EIFF 2014: Beloved Sisters

(Beloved Sisters, “Die geliebten Schwestern“, Dominik Graf, 2014)

 

In settling in to watch a three-hour period drama about German philosopher and writer Frederich Schiller’s 20-year menage a trois relationship with two sisters Charlotte von Lengefeld (whom he married) and Caroline von Beulwitz (who eventually become his biographer), you could reasonably expect one of two scenarios. Either a staid, starchy costume drama, humourless and ossified, or a glorified bodice ripper, replete with heaving bosoms and clandestine tumbles. What a delight, then, that Beloved Sisters is neither, instead a handsomely mounted, literate and literary, deeply human tale of love’s many transmutations set against a backdrop of societal change and technological progress. (Not that there is anything wrong with a good Masterpiece Theatre or a saucy bodice ripper, mind. Stiff upper lips are entertaining, as are titillating tits). 

 

Following the sudden death of their father, the two von Lengefeld sisters find their bourgeois existence threatened by (comparative) penury. Caroline agrees to a marriage of convenience in order to improve her family situation, determined not to let it ruin her happiness. Charlotte, meanwhile, meets the young Schiller and is immediately smitten. When Schiller and the sisters summer together (Caroline’s husband away on business), they form an intense, private bond, fuelled by declarative correspondence and languid pastoral picnicking. The two girls vow solemnly to share Schiller equally. While Caroline and Schiller’s connection seems more direct and passionate, a true meeting of the minds, there is a chaste, courtly devotion between Charlotte and Schiller. With the inconvenience of Caroline’s husband, it is decided Charlotte and Schiller shall be wed, a decision Caroline and Schiller mark by feverishly making love.   Over the next two decades, the sisters’ comfort with their pact ebbs and flows, each vacillating between self-sacrifice and selfishness.

Caroline, portrayed with lusty yen by Hannah Herzsprung, is more passionate, promiscuous, and seemingly brighter than her gentle sister, and thus more immediately fascinating. Charlotte, by contrast, maintains the quiet intrigue of one who never quite says how they feel or pursues what they want, and Henriette Confurius’ performance is passive while never simpering. She seems heartbreakingly aware she’s not as vibrant as her sister or as brilliant as Schiller (If she ever had the inclination, Confurius would make an excellent May Welland in a production of The Age of Innocence – she does a good line in romantic resignation). 

As their joint paramour, Schiller (Florian Stetter, marvellous) is a similarly nuanced character. He seems romantic, earnest, and decent – yet there are flickers of a more mercenary man there – a poet who is aware his fortune will increase by marrying, a swordsman who has enjoyed a fair bit of time romping with local ladies of ill-repute and now seems to want to have his sororial cake and eat it too. 

All this romantic to-ing and fro-ing plays out a background of a society in flux, as the German bourgeois watch France erupt into bloody revolution with studied concern of its implications for Germany. This sharply observed sociopolitical context prevents the film from ever feeling like a chamber drama. A goodly amount of social philosophy and poetry also lends proceedings a luxuriantly intelligent air.

This is a resolutely speculative account: there’s no mention of these goings on in von Beulitz’ biography, although the knowledge that she burnt almost all of her correspondence with Schiller shortly before her death has fuelled the imagination of literary historians’ sexual conspiracy theories. If its not how things actually happened though, than it should have been: this is a full-throated cry of a movie, brilliantly entertaining and narratively complex.  

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EIFF 2014: We’ll Never Have Paris

(We’ll Never Have Paris, Simon Helberg and Jocelyn Town, 2014)

We’ll Never Have Paris thinks it is a corrective to the overly-sentimental, chocolate box story-telling of most romantic comedies. It thinks by depicting a “perfect couple” break up, sleep around, then fumble back to find another its doing something revolutionary. Unfortunately in trying to revitalise the genre it foregoes its most crucial ingredients: charm, likeable characters, wit, and romance. And a fucking point.

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EIFF 2014: Something, Anything

(Something, Anything, Paul Harrill, 2014)

Peggy (Ashley Shelton) is a gorgeous young woman with all the trappings of a lovely bourgeois existence: handsome husband, beautiful home, career in realty, and a baby on the way. But when Peggy miscarrys, the seeming idyll of her world is shattered and she finds herself utterly bewildered at things not turning right. To the vocal consternation of all around her, she sets about systematically dismantling her world, searching for a means of reorganising and structuring her life so it seems to have meaning again.

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EIFF 2014: Garnet’s Gold

(Garnet’s Gold, Ed Perkins, 2014)1195067_Garnets-Gold

Mortality is a bitch, cinema is wont to remind us, so it is a good idea to try and achieve something before you get shuffled off this mortal coil. So it is in Ed Perkin’s documentary Garnet’s Gold, the tale of one man’s flails to make something of his life, worried he’s let much of it slip by in a cosy somnambulant fugue. Garnet Frost is an affectless, intelligent eccentric determined to discover the buried gold of Bonnie Prince Charlie, which, apocryphally, was lost in the Scottish Highlands in the 18th Century. There’s little sense he could possibly be successful, certainly as his friends see it, and you get the faintest hint Garnet himself doesn’t really think he stands a chance, either. But he wants to do something, anything, important.  Continue reading

EIFF 2014: Sorrow and Joy

Sorrow and Joy (“Sorg og glæde” Nils Malmros, 2013)

It is an unfathomable tragedy: film-maker Johannes (Jakob Cedergren) returns home one night to discover his wife Signe (Helle Fagralid) has killed their infant daughter during a psychotic episode. This event (drawn from the real-life experiences of director Nils Malmros) forms the basis of the story of Sorrow and Joy, in which Johannes sets about protecting his wife from the Danish legal system while simultaneously exploring his own culpability in the tragedy.  As he struggles to come to terms with the event, he describes their relationship from first meeting, courtship, marriage, and finally the anguished days following their daughter’s murder.

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EIFF 2014: Life After Beth

Life After Beth (Jeff Baena, 2014)

Improbably prolific sub-genre rom-zom-com gets its latest offering in the form of Life After Beth, the debut feature from writer/director Jeff Baena.

Zach (Dane Dehaan, he of the piercing blue eyes) is distraught following the death of his girlfriend, Beth (Aubrey Plaza). His parents (Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines) are shockingly insensitive in the face of his loss. Conversing with Beth’s father (John C Reilly) proves to be Zach’s only respite, a sympathetic ear prepared to listen as Zach explains Beth’s last words to him were heated and dissatisfied. Continue reading

EIFF 2014: The Infinite Man

(The Infinite Man, Hugh Sullivan, 2014)

“Am I crazy to think we could be happy?”

Relationships can often be the foreground for an attempt at a sort of paradoxical time travel: you find yourself desperately trying to recapture the joy and spontaneity of your happiest moments with someone, but end up diminishing things in the attempted recreation. Such wisdom is lost on Dean (Josh McConville), the hare-brained inventor and protagonist of The Infinite Man, who is trying to recreate the perfect weekend with his paramour Lana (Hannah Marshall). When his meticulously scheduled efforts are interrupted by Lana’s Continue reading

EIFF 2014: The Skeleton Twins

When actors best known for their comedic chops are looking to demonstrate their dramatic range, it’s de rigueur for them to turn to depression (see: Jim Carrey: Eternal Sunshine, Steve Carrell: Dan in Real Life, Zach Braff: Garden State). And so it is with Kirstin Wiig in The Skeleton Twins, convincingly slumped and dead eyed in the role of Maggie, a dental hygienist and multiple adulterer whose thoughts are drifting to suicide. Fellow Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Hader is on hand as her twin Milo, similarly in a mighty funk – he’s a failed Continue reading

EIFF 2014: Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho, 2013)

Wildly inventive, raucously bloody, and entertaining as hell, renowned Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s (Memories of Murder, The Host, and Mother) first English-language film Snowpiercer is a masterpiece. Macabre, drily witty, crammed with beautifully realised action set pieces and simply stunning to look at, it’s a dystopic phantasmagoria. Golden era Gilliam meets grimy Jeunet by way of the Wizard of Oz, with a fuck-load of Bong’s signature magic mixed in for good measure.  Continue reading

EIFF 2014: Welcome to New York

Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara, 2014) 

“No one wants to be saved.”

It is a scientifically observed fact that it is impossible to discuss Abel Ferrara’s film canon without liberal use of the word “lurid” and his latest slice of sex’n’depravity, Welcome to New York, firmly ensures there shall be no deviation from this phenomenon.  Inspired by the scandal that ended Dominic Strauss-Kahn’s career, the former head of the IMF, who resigned his post amid accusations of sexual assault in 2011 (the case was later settled out of court), the material in the film is considered so vilifying Strauss-Kahn is now suing Ferrara and the film’s producers for defamation. Gerard Depardieu – himself no stranger to scandal – plays the fictional Devereux, a banker and heir apparent to the French presidency. He’s a repugnant, amoral creature, all appetite. Landing in New York, he sets about something of a sexual rampage. 

 

The film’s opening twenty minutes are dedicated to multiple orgies between Devereux and high-end escorts – all impossibly nubile beauties and improbably turned on by his grotesque, misogynistic rutting. These sequences smack of gratuity, even if they could be argued to be detailing his sexual rapaciousness and the banality of these interactions, and play out so long you’re in the unusual position of welcoming the attempted rape scene when it comes, if simply for being tonally different and offering up psychological intrigue. The scene is one of stark horror, and signals the start of the action proper, as Devereux is arrested trying to depart the US and begins a privileged trip through the American penal and legal system. His Lady Macbeth-inflected wife, played with little skill or nuance by Jacqueline Bisset, flies to his side, supporting him publicly and railing against him in private for ruining all her plans.  

 

The film is nothing if not tonally uneven, with the domestic drama between Depardieu and Bisset (who is no match for the Gallic star’s towering performance) lapsing into hammy melodrama. “I had some balls already, but you gave me more,” Bisset barks, aiming for intrigue and instead eliciting guffaws. By contrast, the scenes of NYPD officers brusquely attempting to intimidate Devereux are compelling and realistically played, their treatment so inhuman one momentarily feels sorry for the utterly contemptuous anti-hero. Devereux’s initiation into prison, in particular, makes for a spell-binding set-piece, and it is for this central section that the film comes most alive. Droll comedy is wrought from the well-written, finely played scenes between Devereux and his daughter, with whom he has a strong, if woefully inappropriate, rapport. 

 

A sweating, lumbering, unapologetic mass, Depardieu leers and pants his way through the picture, his performance riveting from the (to my mind, pretentious) opening scene to the last. He’s utterly repulsive but seeringly magnetic – it is impossible to peel your eyes away during the many distressing scenes in which he gapes and paws at different young women. That the film, for all its variability and lack of revelation, is so compulsively watchable is in large part thanks to his performance. 

 

Shallow, uneven, sweaty and gratuitous, Welcome to New York is flawed as fuck, but a lurid extravaganza. And so Ferrara’s law is observed again.