Friday, July 24, 2009

"The White Ribbon" (2009, Haneke)


Ten years after Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), with its famous off-screen narrator trying to make sense out of a series of strange incidents, comes Michael Haneke’s celebrated The White Ribbon (2009). A very different film, but it still shares a lot of themes with Magnolia: namely those of upbringing, chance, and fathers betraying their children. In fact, the title of the TV show Philip Baker Hall’s character was hosting in Anderson’s movie could well serve as a tagline for marketing Haneke’s masterwork: “What Do Kids Know?”.

A small village in Northern Prussia is haunted by a series of violent incidents during the months immediately preceding the start of World War I. Someone stretches a tight rope between two trees, thus making the local doctor’s horse trip and severely injure the rider. Someone (else…?) kidnaps and mistreats the local Baron’s son, seemingly in an act of Old Testament-inspired revenge (Haneke quotes the same lines from the Bible that Anderson did in Magnolia). As those (and other) atrocious acts are being committed, the villagers nurture quiet mutual distrust.

Haneke’s main focus is the upbringing the children are receiving from their strict Protestant parents – frequent caning, sparse signs of affection, patriarchal structure of familial power, and finally, the use of the eponymous white ribbon, tied around a child’s arm to make him or her long for purity and innocence in the wake of a sin they committed.

Haneke made a gripping, monochromatic spectacle of a Protestant village clad in black, with its inhabitants perpetually composing themselves (not a hair sticks out on their heads, and Christian Friedel’s haircut will rival No Country for Old Men (2007) Javier Bardem’s in its sheer ridiculousness). In its quiet cruelty, it’s Haneke’s version of Day of Wrath (1943), where both human bodies and souls are imprisoned by the culture that stresses condemnation rather than redemption. The crucial difference, though, is that Haneke’s focus is on the children. „I gave God a chance to kill me” is a line of almost Shakespearian resonance, but – when delivered by a 10-year-old – it verges on spooky. The White Ribbon’s appeal is based on that very spookiness.

The portrayed community has its prophets, too, but their insights are ignored or misunderstood (Ordet [1955], anyone…?). Both the slightly retarded Karl (Kai-Peter Malina) and the frightened Ernan (Janina Fautz), who claims she had dreamt of all the terrible happenings before they occurred, seem to have something important to say, but the adults fail to listen. In fact, the incomprehensible blabber of Karl reminded me of the deaf-mute girl from the penultimate shot of Code Unknown (2000) – she, too, was desperate to communicate something, but lacked the language that anyone around would share with her. Just like Caché (2004), the movie is focused on the impact an unseen perpetrator has on family unit(s) caught off guard. Unlike in Funny Games (1997), the evil doesn’t give you its white-gloved hand to shake first. It stays in the shadows, defies exposure, and it radiates onto everyone involved, no matter how noble their (here: the teacher’s) intentions are.

I called The White Ribbon a masterwork, because that’s what I believe it is within Haneke’s oeuvre, but it doesn’t mean it ended or resolved my problems with Haneke himself. In fact, there are scenes (especially the “break-up scene” between the doctor and the midwife) in which one can feel the relish Haneke is taking in torturing his characters just for the sake it. Another scene, in which the Baron’s wife (Ursina Lardi) openly denounces the “malice and fear” pervading the village, is completely false in the light of the fact that Haneke did precious nothing to show anything but malice before, so those lines seem more like the voice of his repressed screenwriter’s conscience than a sign of any genuine concern.

Friday, July 3, 2009

"Public Enemies" (2009, Michael Mann)

Given its plural, Wellman-amplified title, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) is a movie at war with itself. It’s an interesting war, though, and even if its first casualty is coherence, then something important is won, too. The main aesthetic antagonism here lies in a clash between the ultra-sharp, inherently-gritty HD camerawork , and Mann’s fondness for the painterly composition of the frame. Even when the objects and people on the screen are at their sharpest and the skies at their most overexposed, Mann is careful to throw in some cobalt blues or dark gold – his two colors of preference in Public Enemies.

This is the second John Dillinger movie I saw (the first one being the 1945 version by Max Nosseck), but it’s obvious that Mann is indebted to the gangster genre as a whole, rather than to any particular title. Surprisingly though, he doesn’t include many staples of the gangster pics – there’s not much humor going on, for example; no funny lugs as sidekicks, etc. What Mann does provide, though, is violence, longing and prescience of death – and these were always the cornerstones of screen crime.

As interesting and daring as Public Enemies is, I had problems with two things. First, some of the casting choices troubled me quite a bit. After watching the trailer, I was excited about seeing Marion Cotillard being freed from the heavy burden of crude make-up that made her Oscar turn in La Môme (2007) so stifling for me to watch. But it turned out I don’t buy her as a 1930s American girl, either. Something about her looks suggest an excessive depth, or rather a lack of fleeting shallowness that any gangster mole should have in her. Vulgarity is needed in such cases, and I don’t think Cotillard can be vulgar.

Also, Billy Crudup was a disappointment as J. Edgar Hoover. I don’t even want to mention how crass and homophobic the only hint of his sexual orientation here is (“Tell him he can call me J.E.!”), but Crudup does a caricature of an authority-starved square that I don’t think is true, or even enjoyable. I prefer Bob Hoskins in a much lesser movie, Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995).

My second problem with the film is its meant-to-be-solemn indictment of FBI brutality, which has some fashionably abugharibish tone to it. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Abu Gharib got even half of a coverage it should have in contemporary American movies, but somehow the parallel Mann draws between Hoover’s eagerness to embrace torture and Mussollini’s taking of Ethiopia doesn’t strike me as particularly bright (Hoover even quotes from Mussollini in this film, something about “taking off the white gloves”).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m complaining, but I still think it’s a remarkable movie. It’s just that it made me crave for perfection: a giddy feeling that was first induced, and then not exactly fulfilled by Mr. Michael Mann.