his only squeeze, virtual or otherwise.

Without positioning smartphones one-dimensionally as seducers of virginal youths, Amin’s film imagines the potentially tragic results of the confluence of the expectations that conservative Islam places on women’s sexuality, young people’s intensely erotic investment in social media, and the patriarchal privileges afforded by both religious doctrine and secular, technological society. While Souad’s second half drags after a shocking turn of events, and the film’s realist, Dardenne-esque aesthetic can feel forced—occasionally the camera is abruptly shoved into actors’ faces to underline significant moments—it offers a moving examination of the sometimes-unbearable splitting of the self in our socially mediated world.

A young woman, Rakel (Kristine Kujath Thorg), also finds herself caught between worlds in the Ninjababy. However, here it’s between the world in which she has discovered to her distress that she’s pregnant with the child of a fuck buddy that she and her roommate, Ingrid (Tora Dietrichson), non-affectionately call “Dick Jesus” (Arthur Berning), and that of her idly drawn cartoons, in which the fetus has been personified as the titular masked figure.

Uncharitably, one could call Yngvild Sve Filkke’s film a Norwegian mashup of Jason Reitman’s Juno and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, as its story of accidental pregnancy (and failed trip to the abortion clinic) sets itself among a familiar-seeming set of off-kilter young hipsters, and it frequently augments its comedy with pseudo-amateur animation and effects. The latter are visible only to Rakel, the indie pregnancy’s requisite slacker with an active imagination and even more active (and sarcastic) unconscious mind.

But more charitably, Ninjababy, whatever its similarities to aughts-era films indebted to indie comics, is refreshing for its less puritanical look at women’s sexuality. It also yields plenty of yuks. The jokes spewed by the cartoon fetus who’s inserted into scenes as Rakel’s castigating super-ego don’t always land, but the chaotic love triangle that forms between Rakel, the oblivious male narcissist Dick Jesus, and Mos (Nader Kademi), the diminutive and exceedingly sweet local Aikido coach, makes for some cringe-humor gold.

Berlinale runs from March 1—5.

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Review: Petite Máman Wistfully, Powerfully Attests to the Pull of Familial Bonds

The film evinces Céline Sciamma’s profound knack for visual economy, communicating much with silent looks and structured absences.

3.5
Pat Brown

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Petite Máman
Photo: Neon

Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman departs from the filmmaker’s last two feature-length directorial efforts in its comparative modesty. With none of the overt social messaging of Girlhood or the grand romance of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma’s precisely composed images and muted dialogue serve a more intimate story about the longing to connect with one’s mother outside the bounds of the parent-offspring relationship.

Petite Maman indulges the same kind of fantasy as Back to the Future, answering the question of what it would be like to meet our parents at our own age—though it’s not overly concerned with temporal paradoxes or a high-stakes race to ensure one’s genesis. Rather, contemplative and cool almost to a fault, the film emphasizes the simple acts of connecting with and parting from people, and the rueful inevitability of time’s passing.

The film’s defiance of the linear temporal continuum facilitates a connection between two lonely eight-year-olds, each an only child living with a single parent in an isolated home in the woods. The main character, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), is helping her father (Stéphane Varupenne) clean out her maternal grandmother’s home after the woman’s passing. Meanwhile, her grieving mother (Nina Meurisse) has absconded; Nelly woke up one morning, after they’d snuggled up to each other on the couch in the stripped-bare living room, to find her gone. The same day, playing in the woods behind her departed grandmother’s house, Nelly encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl her age who uncannily resembles her (the actresses are sisters), who shares a first name with her mother, and who happens to be building a makeshift hut out of branches around the same place that Nelly’s mother did when she was young.

The film evinces Sciamma’s profound knack for visual economy, communicating much with silent looks and structured absences. The opening shot follows Nelly in a nursing home as she bids au revoir to elderly women. It’s when she comes to a fourth room, which contains an empty bed, that we understand what she’s doing here, and why she’s making sure to say goodbye to each resident. Throughout, Sciamma uses ambivalent visions to raise silent questions that will hopefully be resolved. As in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the journey to the past—in the earlier film, in the more conventional form of a flashback—seems to be activated by an unexpectedly uncovered sight. Here, the tacky lime-green wallpaper revealed behind the refrigerator in Nelly’s grandmother’s kitchen not only symbolizes the partial obscurity of the past, but also, more nebulously, her journey into her absent mother’s history.

When the two girls get caught in the rain, Marion leads Nelly back to her house, which turns out to be the exact same one that she’s staying in with her father—except that her father is gone and it’s a younger version of her grandmother (Margot Abascal) who’s quietly managing things. For obvious reasons, Nelly keeps the secret that she’s actually Marion’s future daughter close to the vest, and she and her child-mother become fast friends with the typical alacrity of prepubescent children. Soon, Nelly and Marion stage a play for an audience of none, each of them playing multiple roles, taking on the tasks of the siblings neither of them have.

But all their fun plays out in the loneliest of spaces, as both the house that’s been emptied in the wake of the grandmother’s death and the one that Marion lives in exude an almost unreal stillness that colors the girls’ interactions. The lack of a score—there’s no music until a sudden needle-drop that kicks off a sequence that serves as an evocatively indirect culmination of the story—and the hushed atmosphere means that we hear every rustle of clothing as the girls play and talk, emphasizing their mutual isolation even as they grow closer together.

The formal expressivity of Sciamma’s film stands in a certain contrast to its characters, whose outward emotions are pointedly deadened. In Marion’s case, particularly as an adult, this reads as the numbness of grief and depression. But the children’s matter-of-fact demeanor and condensed manner of speech, while endearing at first, can sometimes seem over-calibrated (“You didn’t invent my sadness,” Marion poetically says to Nelly at a crucial point, trying to comfort her). Whittling down the dialogue and conveying emotion largely through formal technique, Sciamma takes perhaps too much of the burden off of her child-actors’ shoulders. The more difficult-to-process emotions remain suspended in the air, manifest in the images, like the panther that Marion imagines she sees in the shadows cast on her bedroom wall.

The youthful inquisitiveness and mature sobriety that defines Nelly positions her as a version of a child that an adult might imagine themselves to have been. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t incredible power to the way that Sciamma has us view the world of childhood from a grown-up remove. Petite Máman’s look at an impossible connection between a young girl, her mother, and her grandmother captures with wistful clarity the asynchrony that keeps us from getting to fully know our parents as people—fantasizing a scenario in which its main character can achieve an understanding that for many of us comes too late.

Cast: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne, Margot Abascal Director: Céline Sciamma Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma Distributor: Neon Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: Chaos Walking Only Scratches the Surface of Its Fascinating Premise

Beneath its perfectly entertaining surface, the film is a mess of contradictions that fails to live up to its own potential.

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Chaos Walking
Photo: Lionsgate

Where does one draw the line between an original idea and a gimmick? It’s a question that haunts Chaos Walking, Doug Liman’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’s 2008 YA novel The Knife of Never Letting Go. On a recently colonized dystopian planet pointedly dubbed New World, men’s thoughts are (for the most part) involuntarily audible and to some extent visible to others. The film does an adequate job of translating this mental “Noise,” as it’s called, to an audio-visual medium, but for the first 10 minutes or so, the barrage of thoughts, accompanied by prismatic wisps of imagery that flash around characters’ heads before dissipating, can feel like a stimulus overload, as the viewer is tasked with triangulating the characters’ thoughts from the actors’ dialogue and body language. And yet, the film is committed enough to the device that we quickly learn to accept it.

Sadly, Chaos Walking only scratches the surface of the implications of its premise. A faithful transcript of a New Worlder’s stream of consciousness should be, as the film’s title implies, chaotic: a jumble of half-formed associations bouncing between the mundane and the bizarre, but everyone’s “Noise” here is pretty straightforward, even utilitarian. In one scene where Todd (Tom Holland) is digging beets out of his father’s field, we get a tantalizing glimpse of an alternate version of the film when he wonders if it’s possible to die from boredom, but the film doesn’t push further than that. It feels like a missed opportunity to explore how thoughts can become free-floating in the midst of New World’s repetitive drudgery.

Chaos Walking also doesn’t explain why, exactly, women’s thoughts aren’t similarly manifested, since, after all, there’s more than a whiff of gender essentialism to the “Noise.” For that matter, given that the main female character’s (Daisy Ridley) thoughts are hidden by design, the film struggles to find another way of imbuing her with as nuanced a personality as Todd’s. True, this isn’t Mrs. Dalloway, but it’s still unfortunate how most characters’ thoughts end up as plot vehicles, rather than insights into inner turmoil or the nature of mental activity.

The plot itself is bog-standard. An advance scout of the second wave of colonists, Ridley’s Viola crash-lands on the seemingly all-male New World near Prentistown. Todd happens to be the one to find her, and he can’t keep the discovery secret because his thoughts are public. Looking to hold onto what power he has, Prentis (Mads Mikkelsen), the town’s sinister yet charismatic mayor, aims to prevent Viola from contacting her spacecraft and initiating the next wave of colonization. Todd and Viola, chased by Prentis and his henchmen, journey to another settlement, where she hopes to find means of contacting her ship. On the way, they learn more about each other and the word as Todd has been indoctrinated to know it unravels.

Chaos Walking is at its strongest when dramatizing how characters control their thoughts, using them as tools, even weapons, in a world familiar from such sci-fi/western mash-ups as Firefly and Cowboy Bebop. The source of Prentis’s power is his ability to keep his thoughts hidden from others, except when he allows them to manifest in the form of convincing illusions. The film also effectively shows how an edifice of lies and secrets can become a reality to those who live and breathe them, especially in insular communities bent on survival. Further, it hints toward the insidious ideology of “man” as an agent of domestication, dominating both inner and outer “chaos,” as it operated in the colonization of the Americas. In one scene, Viola reminds Todd that they, the colonizers, are the aliens from the perspective of the indigenous Spackle, whom the colonists are halfway through exterminating.

Any truly barbed indictment of colonialism, though, is sabotaged by the fact that the Spackle scarcely make an appearance, to the point that they come to feel like an afterthought. Worse, the film’s ending offers some vague, less patriarchal version of colonialism as the only way forward for humanity, having long since trashed Earth. While there are flashes of sympathy for those at the receiving end of manliness, Chaos Walking remains at its core a film about men and masculinity, toxic or otherwise. The film’s most imaginative ideas end up as little more than set dressing for a rather conventional story, as opposed to seeds that might have structured it in some radically new way. Beneath its perfectly entertaining surface, Chaos Walking is a mess of contradictions that fails to live up to its own potential.

Cast: Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo, Kurt Sutter, Óscar Jaenada Director: Doug Liman Screenwriter: Patrick Ness, Christopher Ford Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 109 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2021

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Berlinale 2021: Memory Box, Any Day Now, and Brother’s Keeper

Adolescence is a fertile metaphor for the strangeness and insecurity inherent in the transition from one world to another.

Pat Brown

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Berlinale 2021: Memory Box, Any Day Now, and Brother’s Keeper
Photo: Abbout Productions

Two noteworthy films at this year’s Berlinale examine the lives of migrants from the Near East living in the West from the perspective of young people. In Memory Box, among the films competing for the Golden Bear, and Any Day Now, included with other films from new filmmakers in the Generations lineup, adolescence proves a fertile metaphor for the strangeness and insecurity inherent in the transition from one world to another.

Teens who live between two cultures turns out to be a recurring theme at this year’s festival. Also superimposing political strife onto the fading innocence of childhood is Kurdish director Ferit Karahan’s Brother’s Keeper, from the festival’s Panorama section. While set entirely in Turkey (in fact, the action never leaves a snowed-in boarding school in Eastern Anatolia), the film concerns, in part, the paradox of a country’s internal national differences—namely, that between a Kurdish rural class and the Turk-dominated state apparatus.

In its use of an all-male boarding school milieu as a synecdoche for social discipline more broadly, Karahan’s film partakes in a distinct cinematic lineage. Even the prominent part played by the school’s reaction to a snowfall recalls Jean Vigo’s 1933 featurette Zero for Conduct. But while snow in Vigo’s landmark film provides an opportunity for boys to stray from their rigidly ordered lives, here a snowstorm presents a crisis with which a state-run institution proves unable to cope. And while other films set at boarding schools tend to see such institutions simply as an oppressive other in relation to the individual students, Brother’s Keeper puts more emphasis on the way the students have internalized the ethics of surveillance and punishment under which they live, exercising the same arbitrary aggressions against each other that their wardens exercise upon them.

A student, Yusuf (Samet Yildiz), wakes up to find his best friend, Mehmet (Nurullah Alaca), so ill that he’s nearly unresponsive. As the boy attempts to convince an intransigent and endemically distrustful institution that his friend needs immediate medical help (and not just an aspirin and some time in the makeshift sick room), we observe how a system of corporal punishment and authoritarian power structure has produced nothing but disorder. The teachers and administration devolve into mutual recriminations and opportunistic scapegoating as soon as a crisis arises that can’t be solved with a swift slap to the face.

If the situation weren’t so dire, the film could almost be a satire of systemic petty corruption, like Milos Foreman’s The Fireman’s Ball: Every authority figure who enters the sick room, feeling Mehmet’s head as he lies in the glorified shed that serves as an infirmary, articulates the same unhelpful phrase (“But he doesn’t have a fever”), and those who enter said shed repeatedly slip on an icy patch in front of the threshold, which nobody thinks to address until somebody is injured off screen. But such touches aren’t merely comic, as they become signifiers of the administration’s stasis as a child’s life hangs in the balance. It’s not hard to find resonances with any number of current socio-political crisis in this portrait of a crudely hierarchal institution failing to adequately address an emergency situation.

The oppressive effects of even a relatively competent bureaucracy come under focus in Hamy Ramezan’s Any Day Now, in which we meet an Iranian family living in a state facility in Finland while they await a decision on their asylum application. It’s unclear how long they’ve been waiting, but it’s long enough that their oldest child, the preteen Ramin (Aran-Sina Keshvari), has become proficient in Finnish and made friends at the local school. We perceive his family’s agonizingly slow-burn crisis mostly through his eyes, as he simultaneously moves from the more childish world of primary school into junior high school.

Aspects of Ramin’s coming-of-age story are a bit flavorless, from the girl who he admires from afar not being given any real defining characteristics, to cinematographer Arsen Sarkisiants’s sober camerawork, which isn’t always in lockstep with the giddiness that one senses that Ramin’s hijinks with his Finnish friend, Jigi (Vilho Rónkkónnen), are meant to convey. Instead, what Any Day Now captures with stirring detail are the routines that arise from a family’s single-room life in a refugee center. Every morning, Ramin’s mother, Mahtab (Shabnam Ghorbani), shakes the family awake, one by one, and starts the kettle, while his father, Bahman (Shahab Hosseini), takes Ramin’s little sister, Donya (Kimiya Eskandari), into his arms and they rapidly brush their teeth in a “race” against each other. The family’s unspoken dedication to maintaining regularity and domesticity in the most uncomfortable scenarios—making their confined family cell into a home—is Any Day Now’s most affecting attribute.

Memory Box compounds the generational experience of migration by framing its story of a young woman’s final year in Lebanon through the eyes of her daughter in present-day Montreal. In the year before fleeing her native country’s civil war in 1988, the teenaged Maia (played by Rim Turki as a middle-aged woman and Manal Issa as a teen), daughter of a secular- and apolitical-minded teacher, has her first serious romance with a member of a leftist militia, Raja (Hassan Akil). Directed by Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, whose own journals from 1982 to 1988 served as the basis for the screenplay, Memory Box takes the arrival of a package at Maia’s house in 2020s Montreal that contains letters, scrapbooks, and audio tapes she sent to a friend living in France as the catalyst for the exploration of this personal history.

Maia’s own teen daughter, Alex (Paloma Vauthier), answers the door when the box is delivered, and begins going through its contents, eventually growing resentful about how much her mother seems to have withheld from her. While this framing drama has a sketchiness that deadens its emotional impact (an over-earnest coda involving the sun rising symbolically over Beirut is also cringingly ironic in the wake of the city’s 2020 Beirut explosion), but the flashbacks are piercing evocations of fleeting time and the hidden worlds of the past.

We’re transported back to 1980s Beirut by Alex’s archivist-like attempts to reconstruct her mother’s previous life, the collation of words, images, and even a “mood graph” that her teenaged mother kept bringing us with Alex into a tenuous identification with her mother. When placed side by side, photos, frozen moments excised from their context, begin to resemble fully embodied moments—cinematic segments—and Joreige and Hadjithomas use digital animation and compositing to reanimate a lost moment in time. These graphic reconstructions cede space to more conventional flashbacks, but the problem of memory and perspective returns in artificial, poetic imagery and problematized points of view. In its best passages, Memory Box reminds us that history and even memory itself are always subject to a medium—whether that’s a journal, a Polaroid, or a mother’s voice.

Berlinale runs from March 1—5.

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Review: Keep an Eye Out Frustratingly Gives Up on Narrative Convention

Quentin Dupieux imbues a trite genre scenario with a Kafkaesque brand of comic existentialism.

2
Chuck Bowen

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Keep an Eye Out
Photo: Dekanalog

Quentin Dupieux’s films abound in hauntingly lonely compositions, boasting painstakingly structured narratives that pivot on dreams, flashbacks, absurdisms, and colliding and collapsing realities. Yet his craftmanship often seems to be utilized in the service of telling slight shaggy-dog stories that could be sketched out in their entirety on a cocktail napkin. With certain exceptions, most notably Deerskin, Dupieux’s films strenuously avoid arriving at a digestible theme or even a discernable point, which might be their reason for being. There’s almost always a sense of him taking the piss—exploiting or parodying our need to be hip enough to “get” the jokey futility and alienation of his work.

Such thoughts are certainly encouraged, perhaps merely as means of self-entertainment, during Keep an Eye Out’s many purposefully tedious and repetitive sequences. The film takes off from a straightforward and amusing idea: A detective named Buron (Benoît Poelvoorde) interrogates a suspect named Fugain (Grégoire Ludig) about a murder that happened near the latter’s apartment. The twist here is that Dupieux stretches this scene, familiar from so many cop thrillers, out to entail the whole of the film’s running time. Like the dinner party at the center of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, Buron’s interrogation of Fugain appears unable to reach a conclusion, as it’s prolonged by the rules of Keep an Eye Out’s game, which keep changing with an arbitrariness that’s alternately startling and studious.

As in many of Dupieux’s films, it’s the small, casual bits that really land. Early in the narrative, such as it is, Buron talks at length on the phone about trivial family matters while Fugain sits across his desk from him, waiting for the detective to get the hell on with the interrogation. Buron’s blithe self-absorption, reminiscent of a few of George C. Scott’s characters and expertly played by Poelvoorde, is often funny and keeps the film going during its many dry stretches, as the more involved jokes are extremely variable in payoff. Given Dupieux’s general storytelling perversity—this is a man after all who made a film about a vengeful car tire—it should be no surprise that this variability also feels intentional, even pointed.

For instance, there’s a long, nonsensical setup for a preordained punchline involving an inept one-eyed cop (Marc Fraize), a sharp mathematical instrument, and a debate about stupidity and guilt that recalls a “who’s on first” routine. Typical of Dupieux, the laboriousness of this moment becomes the joke, and your escalating impatience with the obviousness of it all may be gratified by the unexpectedly swift and brutal final flourish. No need to spell things out, but the film’s title is assigned several meanings, some so intensely literal-minded that they do a loop-de-loop into the realm of the figurative. Less successful is a long anecdote about the seven trips that Fugain took on the night of the victim’s murder. Having characters routinely talk of the dullness of this story doesn’t relieve the fact that it’s all, well, so punishingly dull.

Aesthetically, Keep an Eye Out may be Dupieux’s most confident film to date. Boasting gorgeously lived-in, amber-hued cinematography, it very much looks the part of a “real” provincial French police procedural, and the sharp editing makes every line reading crackle. But to indulge what Dupieux would probably see as the most conventional and bourgeoisie of observations, the film doesn’t seem to be about anything, apart from the desire to imbue a trite genre scenario with a Kafkaesque brand of comic existentialism.

Keep an Eye Out lacks the emotional intensity of Dupieux’s Wrong and Deerskin, as well as, to put it lightly, Kafka’s own ferociously personal neuroticism. And its late-inning dive into alternate realities is a cheat of sorts, scanning less as a challenge to convention than as the act of an artist smugly painting himself out of several narrative corners. Yes, such maneuvers are of course intentional on Dupieux’s part and, again, part of the film’s no-exit infrastructure, but at a certain point one may be driven to frustratingly wonder, “So what?” Because there’s a fine line between mocking dramatic conventions and giving up on them.

Cast: Benoît Poelvoorde, Grégoire Ludig, Marc Fraize, Anaïs Demoustier, Orelsan, Philippe Duquesne, Jacky Lambert, Nahel Ange Director: Quentin Dupieux Screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux Distributor: Dekanalog Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mr. Bachmann and His Class Basks in the Wonder of Education As Collaboration

The documentary exists within the very restricted pantheon of films that successfully reap the cinematic potential of pedagogy.

4
Diego Semerene

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Mr. Bachmann and His Class
Photo: Madonnen Film/Films Boutique

Maria Speth’s 217-minute documentary Mr. Bachmann and His Class taps into the space where knowledge is collaboratively constructed, not transferred, and stays there, basking in its magic from start to finish. Speth contemplatively trains her camera on an elementary school class, composed of child immigrants, in the provincial German town of Stadtallendorf. Dieter Bachmann is their maestro, not master, conducting the quiet spectacle of progressive pedagogy with the most tender of grips.

Throughout the film, the students’ grades are discussed, one by one, among the entire class. The process makes it clear that students aren’t defined by the provisional result of their efforts. Clashes are resolved through listening. The rigidity of math is punctuated by music, cooking, and drawing once the teacher senses that boredom and crankiness have surfaced. And though Mr. Bachmann leaves no room for queerness when asking the kids about marriage, he at least treats them as perfectly able to develop empathy toward an otherness that’s presumed to only exist outside the classroom walls. As such, no issue seems to be off the table, including homosexuality, which isn’t the topic of an aside but that of extensive conversation and delicate confrontation (one of the girls finds it “disgusting”). Mr. Bachmann’s mastery is an effortless ballet, at once hypnotizing and heart-rending.

The documentary exists within the very restricted pantheon of films that successfully reap the cinematic potential of pedagogy. The obvious comparison is to Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch’s Miss Kiet’s Children, which turns its attention to a classroom in Holland inhabited by traumatized refugee children and their apparently gleeful Dutch peers. But Mr. Bachmann and His Class isn’t so much a portrait of a class, but a masterclass in portraiture.

Speth’s commitment to the multi-dimensionality of her subjects draws her project closer to Vittorio De Seta’s genre-bending 1973 Italian miniseries Diary of a School Teacher, itself inspired by the work of educational reformer Célestin Freinet, where the pedagogical process flows from abolishing both the authoritarian figure of the master and competition (tests, grades, rankings). Mr. Bachmann’s approach follows Freinet’s, as the German educator scorns the very concept of grading whilst explaining students’ grades. Rigid paradigms are replaced by conversations and collective actions, which necessarily involve the rearrangement of the furniture and bodies in the classroom. It’s not so much improvisation but a sensitive response to students’ needs and feelings at any given moment. It’s not a chaotic free-for-all either, but the denaturalization of violent forms of pedagogical theater in the name of the unaccounted for that can emerge from children and re-shape the classroom anew.

Mr. Bachmann’s pupils’ stifling difficulties with the German language (and foreignness more generally) are eased by their ability to move around, finding a comfortable corner in the room to do individual reading, playing with drums and electric guitars, wielding a sculpting hammer, juggling tennis balls, petting animals, grabbing a cup of tea or taking power naps. Mr. Bachmann’s most defining tool in his pedagogical symphony is his penchant for throwing out the script, discovering and surrendering to the porosity of disciplines with gusto, and purpose.

Speth recognizes this teacher as one big eardrum who absorbs everything, one that isn’t seeking proficiency or the self-serving evidence of knowledge transmission. The class, with all of its diversity, becomes the whole world. Kids from Morocco, Turkey, Bulgaria, Brazil, Italy, Russia, and Kazakhstan savor the luxury of resolving their differences through play and collective action. Even a probability lesson involves the intimacy of their little bodies coming together to draw marked and unmarked golf balls from a brown lunch bag.

In a particularly poignant scene, Jamie, a green-eyed Romanian boy, refuses to help Ilknur, a veil-donning Turkish peer, who’s having a hard time with German because, he claims, it’s her fault that she didn’t learn it like others did. Instead of reprimanding the student, Mr. Bachmann stops the lesson to debrief the situation. In this moment, the lesson becomes this situation, as the teacher walks the children through the reasons why it’s unfair to deny help to the girl because her difficulties are in fact not hers. They’re ours.

Director: Maria Speth, Reinhold Vorschneider Screenwriter: Maria Speth Running Time: 217 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: Introduction Takes Hong Sang-Soo’s Narrative Minimalism to the Brink

The film is a modern melodrama of grit, beauty, jagged edges, and resonant dead ends and false starts.

3.5
Chuck Bowen

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Introduction
Photo: Cinema Guild

It would be easy but shortsighted to dismiss Introduction as another collection of sketches by the prolific Hong Sang-soo. Like Yosujirô Ozu, Hong obsessively circles familiar themes embedded in plots pertaining to characters who talk at length about seemingly very little as psychic wounds gradually crystallize. But Hong’s films are easier to underestimate than Ozu’s, as they’re so piercingly minute in scale, sometimes seemingly to the point of nonexistence, though if one cares to look below their deceptively placid surfaces, the personal reverberations are often extraordinary. Each one uncovers new emotional contours as Hong continues to mercilessly hone his aesthetic, and Introduction is no exception.

With Introduction, Hong pushes his signature brand of narrative minimalism to a breaking point, even by his lofty standards. Divided into three parts, the film is literally about introductions, and Hong takes a nearly obstinate amount of time revealing his endgame, especially for a feature that only runs 66 minutes. In the first part, a doctor (Kim Young-ho) sits at his office desk, his face anguished. Admirers of Hong’s other films may assume that the doctor is the protagonist, and that he’s perhaps enraptured with a woman played by Hong muse Kim Min-hee. Instead, Hong follows the doctor as he goes about his day treating patients. A young man, Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho), arrives in the waiting room, though the doctor is distracted by the arrival of a friend, a famous theater actor (Ki Joo-Bong).

Gradually, we learn that Young-ho is the doctor’s son, a reveal that retroactively informs seemingly trivial events with a casual agony that’s characteristic of Hong’s work. We thought we were watching a story of older men reconnecting, which we were, but it’s a reunion that’s revealed to be haunted by a father’s estrangement from his son. The vignette isn’t without catharsis, but it’s symbolic and surrogated: A nurse (Ye Ji-won), who clearly has ties to Young-ho and his father, gives him the affection that his father denied him. The second part pivots on a similar misdirection, following a young woman, Ju-won (Park Mi-so), as her mother (Seo Young-hwa) introduces her to a painter (Kim) in Berlin who can hook her up with an apartment while she studies fashion. As the characters prattle on about seemingly minor things—their ages, the apartment’s view, the difficulty of breaking into the fashion industry—Hong gracefully establishes their insecurities and surrounding social frissons. Much is made in this film of the formal Korean language reserved for elders, which suggests here a bridge separating the uncertain young adults from their successful yet quietly miserable parents.

In this second part, it’s revealed that Young-ho is Ju-won’s girlfriend, and in this role he’s destined to once again be sidelined. Young-ho is at the center of Introduction’s structural perversity: He’s the protagonist of the film, yet he’s often forgotten by others, his absence gradually becoming an ironic and poignant presence in its own right. Here, Hong dispenses with one of the significant pleasures of many of his films: vicarious identification with a male artist with several lovers and all the time in the world to drink, who may be tortured but who lives a life of notable luxury. Such figures are in Introduction (the doctor, the actor), but they’re seen through the scrim of Young-ho’s pain. They’re un-sentimentalized, their selfishness and aloofness (as well as their own pain) compassionately excavated for all to see.

Even in the film’s third part, the one that most directly engages with Young-ho’s feelings of rejection, he’s effectively marginalized—pushed to the side of the screen, along with his close friend (Ha Seong-guk), while the aforementioned theater actor and Young-ho’s mother (Cho Yun-hee) lecture him over his indecisiveness about his own acting ambitions. The older man and woman are getting loaded on soku over a long lunch, and the former launches into a diatribe about acting and human passion that ranks among the most moving moments in Hong’s cinema. The actor is merciless with Young-ho, pompously yet earnestly castigating the younger man for his timidity and daring him to take the mantles of his own life and assume the center of the stage he’s been haunting over the course of this very film.

Introduction was shot by Hong in the same kind of ghostly black-and-white as many of his other recent productions, and it finds him continuing to refine a sense of negative space that communicates gracefulness and inner turmoil. When characters stand or walk alone here, looking into a pocket of bright white sunshine or stepping into a reflective rain puddle, they momentarily slip into their own skin after intricate, implicitly combative verbal jousting with family and friends. Here, Hong continues to compress the distance between himself and his actors, capturing moments of unforgettable behavioral acuity, which he fuses with his stark, expressionistic, nearly Bergman-esque compositions. The result is a modern melodrama of grit, beauty, jagged edges and resonant dead ends and false starts.

Cast: Shin Seok-ho, Park Mi-so, Kim Young-ho, Ki Joo-Bong, Ye Ji-won, Seo Young-hwa, Kim Min-hee, Cho Yun-hee, Ha Seong-guk Director: Hong Sang-soo Screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 66 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn Takes Satiric Aim at Romanian Society

After a while, it’s hard not to feel like Radu Jude is simply shooting fish in a barrel.

2.5
Keith Watson

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Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
Photo: MicroFilm

Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is every bit as strange and overstuffed as its title. The film is a kind of fire sale of Jude’s observations on everything from life during the Covid-19 pandemic to Romania’s dark history of fascism. Its dominant theme is the socially constructed nature of obscenity, explored through the story of a school teacher, Emi (Katia Pascariu), dealing with the potentially career-ending fallout that ensues after a raunchy sex tape she filmed with her husband is leaked online. This premise might have served as the basis for a mainstream sex farce—a point that’s winkingly acknowledged by the film’s subtitle, “A Sketch for a Popular Film”—but Jude takes it primarily as a jumping-off point for some playful formal experimentation and bitterly satirical jabs at Romanian society.

Divided into three roughly equal parts—each executed in a completely different style—with a sexually explicit prologue and three so-called “possible endings,” Bad Luck Banging is an ever-shapeshifting beast of a film. It opens in medias coitus, with a lengthy excerpt from Emi’s grainy homemade porno. Shot from the POV of her husband, who remains unseen except for when his lower torso and erect penis enter the frame, the tape could easily be mistaken for any number of amateur videos on PornHub. Opening a festival-ready art film this way is no doubt startling, and it is that instant feeling of shock and surprise that Jude interrogates.

The nature of our discomfort will be confronted head-on in the third and final section, but first Jude takes us to the streets of pandemic-era Bucharest, where (nearly) everyone’s wearing a mask and Covid is the ubiquitous subject of overheard small talk. In the first section, we watch as Emi runs errands and evinces a subtle yet palpably increasing anxiety. It’s gradually revealed that her video has been uploaded to the internet, where it’s been passed around by students and faculty at the school where she teaches. Jude films these scenes as if Emi’s being surveilled, mounting his camera in a fixed position at a considerable distance and following her movements with ominous pans before drifting away to observe seemingly unrelated details of the city—a church, a billboard, some street art. Bad Luck Banging recalls other Romanian New Wave works like Cristi Puiu’s Aurora and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, turning the mundanities of everyday life into an kind of opaque, existential mystery.

Jude, however, is less of a philosopher or psychologist than either Puiu or Porumboiu and more of a historian and social critic. It’s not surprising, then, that Jude is, in the film’s first section, less interested in Emi’s predicament than he is in everyday Romanians navigating changing social mores in the face of the pandemic. We hear people discussing superstitious stories about Covid, like the idea that a Eucharist spoon can kill the virus. In one scene set in a pharmacy, an older woman pulls down her mask to start speaking, causing someone off screen to yell at her to keep it on. These now all-too-familiar scenes of etiquette and public health colliding in the streets are oddly cathartic to watch on screen, perhaps because they remind us that even in this purgatorial liminal zone of the pandemic, art can and will emerge.

Just as Emi’s storyline is heating up, Bad Luck Banging enters its wildly discursive second section, “a short dictionary of anecdotes, signs and wonders,” which gives us what its title promises: a collection of ruminations on sex, Covid, Romanian history, feminism, literature, and numerous other topics arranged as a lexicon of terms, like “French Revolution,” “Change,” and “Robots.” This stretch of the film finds Jude continuing to excavate the submerged horrors of Romanian history as he’s done previously in films like Aferim! and I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, targeting, for example, the Romanian Orthodox Church’s close relationship with dictators and the slave labor that built the Palace of Parliament. While no single theme orders the reflections contained in this section, Jude returns again and again to the maltreatment of women, closing in a segment ironically titled “Zen,” which informs us that 55% of Romanians believe rape to be justified in some circumstances.

This horrifying statistic looms over the film’s final section, entitled “Praxis and Innuendos (sitcom),” a parent-teacher association meeting-cum-show trial that plays like a cross between Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako and Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” In contrast to the obliqueness of the film’s first section and the eclecticism of its second, this third movement is often bewilderingly blunt. Filmed in the open-air courtyard of a school in a deliberately stagy and exaggerated fashion, it pits moralistic parents and community members against Emi, who defends herself with exasperated conviction. This section is mostly an occasion for Jude to satirize, in surprisingly broad strokes, the moral hypocrisy of Romanian society. But while it’s often fun to see him take aim at anti-Semites, misogynists, and crypto-fascists, it’s hard not to feel like he’s shooting fish in a barrel. That sense is driven home by the trio of alternate endings, the last of which in particular offers a bizarrely outré moment of catharsis that underlines the smug sense of superiority that infects this section.

Jude is a filmmaker deeply engaged with the history of his homeland, its very essence, and his exasperation at Romania’s self-serving nationalistic myths practically radiates off the screen. But whereas I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians expressed that indignation with supremely controlled fury, Bad Luck Banging resorts to clownish caricatures. Jude’s willingness to experiment with form is exciting throughout, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the film’s all-over-the-place structure is ultimately a product of his failure to fully work through his ideas, as if the sheer quantity of different things happening here would excuse the fact that they don’t fit together in any coherent way. A film with too many ideas is preferable to one with too few, but unfortunately, all of Bad Luck Banging’s stray thoughts, formal strategies, and satirical sideswipes never add up to more than, well, a “sketch.”

Cast: Katia Pascariu, Claudia Ieremia, Olimpia Malai, Andi Vasluianu, Nicodim Ungureanu, Alexandru Potocean, Kristina Cepraga, Tudorel Filimon, Ilinca Manolache, Daniela Ionita Marcu, Dana Voicu Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: The Girl and the Spider Is Undone by Its Lack of Dramatic Scaffolding

The film trickles out its story world in discrete blocks of sound and image, withholding a great deal of narrative detail.

2
Carson Lund

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The Girl and the Spider
Photo: Beauvoir Films

Given how scrupulously director Ramon Zürcher has structured The Girl and the Spider around the medium shot, it’s more than a little jarring when the audience gets a head-to-toe view of the film’s protagonist around the half-hour mark. The medium shot is to Zürcher what the two-shot is to Hong Sang-soo—a default formal strategy from which any and all deviations seem purposeful. Limiting our view and letting characters operate freely in the off-screen space has more than just visual implications in Zürcher’s enigmatic sophomore feature, which trickles out its story world in discrete blocks of sound and image and withholds a great deal of narrative detail. The spider of the title, which also makes a cameo in a number of scenes, proves an apt metaphor: Zürcher spins byzantine webs of audiovisual stimuli from an ultimately modest dramatic core, and not only is the larger narrative design unclear before it’s finally revealed, it’s easy to get stuck dwelling on the minutia along the way.

The scenario is simple on its face but peculiar in its details. Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of the residence in Bern, Switzerland that she shares with friends, and Mara (Henriette Confurius) is somewhat bitter about it. The apartment that Lisa is moving into is a modern, white-walled tabula rasa that her roommates—as well as family members and others in the group’s social circle—are helping to furnish and tidy up. Furniture carrying, packing and unpacking, and drilling into walls provide the film’s main action, even as these activities are often only visible in blurred negative space. Zürcher’s concentrates instead on the passive bystanders to this dynamic movement—like Mara, Lisa, and Lisa’s mother (Ursina Lardi)—as well as the inanimate objects that are passed from room to room and character to character.

That the moving process dominates the entirety of The Girl and the Spider, ostensibly lasting multiple days and requiring the commitment of a small army, is patently unrealistic given the relatively modest nature of the relocation. (This is partially justified by the fact that Mara is an architect and has played some role in designing Lisa’s new digs.) But this seems to be of only minor concern to Zürcher, as the constant hustle and bustle becomes so repetitive as to take on a sense of abstraction. The relentless uprooting in the mise-en-scène—further underlined by a construction project occurring outside the new building—mirrors the evident splintering of Lisa and Mara’s alternately platonic and erotically charged relationship. Moreover, it’s an excuse for Zürcher to employ his mannered, always-in-motion staging. People weave in and out of foreground and background in static shots, often bumping into and off one another before landing in elegant arrangements. No wonder the filmmaker shoots from medium distance so often: Any wider and you’d see the marks all over the ground.

This choreographic micromanagement is paired with a punctiliousness on the level of image: the bright, finely sculpted lighting evokes that of luxe stock footage; the sterile production design suggests a fondness for IKEA’s catalog; and the disciplined employment of primary colors belies the influence of Jean Luc-Godard’s Pop Art formalism, if not a kindergarten teacher’s classroom décor. Regarding a yellow couch brought into the new apartment, two characters share a brief exchange that highlights Zürcher’s emphasis on color’s psychological effects: “The color of jealousy,” one says, to which the other responds, “and of madness.”

There’s very little madness on explicit display in The Girl and the Spider, but veiled jealousy abounds in Mara’s silent gazes, as well as in the crisscrossing romantic and sexual dalliances among the supporting characters. As the moving process wears on, handypersons and seemingly marginal passersby shift from background to foreground and become subject to the same scrutiny that Zürcher directs toward Mara—which isn’t to say that they don’t remain ciphers. The common ground among the ensemble is that they all speak in riddles and regard each other as if they were museum dioramas, a strange habit for people who ostensibly share so much personal history. Of the peripheral figures, only Kerstin (Dagna Litzenberger-Vinet), a friend who seems to long for Jan (Flurin Giger) and Markus (Ivan Georgiev) in equal measure, emerges as something more than a bizarrely reticent stiff—which has a lot to do with the tenderness in Litzenberger-Vinet’s eyes, often directed longingly off screen.

Eyes are equally foundational to Confurius’s performance. The actress uses them like a dedicated marksman, targeting her focus from across a room with fierce precision, but she’s just as capable of quickly redirecting it, and Zürcher deserves credit for casting a performer who can command a three-minute shot with the darting of her eyes alone. But the conflicts of The Girl and the Spider are so thinly sketched, with so much expositional context left up to speculation, that Confurius’s largely non-verbal turn comes across as little more than posturing toward emotional resonance, while the withering jabs taken by certain characters toward one another in the final act ultimately fall flat as a result of the same lack of dramatic scaffolding. Criticisms of The Strange Little Cat, Zürcher’s 2013 feature-length debut, as wispy formal experimentation without much in the way of human feeling seemed a bit beside the point given how secondary its narrative was to the filmmaker’s fetishistic eye for detail. Here, in the presence of a greater dramatic ambition, it’s a more relevant charge.

Cast: Henriette Confurius, Liliane Amuat, Ursina Lardi, Flurin Giger, André M. Hennicke, Ivan Georgiev, Dagna Litzenberger Vinet, Lea Draeger, Sabine Timoteo, Birte Schnöink Director: Ramon Zürcher Screenwriter: Ramon Zürcher, Silvan Zürcher Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: Fabian: Going to the Dogs Conjures a Shared Nightmare of the Past

The film’s characters are suffused with a paradoxical kind of fear that can only happen in a dream.

3.5
Pat Brown

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Fabian: Going to the Dogs
Photo: Hanno Lentz/Lupo Film

Dominik Graf’s Fabian: Going to the Dogs opens with a slow dolly shot down a stairway into an ornate subway station in Berlin. While anybody familiar with the film’s source material, Erich Kästner’s 1931 novel Fabian: The Story of a Moralist, will expect the story to be set in Germany’s interwar era, we’re clearly in the present day, as the people on screen are seen wearing, among other things, polos and jeans. But as the camera moves through the station and up an opposite stairway, the expected period clothing begins to appear on the commuters. Cresting the stairs, the camera finally situates us in the twilight days of the Weimar Republic—or, at least, in Graf’s consciously incomplete simulation of it.

Other signs indicate that we’re in the present, from the streets of black concrete to an especially pointed glimpse of stolpersteine, the brass stumbling stones inlaid into sidewalks to memorialize Holocaust victims. This kind of telescoped approach to historical fiction, one that emphasizes our position relative to the events we observe, recalls Michael Almereyda’s Tesla. Graf’s approach, however, resists overly jarring distancing devices, like a narrator with Google entries at her finger tips. Moreover, the frenetic, grimly playful aesthetic that the filmmaker deploys suits his subject, the chaotic society of the short-lived Weimar Republic, whose tumult and widespread anxiety gave birth, at least in Berlin, to some of the wildest experiments in art and life, before these were snuffed out by the German state’s slide into fascism.

After the slow, methodical tracking shot that opens it, Fabian erupts into a flurry of images, rapidly alternating between grainy low-gauge film stock and washed-out digital video. We’re introduced to Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling), a shell-shocked war veteran with a literature degree who’s settled for work as an advertising copywriter, in the midst of a raucous night out. Fabian goes home with an older woman (Meret Becker) only to discover that he needs to sign a contract with her husband in order to sleep with her, and may even be entitled to compensation for doing so. Disturbed by the cynical mixture of decadence and businesslike procedure that underlies his diverting Berlin nightlife, he flees back into the night.

Here and elsewhere, Fabian is unable to cope with the ethos of the times, the desperation-fueled abandonment of human relations that determines the life path of nearly everybody he comes across. An incompetent co-worker steals his idea for an ad campaign and he ends up jobless, and soon after meeting and falling in love with Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl), an aspiring actress who coincidentally lives in his building, Fabian is forced to accept that she’s become the mistress of a film producer in order to get a foothold in the movies.

In its general outline, this story of a young man unable to emotionally deal with his lover’s sexuality is overfamiliar. But Graf manages to enliven this hoary trope by keeping us at some distance from Fabian with an artificial, authorly voiceover narration that alternates between male and female voices. Despite, or perhaps because of, our remove from the couple, their courtship becomes the only genuine thing in a world that’s, well, going to the dogs. Marked by the kinds of goofy fun young people who immediately open themselves to one another partake in—conspiratorial sneaking around to avoid their landlady, hijinks at a lake outside Berlin, spontaneous late-night folk dances performed in the buff—Fabian and Cornelia’s earnest romance breaks through the tragicomic irony of the voiceover narration.

The aristocratic Labude (Albrecht Schuch), a colleague from Fabian’s PhD program, represents an exception to the insidious cynicism of society at large. Profoundly anxious over his postdoctoral thesis, Labude is also an active social-democratic rabble-rouser and an agitator for the principles of reason and justice. With his ideals, the man, like the commuters waiting on the train platform at the start of the film, seems to have come temporally unstuck, his thoughts not suited to the times—which is perhaps why the more disaffected Fabian always seems to have the final word in their conversations. At one point, when Fabian defends himself for merely observing rather than acting, Labude asks, “Whom does that help?” Fabian’s defeatist reply, “Who is to be helped?” casts a shadow over the whole film.

Eventually, both Labude’s socialist-lite political agitation and Fabian’s writerly attitude of distanced observation are swallowed up by the tides of history. While Kästner’s book, published less than two years before the Nazis took power, conveys the foreboding sense that the Weimar Republic was at its end without possessing the knowledge of what precisely was to come, we and the film have inherited those dreadful details as part of world history. Kästner’s darkly satirical book turns a rather sober glance toward a society in which its author was embedded, while the film, with its bricolage of images and the dream logic of its temporally dislocated places and grotesque caricatures, conjures a shared nightmare of the past. Its characters are suffused with a paradoxical kind of fear that can only happen in a dream—the dread before an immense catastrophe that’s unavoidable because it’s already happened.

Cast: Tom Schilling, Saskia Rosendahl, Albrecht Schuch, Meret Becker, Michael Wittenborn, Petra Kalkutschke, Elmar Gutmann, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Anne Bennent, Eva Medusa Gühne Director: Dominik Graf Screenwriter: Dominik Graf, Constantin Lieb Running Time: 178 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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