In the wonderful gangster film A Prophet, Niels Arestrup and Tahir Rahim played ersatz father and son. In the Belgium film Our Children, the two are together again to play…ersatz father and son. All right. It may not have the same ring to it of Hepburn and Tracy, but the two are wonderful together and perhaps the main reason to see this domestic drama that, like Berberian…, starts out very intriguingly, but soon enough stops going anywhere and stagnates about half way through.
The movie is really more about Murielle (played by Emilie Dequenne, the wonderful actress of The Girl on the Train and Rosetta), who marries Mounir (Rahim). Mounir is Moroccan and was adopted by Andre (Arestrup) after Andre married Mounir’s older sister so she could get her papers. However, Mounir is not marrying Murielle for citizenship; he truly does love her.
But this is where things start taking an odd turn as it slowly becomes clear that, also like Berberian…, something is off here. First, Mounir asks Andre to come on their honeymoon. At the wedding, Mounir’s younger brother suggests something’s going on between Mounir and Andre. Murielle and Mounir live in Andre’s spacious apartment/doctor’s office and Andre pays all the bills while Mounir works as his receptionist. When Murielle suggests that she and Mounir move to Morocco where the standard of living is cheaper, Andre says that if Mounir does, he will never have anything to do with him again.
But what exactly is going on behind all this in your face subtext? One keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never does. So was there something really going on or are the writers (Thomas Bidegain, Joachim Lafosse, and Mattieu Reynaert) and the director (Lafosse again) just misleading us for some reason? Well, Lafosse only knows and he ain’t telling. And Murielle does the same thing, or actually doesn’t do the same thing, as Gilderoy in Berberian…: she never asks. She never asks what most people would ask somewhere along the way: just why is Andre so generous and paying for everything and just what is he getting out of this odd situation?
As the story goes on and Murielle has four children, she becomes increasingly stressed out and depressed. And then she does the unthinkable. But why? I really couldn’t tell you except that she was depressed, but I’m sorry, I just didn’t buy it. And though I did empathize with Murielle and her situation, it’s almost impossible to pull off a Medea. But at least Media had a clear and understandable motive—revenge. Murielle reasons seem a bit too vague and confusing. So, for me, it doesn’t really have the emotional impact the movie is aiming for.
Though I think Arestrop and Rahim give the best performances, it’s Dequenne who won at Cannes (in the Un Certain Regard section). And maybe they’re right in a way. Murielle’s character made no real sense to me and I felt there was no character for her to play, but in spite of this, she does succeed in giving a first rate performance—from my perspective a triumph of talent over substance.
Finally, Barbara is Christian (Yella and Jerichow) Petzold’s new directorial effort. It stars his usual leading lady, Nina Hoss, both of whom are becoming two of Germany’s most exciting emerging talents.
The story takes place in 1980 East Germany, still under Communist rule. Barbara is a doctor who has just been released from prison for some unspecified crime against the state. She is sent to a small town where she is to perform her duties at a local hospital while being heavily watched by the authorities. At the same time, she is planning to escape the country with the help of her West German lover, that is until her plans are complicated by her becoming emotionally involved in some local issues at her place of employment (don’t you hate when that happens?).
Barbara is quite effective in the first half. There is a wonderful feel of time and place, the very atmosphere tinged with a feeling of despair and sadness best symbolized by her riding a bike past a lonely cross in the middle of nowhere while the strong wind bellows around her; even when she’s in open country and can see for miles, she’s still afraid that somehow, some way, someone is watching her. The details of everyday life in East Germany are convincingly dramatized (having to be careful what you say and where you say it because you don’t know who will report you and who won’t). And there are deeply moving scenes of a young pregnant woman being forced into a work camp (called a death camp by Barbara) and the unclear diagnosis of young man who has tried to commit suicide.
Foss is excellent in the title roll, a character who has to be very careful about sharing her emotions. As an actress, she has some of the same qualities of Greta Garbo, a haunting beauty who was also very reserved in her emotions so that when she laughed, as Barbara does occasionally, it lights up the scene. But the writers, Harun Farocki and Petzold, do her a bit of a disservice. As the movie goes on, it tends to lose its way mainly because Barabara is given two competing motivations for her actions, while also not given enough time or the structure to develop either one for their maximum emotional impact. Instead, the closer one gets to the end, the more muddled everything becomes until the plot loses all forward momentum and the ending feels a bit too anticlimactic.
I recently saw three movies, Berberian Sound Studio, Our Children and Barbara, that all had the same issue: they all started out very compellingly (or had a strong first act as we say in screenwriting patois), but the closer they got to the end, the more they spiraled out of control or simply stopped working.
Berberian Sound Studio is a giallo type film about the making of a giallo type film. It revolves around Gilderoy, a British sound engineer, hired by an Italian producer of questionable taste and morals, to help finish the post production of his latest opus. Gilderoy is played by Toby Jones and he’s excellent here, playing his victim role as if he were sweating timidity. His character knows something’s wrong, but is too much of a milquetoast to think the problem lies anywhere but within himself. In the end, the sheer will of his performance holds the movie together far longer than the writer/director Peter Strickland manages to.
Strickland, on his part, starts out on solid ground when the unsteady Gilderoy arrives at the studio to be met by people who switch from good cop to bad cop on a schizophrenic’s notice. There’s something off here and Strickland is expert at creating a creepy and unpleasant atmosphere where everything makes sense while making no sense whatsoever. He sets up Gilderoy as a stranger in a strange land and exploits the hell out of it. And it’s not long before all the ingredients are there for something really horrifying to happen. But then…almost nothing happens as the movie seems to stop…going…anywhere.
The most interesting aspect of the film is actually that movie within the movie, some monstrosity about witches and witchcraft reminiscent of Maria Bava, but which the producer waxes philosophically about and considers a masterpiece on the level of Citizen Kane. But ironically, what makes this part of the story work so well is that this movie is never shown. We’re given a great title sequence worthy of Saul Bass, but after that, everything we know about the film is derived by short summaries of scenes here and there; some dialog provided by the actors dubbing the lines; and the ridiculously sickening sounds of women on screen being mercilessly tortured and killed. It’s both revolting and extremely funny.
There’s also something somewhat mesmerizing about the way that sounds are produced via methods that have no bearing on their real life counterpart. Knives thrust into cantaloupes are people being stabbed Psycho like; a blender is a chainsaw; stems pulled from onions is hair being pulled out; a watermelon being destroyed with the grace of a Gallagher routine are bodies being beaten to pulp (the remains are then eaten afterwards by some of the characters while other bits of food are thrown stew like into a cauldron). Perhaps most delightful, though, are the two foley artists donning women’s high heels for footsteps and Gilderoy’s boss upset because an actress not only can’t scream convincingly, she also can’t scream in Italian.
But this is also where the problems begin. After awhile, that’s all the movie is, one dubbing session after another, until the whole film starts becoming redundantly…redundant, as if it were a sound engineer who had written the screenplay, thinking that nothing could possibly ever be anywhere near as interesting as what he does for a living. Every once in awhile, every long once in awhile, every very long once in awhile, something happens, kinda, sorta. At one point, an actress suggests that Gilderoy think about why, of all people, he was hired for the job. And if Gilderoy had, then the plot might have gone somewhere. Instead, Gilderoy’s character becomes more and more timid until he loses all interest and empathy.
One person described the movie as a David Lynch like ride. And he had a point. In the last third of the film, the movie just spirals out of control as it does in Lynch’s Inland Empire, until nothing makes sense, but in such a way that, as with Inland Empire, one can’t tell if the filmmaker did it on purpose or just didn’t know what to do.