Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Toronto Diary: Day Three

For the last few years, I've been reading about the Berlin School of filmmakers that have been shaking up the moribund German cinema--or at the very least, providing a much needed alternative to dreary prestige films like Downfall (2005) and The Lives of Others (2006). However, on the basis of the small number of these films to cross the Atlantic--Maren Ade's good but minor The Forest for the Trees (2003); Christian Petzold's dreadful Yella (2007)--I can only assume there are better movies I'm not seeing. The other possibility, that this is really the best that contemporary German cinema has to offer, is simply too depressing to entertain.

A case in point: Petzold's Jerichow (2008) wowed reviewers at Venice and Toronto last fall, but it strikes me as a painfully unnecessary retread of James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice." As the film opens, Thomas (Benno Fürmann), a former soldier, needs money to renovate his mother's house. By chance, he meets Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a businessman who's lost his license for drinking and driving, and needs a chauffeur. Ali has a wife, Laura (Nina Hoss), and it doesn't take a film historian to guess what happens next. The film has a twist ending, but that doesn't make the preceding ninety minutes or so any less predictable or dull.

Petzold's spare style doesn't help. There are only three major characters, and the film returns again and again to the same locations. Petzold seldom moves his camera, and the score by Stefan Will infrequently intrudes upon the spartan soundtrack (if I'm not mistaken, it's the same piece played over and over). Perhaps Petzold's reason for choosing such a familiar story is that viewers are less likely to be distracted from noticing a number of formal rhymes (as when he he sets two different scenes at the same beach for the sake of parallelism) because they're too involved in the plot.

In Cinema Scope, Michael Sicinski offered a defense for the film, arguing that the rote-ness of Thomas and Laura's affair is part of some Sirko-Fassbinderian distancing strategy designed to tweak viewers for their racist assumptions about the story. The problem with this rationale, for me at least, is that it exists above the level of narrative and style on which the film is actually experienced. Then again, the idea of Petzold expecting any one to be interested in this story is probably just as far-fetched.

Given that I know practically nothing about Inuit people and culture, any film that tackles Inuit subjects is going to be something I want to see. So it pains me to report that Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu's Le Jour avant le lendemain (2008) is an exhausting, exasperatingly slow movie in which, for long stretches, literally nothing is happening. Set just after the arrival of the white man, it's about a grandmother, Ninioq (Madeline Ivalu), and her grandson, Maniq (Paul-Dylan Ivalu), who go to an island alone to dry the fish caught by their tribe during the summer. But when they return a few months later, they find that every one's died of small pox. There is the potential here for a great film, but the story doesn't go anywhere.

The characters love to talk. Before Ninioq and Maniq set out for the island, there is a scene where an old man, Kukik (Tumasie Sivuarapik), shows off the knife that was given to him by white men, using it to cut off pieces of fish. An old woman in the tribe, Kuutujuk (Mary Qulitalik), remarks that if she were his wife, Kukik could fatten her up real quick with a knife like that. Later, Kukik tells a bawdy story about white men getting drunk and wanting to sleep with Inuit women in exchange for needles. And on their journey, Maniq is forever asking his grandmother to tell him a story. Where the film gets into trouble is when the characters stop talking. At one point, Ninioq and Maniq's tent blows down and they have to spend the night in a cave. There is a long, pointless scene in which Ninioq brushes her hair and rearranges objects by the fire. Then she puts out the fire, very slowly and methodically with a metal spoon, and goes to bed. It's almost as if, in response to the under-representation of Inuit people in the mainstream media, the film's extremely slow pacing is some kind of strategy to keep Inuit actors on screen as long as humanly possible.


  1. Um--I found the film a bit slow too but deliberately so, to underscore how life was in remote areas before the age of TV. But did you miss the fact that at the end, she left the cave door open, so that she and the boy will be frozen to death? When you realize that's what is happening, her slow, ritual like preparations for bed make more cinematic sense.

  2. I didn't realize what she was doing was suicide. But as as far as underscoring how life was in remote areas before the age of TV, I'm sure it was slow and boring at times, but who wants to see that at the movies? And I'm sure it was also exciting and dramatic at other times. I'm reminded of what Alfred Hitchcock said, that the movies are life with the boring parts taken out. They needed to take that stuff out.