Friday, February 26, 2010

The Kids Aren't Alright: The White Ribbon and Fish Tank

This entry contains spoilers.

One characteristic distinguishing art movies from Hollywood fare is a tendency to severely restrict the kind of information the viewer has access to, either by withholding exposition or by deliberately leaving some events ambiguous. The former approach has become increasingly popular in recent years, as evidenced by the influence of the Dardenne brothers on films like Julia Loktev's Day Night Day Night and Kim So-Yong's In Between Days (both 2006), and Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding (2007), while the latter dates at least as far back as Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura (1960), and possibly has its roots in the early novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet--The Erasers (1953), The Voyeur (1955), Jealousy (1957), In the Labyrinth (1959)--in which the author's meticulous descriptions of the visible invest in every gesture or turn of phrase a number of potential meanings while refusing any definite conclusions. I'm a sucker for this sort of ambiguity, so it's no surprise I'm such a huge fan of Michel Haneke, whose films 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages (2000), and Caché (2005) announce their fragmentary, incomplete elusiveness in their very titles.

Haneke's latest film, The White Ribbon (2009), is about a series of mysterious crimes that take place in the town of Eichwalde (located just southwest of Berlin) in the year before the start of the first world war. None of the crimes are ever solved, but the town's school teacher, who narrates the story, eventually comes to suspect the pastor's teenage children, Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Martin (Leonard Proxauf). In the film's second scene, the teacher learns that the town's doctor (Rainer Block) was injured in a riding accident when his horse tripped on a wire tied between two trees. In voice-over, the teacher remarks that he found it odd that the girls around Klara, instead of scattering to their homes after class, walked together to the edge of town where the doctor lived--something he didn't assign much importance to at the time, but which in hindsight helps to confirm his suspicions. (The teacher, who isn't given a name, is played as a young man by Christian Friedel, but the narration is delivered by an older actor, Ernst Jacobi, implying that the teacher is looking back on these events after several decades.)

The first thing we hear in the film, over a black screen, is the teacher's voice explaining that he doesn't know if the story he's about to tell is entirely true, as he learned much of it through hearsay and many things remain obscure. This effectively gives the film an out, allowing Haneke to provide us access to private moments between the characters without the teacher having to be present, while still concealing the identity of the person or persons responsible. For instance, I don't know how the teacher could've learned of the intimate details of the doctor's relationships with his two children and the midwife (Haneke regular Susanne Lothar), since all of them disappear near the end of the movie. Similarly, when the camera remains in the corridor while the pastor (Brughart Klaußner) is caning Martin on the other side of a closed door, the choice of camera angle obviously isn't motivated by any character's point of view, since there isn't anyone standing in the hallway.

Child abuse is ubiquitous in the film. When Klara and Martin are late for dinner one night, the pastor explains that they'll have to be caned in front of their younger siblings "if we're to continue living together with mutual respect." He explains this so calmly that some viewers might conclude he isn't such a bad guy. But when the baron's son, Sigi (Fion Mutert), is found hanging upside down and bleeding from being caned, it's pretty obvious who did it and where they got the idea. Later, when the midwife's mentally handicapped son, Karli (Eddy Grahl), is found beaten in the woods, there's a note around his neck explaining that the town's children are being punished for the sins of the parents. As in Caché, the film's theme is how sin is passed down from one generation to the next. (The film's full title is The White Ribbon: A German Children's Story.)

Given the elusive nature of Haneke's plots, his uncompromising seriousness, and the austerity of his style (like all his films, The White Ribbon has no musical score), you wouldn't think of him as a multiplex director. But with Caché, he had a genuine commercial hit. It even played in Halifax, which has no independent cinemas. And The White Ribbon, which could theoretically win Oscar, is playing in Montreal at an AMC multiplex, even though it was shot in black-and-white and has no stars. On the other hand, Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank (2009)--a relatively conventional English-language film in colour, starring the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender (Hunger [2008], Inglourious Basterds [2009])--is playing at Cinéma du Parc, presumably because it was shot in the narrower academy ratio (1.33:1), and no multiplexes have the proper plates to project it.

Arnold's previous film, Red Road (2006), was a Dogme 95 offshoot, based on characters created by Anders Thomas Jensen and Lone Scherfig, that took the notion of delayed exposition about as far as it could go. Working here with her own material, however, the results are more predictable. Set in a public housing complex in Essex, the opening scenes introduce the teenage heroine, Mia (Kate Jarvis), through a series of short, disconnected scenes in which she calls on a friend to apologize (it's never explained what for), head-butts a girl on the street, and attempts to liberate a horse she finds chained up in an empty lot. (That's what you call symbolism.) These scenes have the spontaneous, offhand quality of Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher (1999). But once Fassbender turns up as Mia's mother's hunky new beau, Connor, it becomes painfully obvious where the story is headed. In fact, despite the film's affinities with the Dardennes' Rosetta (1999)--tight, handheld compositions; no non-diegetic music; an angry, teenage brunette from a poor, single-parent household--the movie Fish Tank most resembles in terms of its plot is Scherfig's über-bourgeois An Education (2009).

Like that film, Fish Tank is about a teenage girl who's seduced by an older man with a knowledge of art. (Here, Connor introduces Mia to Bobby Womack.) And in both movies, there's a scene in which the heroine belatedly discovers that the man has a wife in the suburbs. However, it's worth noting the differences between the two films in how this scene plays out. Scherfig's film gives us a brief, expository dialogue scene between the heroine and the man's wife. Conversely, Arnold is an uncommonly gifted visual storyteller. Here, Mia breaks into Connor's house while he's out, watches a home movie of him playing with his daughter, and then urinates on his living room floor. When Connor and his family suddenly return, Mia runs out the backdoor. Then, as she's walking down the street, she impulsively decides to kidnap Connor's daughter. Even though I generally knew where the story was headed, on a moment-to-moment basis, Arnold is able to make her tired material seem reasonably fresh.

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