A Most Wanted Man

Lawyer, Banker, Drifter, Spy

wantedAnton Corbijn has taken on the task of adapting another John le Carré spy novel, the most recent being Tomas Alfredson’s admirable go at Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  As with that film (not to mention most of le Carré’s work), A Most Wanted Man feels like a fragment.  Spy narrative, complete with slow burn, introspective protagonists, and sometimes impenetrable politics, constitutes such a deep and complex culture and experience that AMWM (even at its two-hour runtime) still feels like the middle of a story once it ends.  That’s in part a compliment to the filmmaker and actors, who never allow us to disengage from the tension, but also a comment on the painful realism of these stories: Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) does not want the story to end yet, but as we realize after our post-ending tantrum, the ending this film gets is the only ending possible.

Bachmann, a German espionage agent, runs an intelligence outfit in Hamburg.  When Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen refugee, illegally enters the country and is confirmed by Russian intelligence to be a terrorist threat, Bachmann puts out feelers, as Karpov’s intention to collect an inheritance from his dishonorable father’s account may have some connection to something Bachmann’s team (which includes Nina Hoss, Vicky Krieps, and Mehdi Dehbi) have been interested in for some time: Doctor Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a Muslim philanthropist, is believed to be funding terrorist activities.  Bachmann needs proof.  Unfortunately, two other parties are interested in these issues: Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), an American diplomat, and German security official Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), who works with the Americans.  To put it lightly, gentle Bachmann and the gung-ho others differ on how to handle the Karpov situation, and are left to pursue things in their own way after Bachmann refers to Mohr as a “clown.”  They basically let Bachmann go about his business, but we get the sense that the Americans are almost too invisible as operations go forward.

The film’s deuteragonist is Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an immigration lawyer who wants to give Karpov a chance.  She puts him in touch with Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a banker whose father had shady relations (money laundering) with Karpov’s father.  Karpov wants to give the money away, but is ultimately a young man trying to find himself, and has no real plan – a fact that may prove as frustrating to some viewers as it does to the film’s various spies and agents.  But it makes complete sense; in fact, if a homeless torture victim turned out to have a meticulously thought-out strategy for dealing with millions of euros, there wouldn’t be much of a case for the film’s realism.  Annabel truly feels for the young refugee, and goes as far as hiding him in a relative’s soon-to-be-renovated apartment when she thinks Bachmann’s group might have dastardly intentions for him.  What Bachmann really wants to do is convince Karpov to donate the money to Abdullah’s organization in order to prove that the latter is funneling money to Seven Friends, a shipping company that is actually a front for Al Qaeda.  The obvious choice is to simultaneously turn Annabel and Tommy, one by kidnapping and one by highbrow, gentlemanly schmoozing.  Guess which.

The other story thread involves several sparsely placed meetings between Bachmann and Sullivan, who try to work out a mutually beneficial method for dealing with Karpov.  Nothing works, yet the film refrains from outwardly vilifying Sullivan, whose genuine charm (that of the Princess Bride herself) actually convinces us that she’s being kind, and not jerky, by giving Bachmann various ultimatums, all of which seem fair if he can actually do his job.  She even gets him a meeting with the interior minister, who gives him the green light.

A Most Wanted Man is more genuinely characterized than Tinker, Tailor, which more or less amounts to a whodunnit wherein lots of middle-aged white men tirelessly dogmatize about what it all means.  The identity of the mole is everything.  Here, there are more pieces, and the pieces are people who are actually worth caring about, not to mention that every character’s motivation and reasons for acting the way they do are very well laid out (except for Karpov, who doesn’t know himself, which makes him even more of a wildcard).  The film opens with a nice, long shot of Bachmann’s entire team, giving an audience time to take in what each of them looks like, so that we recognize them as they stalk Richter and Karpov on the subway or pretend to be a target’s old acquaintance.  A long, father-son-style scene between Bachmann and his spy underling Jamal seems out of place, but provides a vital payoff later.  Best of all, Bachmann’s team includes almost as many women as it does men, with Vicky Krieps and Nina Hoss (as Niki and Erna respectively) convincingly portraying characters who have been doing this work with Bachmann for a long time.  Never do we get the sense that this is a group of cool, quirky movie spies with flashy skills.  Everything about them seems real, especially the fatigue.

Annabel, though, represents the heart of the film.  She cares about what she does.  She’s confident and brave, unafraid of Tommy, Bachmann, or the government, but able to be convinced when a good point is made.  Notably, she’s the only one who acts out of sympathy, whereas Bachmann and Sullivan facetiously refer to their motivations with the quip, “To make the world a safer place.  Isn’t that enough?”

Karpov, of course, is the film’s titular wanted man, but sadly, another man is “wanted” after the film ends.  This is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead role, and even though I’ll be able to gush about him twice more in the upcoming Hunger Games sequels, the final shot of this film – an extended, single-shot car ride through Hamburg with Hoffman’s eyes in the rearview mirror, as though he’s chauffeuring us to a staged performance of the Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes,” before he gets out and walks away with the audience still in the car – is truly hollowing.

A Most Wanted Man (2014); based upon the novel by John le Carré; screenplay by Andrew Bovell; directed by Anton Corbijn, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and Grigoriy Dobrygin. 

 

Nymphomaniac (V2)

No more wounds

Read my writeup of Nymphomaniac: Volume I here.

nymphomaniac2The second film (or rather, the second half of one long film) in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac duology, sees the exeunt of Stacy Martin as the young version of Joe, which means we get to see Charlotte Gainsbourg do more than sit in a poorly lit room.  What the film unfortunately does, however, is remind us that it’s made by a cynical filmmaker who loves to smash sandcastles after hours of careful building.  I never thought he could do worse than his slow-burning and nightmarish destruction of Earth in Melancholia, but at least that film did not operate under the pretense that things might end up okay.

From the start of Volume II, things I picked at in the first volume begin to make sense.  Joe becomes tired, much as I did, of Seligman’s constant allegorical digressions, but soon realizes that it’s because he cannot relate to the content of her stories.  He reveals that he’s a virgin and considers himself asexual, which makes him the perfect audience for her chronicle.  He recognizes some serious iconography in the story of her first orgasm – apparently, when she was twelve and on a field trip, she spontaneously levitated and had a vision of Valeria Messalina and Babylon the Great (two promiscuous mythological figures with rather sexist story trajectories, even by Christian standards).  This is important because Joe went through life assuming that these were separate versions of the Virgin Mary judging her for her transgressions, but they actually represented the great schism of the Church, after which the Orthodox (Eastern) side focused on redemption, while the Western church became obsessed with suffering.  What a motif.  “The concept of religion is interesting,” he says, “just as the concept of sex is interesting.  But you won’t find me on my knees in regards to either.”

Such indulgent dialogue is fine when it’s so delicious.  But the question of whether von Trier’s synthetic framing devices for the film mean something, or leastways whether we’re supposed to take them seriously, is soon answered.  Yes, dummy, he seems to tell us.  Don’t you remember who I am?  I made Antichrist! Seligman, in a broad commentary on epic storytelling, uses his own personal experience (texts, mathematics, etc.) to form an understanding of the story, just as an audience to anything would.  But as it should be, that’s without bringing his own opinion into it: he makes himself an impartial witness by claiming to be Joe’s inverse.  As such, he continues to play the part of observer and listener, and when he stops protesting the aforementioned “preposterous coincidences” in Joe’s story, that means we’re supposed to stop too.  But when von Trier introduces such an obvious plot device as Chekhov’s Gun, everything we thought we were onboard for becomes exasperating.

Where the first film is about character depth, this one is more about plot and overt themes.  So much so that summing up its events is reasonably easy: After Joe’s enjoyment of sex vanishes, she still hungers for it.  She and Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) accidentally conceive a child together, and after three years, Joe’s frustration has become so great and her sexual demands so high that Jerôme suggests she sleep with other people to satisfy her mood (while of course remaining a family with him and their son, because that usually works out).  Her exploration becomes increasingly violent, culminating in her visiting K, a menacing (not a word I thought I’d ever use to describe Jamie Bell) sadomasochist who viciously abuses women who volunteer, but never has sex with any of them.  Joe asks what he gets out of it.  He says it’s none of her business.  Convenient for not having to make him a real character – on that note, why doesn’t Seligman ask Joe why she uses the letters of the alphabet in the place of the real names of everyone but Jerôme?  We even get his surname, which we don’t even get for Joe.

Joe loses her family after prioritizing her visits to K over taking care of her son, and her employer demands that she seek counseling under penalty of losing her job.  There’s a bit of narrative whiplash here in terms of how we’re meant to view Joe: in Volume I, we never saw her as someone who needed to “get better,” or someone that we were supposed to “take care of.”  Now, we see her admit that she has a sickness.  The psychologist (Caroline Goodall) tells her to remove anything from her life that reminds her of sex.  In the next shot, her apartment is completely empty, and her mirror painted over.  Thankfully, she soon lambastes the therapy group, claiming that she loves herself and that she’s not like the rest of them, who have used sex to fill some hole (a word that gets deliberately repeated throughout both films) in their lives.  The next image, beneath a rocking Talking Heads soundtrack, shows Joe tossing a Molotov cocktail at a parked car and walking away like an apathetic action hero.  Did this really happen?  Seligman stops the story.  “Wait,” he says.  “I didn’t get that part.”

Joe backpedals.  She becomes an enforcer for a debt collector named L (Willem Dafoe), who respects her “qualifications” (i.e. she understands the desires of men, and knows how to hurt people).  Okay.  We get it.  Natural empathy is nonexistent to Joe.  But now we get a narrative manifestation of a theme, and in a story about a character, it’s too jarring.  Then we remember von Trier’s obsession with self-loathing, and that his films’ examinations of paranoia and depression carry an unequivocal undercurrent of cynicism.  Suddenly, in a film we can’t imagine an ending for, things don’t seem so rosy.  L suggests that Joe find a “successor,” and recommends P (Mia Goth), a fifteen year-old daughter of criminals.  The girl moves in with Joe, and their relationship soon grows, as it must, into a sexual one.  But where Volume I would have seen Seligman asking Joe if she knew she was interested in women (i.e. deepening her character), Volume II sticks to forward action.  P wants to work in debt collection too, so Joe brings her to work.  Finally, the Law of the Inevitable Coincidence takes over, and it’s particularly sad because we know it’s coming: one of the men Joe must extort is Jerôme (now played by Michaël Pas, which is off-putting after seeing LaBeouf in the role for 3+ hours).  What follows, which includes P’s betrayal of Joe, makes little sense because we haven’t gotten to know her very well, and ends where the first film begins: with Joe lying in the alleyway after a beating from the two people she actually has feelings for (and notice what P does to her in this scene.  “P.”  Get it? Hardy har, Lars).

Joe has never looked at the whole story like this before.  Look what she has in front of her: all of the most important parts of her life, compartmentalized in some truly dazzling (and above all, logical) ways.  There’s some sort of epiphany, maybe.  She wants to be who she is while pruning the parts of her that make happiness impossible.  She remembers seeing a lone, deformed tree at the top of a mountain.  We remember her father (Christian Slater) and his allegory about the lone, beautiful ash tree.  How the souls of trees look like the souls of people.  We remember Yggdrasil.  This really could end gently and nicely (not “happily,” mind you).

But then we remember something we forgot: it’s Lars von Trier.  The final thirty seconds of the film, while not undoing absolutely everything that came before, bring cynicism to the surface.  It’s pretty revolting, albeit awarding Joe with the agency she’s never had.  All at once, Seligman’s various “misunderstandings” about Joe’s story become the manifestation of horror that lurks in all of von Trier’s films, and in a much more personal way than a rogue planet bashing into Earth (although, in its actual physical movement, it is a bit like that).  We are reminded of Selma’s execution in Dancer in the Dark, of the destruction of Dogville at the hands of Nicole Kidman and James Caan.  None of those hurt quite like this.

Nymphomaniac is a fascinating character study, which is why the plot-centric nature of Volume II’s latter parts is so difficult.  The rare interruptions now come as reliefs rather than annoyances, even as Joe begins to point out that Seligman is beginning to jump the shark with his digressions.  The nonsensical parts of the story increase, and are pointed out less often, then eventually not at all.  For example, why would Willem Dafoe’s character seek Joe out?  Why would he care if she obtained an apprentice?  Why would he recommend this particular disturbed teenager?  How has Joe “heard of” K?  Why does he take her in after being so sure that S&M is “not for [her]”?  Why does Marcel (Joe’s son) completely disappear?  Why has Joe read all of Ian Fleming, but never heard of Poe (though it’s notable that James Bond, a character she idolizes, is a sex addict in the novels)?  The answer is the House of Cards Plot.  It all happens because it has to in order for the plot to reach a convenient point.  In this case, it works if the journey was all worth it.  I guess I’m still unsure whether von Trier is haranguing Joe or rooting for her.  Let me say this another way: if the writer is indifferent about the character, none of it means anything.  Maybe it doesn’t matter where Joe goes from here.  Just that she got to this point.

I could have watched a third volume if the ending of this one allowed for it, but similar to Joe when the tiny blot of sunlight outside the apartment signifies dawn, I am exhausted, and I have to be done.

Nymphomaniac: Volume II (2014); written and directed by Lars von Trier; starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, and Mia Goth. 

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Magnificent Anderson

gbudaWes Anderson’s new film is about a girl reading a book.  I am serious.  And I love that about it.

The girl (Jella Niemann) approaches the grave of a beloved writer (referred to only as “Author” in the film, and played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson at different ages), and sits down to read his memoir, particularly a chapter on his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka – an amalgam of Germany and other European countries during an obvious 20th century war-torn era.  It’s a Faulkner-esque flourish by Anderson, who opens a window to plenty of commentary and nostalgia as soon as we see the Grand Budapest itself, a gaudy pink blemish ensconced in the Zubrowkan mountains, with the sounds of a busy railway never far off.

The young writer, during his visit (in the memoir’s narrative), meets the mysterious owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who explains that the place was once decadent and bustling, which seems unbelievable considering its current state – a lack of money and interest is evident, and the few guests move about like ghosts, silent and distant from one another.  When the writer asks how Moustafa came to buy the hotel, the latter answers, “I didn’t,” and opens the film’s fourth narrative: the story of Moustafa’s relationship with the Grand Budapest, as explained to the writer by Moustafa, as written by the writer, as read by the girl.

As a child, Zero (Tony Revolori) is hired as a “lobby boy” for the hotel by the eccentric and anachronistically foulmouthed concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, essentially the film’s central character).  Gustave takes Zero under his wing, quickly (and predictably) seeing him as a son or (much) younger brother, rather than a pesky greenhorn.  Gustave, though, is in some trouble: after Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of Gustave’s frequent romantic interests, is poisoned and dies, Gustave is the prime suspect.  What’s more, upon visiting the estate where the will is read, Gustave learns that Madame D. has bequeathed him Boy with Apple, an incredibly valuable painting.  Needless to say, Madame D.’s unscrupulous family is not happy about this.  Her son, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) vows never to let Gustave take Boy with Apple, but with Zero’s help, Gustave absconds with the painting and heads back to the Grand Budapest.  In the meantime, Zero falls in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker’s apprentice, who we are told numerous times “saved us,” but the older Zero (the one talking to the young writer) doesn’t want to talk about her, because the thought of her makes him cry.

Gustave is eventually arrested, for the alleged murder of Madame D., by Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), who likes Gustave and is only doing his job.  Agatha and Zero help Gustave escape by concealing tools inside delicious cakes, and the film briefly becomes a wonky, Wes Anderson version of The Great Escape, which includes a hardened convict played by a fully shaven and shirtless Harvey Keitel, and a gargantuan, scarred inmate who, after stabbing a potential snitch in the neck in order to aid the escape, is referred to by Gustave as a “kind, sweet man.”

Gustave and Zero’s real adventure begins: finding an alibi.  At the same time, Dmitri conducts an investigation of his own, using his trusted associate J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – a ruthless and detached assassin (a very different and intriguingly perfect role for Dafoe) – to shake down anyone who might know anything about the murder or the whereabouts of Boy with Apple, as well as to kill anyone who may be able to exonerate Gustave.

This is a film that demands attention from the first frame.  One of the four narratives takes the lion’s share of the story, but knowing where each narrative is placed in relation to the others is vital (and all the more satisfying when Anderson takes us out of each, gently and one by one, at the end).  On another note, it’s a film that can and should have more women in it (much like most of Anderson’s films, wonderful as they are).  Yes, he’s going for an old-timey and historically specific feel here, but it’s the history of a fictional setting.  Agatha only exists because Zero likes her.  Even the Crossed Keys Society (a nice excuse for a string of cameos by Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, and Fisher Stevens) could have included one or two women working as concierge.  Inmates?  Hotel guests?  Soldiers?  All could be mixed gender in a revised history of a place that isn’t real.  The absence of women isn’t part of the film’s various self-conscious ironies, so it’s a particular standout.  There’s an appearance by the incomparable Léa Seydoux (as Madame D’s maid, Clotilde), but the character is of little note and even less screen time.  The problem of American filmmaking box-vision continues: how often do American filmmakers (particularly male directors) fail to realize they’ve got a lead actress in a pathetic bit role?  For more, see Lawless, in which Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain were underused/ignored to near-criminality.

There is a sense of old-fashioned artificiality hovering in the white space (and in this case, the pink and orange space) of every scene: the exterior of the Grand Budapest is a hand-constructed miniature with an electric train zooming around it.  Various sequences are filmed in different aspect ratios to put a synthetic age on scenes filmed in a made-up country.  The older version of the Author seems to share some real insight on writing with his audience, but is actually reading from prepared note cards.  As we are enveloped in the candy colors and charming, heartfelt ridiculousness, Gustave admits to some of his own faults and fakeness during mirrored train rides along the war-threatened (and eventually war-damaged) Zubrowka countryside.  As we pop in and out of each narrative, we begin to wonder about the reliability of our multiple narrators – the old Author, bromidically delivering his thoughts to the camera, comes unhinged when his excitable grandson makes some noise in the adjacent room, and can’t even deliver real thoughts on writing without reading from a card.  Zero, in his Murray Abraham state, can barely mention Agatha without sobbing, and clearly skips or embellishes parts of the story for effect or for the sake of his own comfort.  The only trustworthy character is the girl reading the book, and she does not lift her nose from the pages to pay us one second of attention, nor does her expression while reading shift from pure inscrutability.

The Grand Budapest Hotel makes me pine not for the extravagant places I’ve visited (not that that list is particularly long), but for the studies, living rooms, and resting places of Melville, Brontë, Frost, and Plath.  The film claims to be inspired by the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (particularly The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity), and the bespectacled Author in both his “old” form and his young, idealized form undoubtedly resemble him.  But the film’s endearment is not reserved for only one writer (and it may have taken tragic turns had Anderson relied upon audiences to recognize Zweig references, while the numerous call-backs to classic films are a bit more recognizable – another issue altogether, maybe).  It comments on narrative reliability and familiarity, but commentary is not what the film “is,” exactly.  It’s conceptually more evolved than Moonrise Kingdom, but its characters aren’t as unique or as important in and of themselves (partially because they never slow down).  Its concerns are in a long-time-ago place wherein people sat quietly and thought about things – something we remember, in the final shot, is anything but extinct.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014); written and directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, and F. Murray Abraham.