Niels Arden Oplev, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 152 minutes. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist).
AS A PERSON OF SWEDISH DESCENT and somewhat dark sensibilities, I was piqued by the idea of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a Swedish adaptation of the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, a posthumous publishing smash that spread the reputation of Nordic noir around the globe. As someone who rarely, if ever, reads contemporary mysteries, I had managed to avoid said publishing smash and hoped to get a taste of the Larsson phenomenon through the film, which has already won a smorgasbord of Swedish awards and was Europe’s top-grossing movie of 2009. I can’t say whether it is particularly faithful to the much-loved source novel, but the film is a serviceable potboiler, though given Sweden’s near-arctic winters, we might call it a potsimmerer—and simmer it does, for a good two and a half hours.
Much like the Scream franchise’s cannibalization of horror-movie history, Larsson laced the novels in the Millennium Trilogy with copious references to classic mystery fiction—Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Sue Grafton, and others—so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by how derivative the film’s plot is. A disgraced investigative journalist is hired by an aging member of the wealthy, secretive Vanger clan—old-money Swedish industrialists who live on a remote island—to look into the decades-old disappearance of his niece, whom he suspects was murdered by one of their relatives. Enlisting the help of a young woman (the titular girl with tattoo), an antisocial cyberpunk hacker who has suffered the abuse of men all her life, the journalist moves into a cottage on the Vangers’ island and begins digging into the long-buried past.
The tableau of a prominent Scandinavian family being rent apart by suppressed secrets seems lifted from Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish Dogme 95 gem The Celebration (1998) (the secrets are the usual suspects—incest, sex murders, Nazism); the multiply pierced, coldly violent hackstress is a dead ringer for Molly Millions from William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (and other Gibson stories); the beleaguered detective in the frozen rural North recalls a better version of Nordic noir, Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia (1997); and there’s even some cryptic biblical hoo-ha that smacks of The Da Vinci Code. Larsson (and the screenwriters) weave these borrowed elements gracefully, but this still doesn’t account for the film’s rapturous reception in Europe.
Besides the stark, magic-hour beauty of the Vanger clan’s island and Michael Nyqvist’s understated, empathetic turn as the investigative journalist, the film is primarily distinguished by the taut, thoroughly credible performance of newcomer Noomi Rapace as the young, sexually abused female hacker. As a motorcycle-riding Valkyrie exacting harsh vengeance for every woman and girl who has been raped, molested, or harassed by men, she is the heart of the film, and Rapace owns the part. The novel and film’s original title was Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women), and the story is really more about her than the twisted Faulknerian shame of the Vanger family. Note to Hollywood: If Neuromancer ever gets out of development hell, the producers should give Rapace a call.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens Friday, March 19.
I FELL HARD for the films, novels, plays, and essays of Marguerite Duras roughly thirty years ago and then spent the decades between then and now resisting the sensuous beauty of their imagery, the tough-minded, spare elegance of their prose, and their rigorous morality. When I complied with the ridiculous ritual of drawing up for various publications lists of the greatest films of the twentieth century, her masterpiece, India Song (1975), did not appear. It should have been among the first five.
Duras’s subject is primal—eros and death; her fragmented, elliptical narratives, whether fact or fiction, are located in the quicksand of the psyche. To revisit her films is to be again overwhelmed by her languid femmes fatales, her wandering madwomen, her lovesick outsiders, everyone in exile whatever their gender. They are characters in a personal mythology of longing and loss, of the history of colonialism and the failure of all political programs and ideologies. Merely to reencounter the names—Anne-Marie Stretter; Michael Richardson; the Vice-Consul from Lahore; Aurelia Steiner; Lol V. Stein, present only in the novel named for her, Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, and significant for her absence from the films (Lacan wrote about her name and her “ravishing”)—is to realize that they never left my mind.
The monthlong program “In the Words of Marguerite Duras”—presented by Anthology Film Archives, the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the French Embassy, and the French Institute Alliance Français—concludes with a series of films (March 12–18) at Anthology: seven features and two shorts projected in 35-mm prints with English subtitles. These are rare objects—only a few of the films Duras directed exist as subtitled prints, and only one of them, Nathalie Granger (1972), is currently available on DVD. If you’ve never seen any of them, do not start with her stilted early feature Destroy, She Said (1969) or even with Nathalie Granger, widely regarded as her most accessible, perhaps because its cast includes a charming black cat, a young girl who may or may not be exceptionally disposed toward violence, a restless Jeanne Moreau who seems not to know what she’s doing in this strange movie, and Gérard Depardieu as a confused washing-machine salesman (one of his first screen roles), all of them in imminent danger, at least according to news broadcasts, from a pair of teenage killers roaming the countryside. The danger remains offscreen, lurking perhaps in the overgrown garden or behind a half-opened door inside the comfortable but neglected house—the lamplight soft, the paint peeling from the walls. The only violence we see is a close-up of a piano teacher’s hands cruelly gripping those of her pupil.
Instead, begin with India Song, an evocation of colonialist India in the 1930s—1937, to be precise, the year before the war would change everything. A memory piece that calls up the dead, its heroine, Anne-Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig), dances with her lover, Michael Richardson (Claude Mann), in the ballroom of the French Embassy in Calcutta, where her memorial—a photograph, a stick of burning incense, some flowers—is already arranged on the piano. Time folds in on itself in India Song, and space is fractured by the huge mirror that nearly covers one wall so that the reflection of the room is a constant; it is always different, however, from the framing of the room by the camera, whether still or moving. The image created by Duras and cinematographer Bruno Nuytten is at once ghostly and eroticized, so delicately colored that it seems hand-tinted, and the closeness of the air, weighted by the insufferable heat, is palpable. India Song puts all the senses on high alert, and yet it is not in any sense realism. No one would be surprised to learn that it was shot on a set constructed in a crumbling mansion near Paris.
There is the image, and then there is the sound track, its tonalities as subtle and rich as the color and play of light on the screen. There is no sync sound in India Song. The narrative—the backstory, the description of the actions and relationships of the characters—is conveyed by some half-dozen offscreen voices, their fragmentary speculations, mixed occasionally with bits of dialogue spoken asynchronously by the main characters (the dark, throaty timbre of Seyrig’s voice is unmistakable), an undercurrent of unseen party guests; Carlos D’Alessio’s great score is punctuated by the repeated melody of the “India Song Blues” and bits of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a Duras signature. Two other voices emanating from the offscreen space are crucial. When the Vice-Consul from Lahore (Michael Lonsdale), already driven mad by his unrequited love for Mme. Stretter, is rejected by her at the party, he goes into the garden and bellows like a wounded animal. The Vice-Consul is all too human—he sweats, his clothes are wrinkled, he cannot keep his feelings in check—which is why his love is doomed. Also in the garden is a beggar woman who lives among the lepers although she is not diseased herself, simply mad. She never appears on-screen, but it is her song and her high-pitched laugh that we hear at the opening and closing of the film. For seventeen years, we’re told, her path has paralleled that of Mme. Stretter’s, from the Mekong through all the great cities of the Far East to Calcutta where she, the colonized, will remain after the colonizer, her “double,” has committed suicide in “the islands of the Delta.” India Song shows us the face of European colonialism, but India itself . . . there is no way for the colonizer to put that on the screen. As in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959), for which Duras wrote the screenplay, representation has limits, specific to a particular point of view, historical and personal. (“You can never understand Hiroshima,” says the Japanese man to his French lover.) India Song is a great film because every fetishized image and sound is finally merely a substitute and a shield for what remains invisible. It presents a moral argument, not simply about colonialism but about its representation.
The other film not to be missed is The Truck (1977), a more minimalist work than India Song but just as remarkable for its precise balancing of interior and exterior, sound and image. Duras and Depardieu sit across from each other at a round table in Duras’s home. She reads aloud the shooting script for a film titled The Truck, for which she has cast Depardieu as the driver, a doctrinaire Communist Party member. En route, he picks up a hitchhiker, one of Duras’s madwomen of a certain age. The truck driver doesn’t hide his contempt for her, but she also gets under his skin because there is no way she can fit into his schematic view of proletarian victory. As Duras reads, Depardieu occasionally interrupts with questions that seem to be spontaneous but are not. They are the lines assigned to him in the script for The Truck, which will never exist in any other form than this reading. Intercut, however, with the Duras-Depardieu table read are sequences of a truck speeding along various highways and byways of France, accompanied by, what else, the Diabelli Variations, which end this conceptual and comic road movie on a note of triumph.
Left: Howard Hawks, Red River, 1948, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 133 minutes. Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift). Right: Elia Kazan, Wild River, 1960, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 110 minutes. Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) and Carol Garth Baldwin (Lee Remick). Images courtesy Photofest/BAMcinématek.
NAMED AFTER A SARCASTICALLY JUBILANT LYRIC from the Clash’s “The Right Profile,” the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Montgomery Clift retrospective—“That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!”—might have also taken a more somber title from REM’s “Monty Got a Raw Deal.” Defined by tragedy and qualified by what-ifs, Clift’s story is one of Hollywood’s saddest: a preternaturally attractive and talented actor permanently marked, at age thirty-six, by an automobile accident that altered his face, forced him into a crippling drug dependency, and led to his early death ten years later.
Clift made his reputation in prestige pictures like A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953), though other films better demonstrate his infrequent brilliance. Rather than the brooding violence of Brando or the hip dissidence of Dean—to whom he was a Method-esque predecessor—Clift’s handsomeness suggested melancholic introspection, a quality exploited in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), where he plays the conscientious cowboy protégé who stands up to John Wayne’s half-mad cattle baron, and later in Alfred Hitchcock’s morality play I Confess (1953), in which he assumes the role of a conflicted, tortured priest. Throughout his career, Clift’s nobility would both hasten his characters to and steel them for sanctifying punishment, as in the former film when he unblinkingly welcomes a beating from Wayne before their climactic showdown and in the latter when he endures public scorn by holding in his confidence a vindicating confession.
Legend has it that Clift’s good looks were ruined by his 1956 accident. The truth is that while his appearance didn’t drastically change, his demeanor did. In pre-accident films like the surprisingly terrific The Big Lift (1950), Clift possesses a natural yet humble confidence; post-accident (cf. the tepid Lonelyhearts ), he’s often painfully self-conscious, shoulders slumping and hands fiddling around his mouth as if guarding against the morbid curiosity of his audience. And yet the second half of his artificially bifurcated oeuvre features some of his best work. The Misfits (1961) remains poignant almost exclusively for its pairing of Clift with similarly doomed contemporary Marilyn Monroe, but the real gem is Wild River (1960), a Tennessee Valley–set drama about environment, politics, race, and heritage that gave Clift a chance to work with Elia Kazan, the spontaneity-friendly director with whom he should have perhaps been working all along.
“That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!” runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music March 11–25. For more details, click here.
Jia Zhangke, Still Life, 2006, still from a color film in HD, 111 minutes. Shen Hong (Zhao Tao).
GRITTY BUT ELEGANT CHRONICLES of a rapidly transforming society, Jia Zhangke’s films depict street-level life in contemporary China with a hyperreal, science-fictional gloss. The scripted characters of The World (2004) are performers and staff at an actual Bejing theme park filled with miniature replicas of international tourist sites like the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids, and Lower Manhattan. In a dystopian twist worthy of Baudrillard, the sprawling attraction displays the tagline SEE THE WORLD WITHOUT EVER LEAVING BEIJING. Still Life (2006) takes place in a city being destroyed and rebuilt to make way for the colossal Three Gorges Dam, and its interconnected story lines play out against an unsettling combination of verdant landscape and industrial rubble. Throughout Jia’s eight features and numerous shorts, his characters are plugged into global pop music, fashion, and markets. But even as he shows how the Imperial and Maoist eras have become two-dimensional images, flattened by the speed of change, Jia underscores the fact that these same characters’ lives remain determined by forces beyond their control. As the sounds of Chinese opera play at a dinner party, the thirty-somethings in his short narrative Cry Me a River (2008) reminisce about their 1990s college days after discussing stock tips, then exchange skin-care advice. Though he roots his films in an everyday strangeness, Jia doesn’t shy from his own postmodern flourishes. Shot in a declining factory town, his downbeat Unknown Pleasures (2002) includes a remarkable sequence, set in a diner, that lurches without warning into a full-on Pulp Fiction pastiche, complete with jump-cut to disco (an inspired and pointed knockoff, considering how many bits from Chinese films Tarantino himself has cribbed). Just as suddenly, one of the buildings in Still Life launches skyward, like a rocket.
The leading figure of China’s Sixth Generation—directors who came of age in the ’90s, producing low-budget films frequently outside the rules of state censorship—Jia works in a complex blend of fact and fiction. His narrative features use contemporary locations and story lines based on true events, while his documentaries employ a fluidly controlled camerawork that hermetically seals them into a tight choreography. The subsequent ontological tangles can become dizzyingly baroque. For 24 City (2008), a fictional tale based on the true-life transformation of a munitions factory into luxury apartments, Jia based his script on interviews with more than one hundred residents, then shot his film with both actors and nonactors, staging documentary-style monologues on the factory floor prior to its demolition. One of the factory workers is nicknamed Little Flower, after a 1979 movie starring Joan Chen, because of her resemblance to the international star; the character is played by Chen herself, disconcertingly cast as her own double. Still Life has its own uncanny twin, too, East (2006), a documentary about artist Liu Xiaodong shot in the same location at the same time. Liu is shown early on manipulating a group of men into casual poses as painting models, not unlike similar tableaux of shirtless workers in Still Life, suggesting parallels to Jia’s own meticulous remaking of real-world experience.
Don Argott, The Art of the Steal, 2009, still from a color film in HD, 101 minutes.
THE ART OF THE STEAL wants you to think that a secret cabal of greedy politicians, social-climbing university trustees, and not-so-charitable charities hoodwinked the public into accepting the move of Dr. Albert Barnes’s world-class collection of modern art from Merion, Pennsylvania, to its new home in downtown Philadelphia.
About twenty minutes into The Art of the Steal, Julian Bond, then chairman of the NAACP board and one of several luminaries interviewed for the movie, states its recurring leitmotif: that Barnes wanted his collection to be a place where the common man could have epiphanies in front of works of art, without the buttress of wall text, audio guides, and other forms of meddlesome discourse—a place that, according to Bond, even a plumber from New York would appreciate.
Admirable idea. So let’s follow said plumber on his visit to the Barnes. After reserving a ticket weeks in advance, Joe Plumber takes an unpaid day off work to travel to a wealthy suburb outside Philadelphia. The train is neither convenient nor cheap. If he had taken a car, he would have found that what limited parking was available had been booked weeks in advance. But surely a pilgrimage to this holy shrine is worth such trifling inconveniences. Once disembarked, Joe Plumber walks about half a mile to the collection. Though puzzled by the lack of signs and parking (thanks, neighbors!), Joe Plumber is undeterred. The museum is designed for people like him, after all.
I exaggerate, of course. But not too much. And my mild attempt at irony pales in comparison to the propagandistic rant that is The Art of the Steal. Director Don Argott has gathered the initiates of the cult of Saint Barnes—unsurprisingly, mostly former students of the foundation’s dubious art school—to proclaim that the cultural version of the military-industrial complex contrived to take the Barnes away from Joe Plumber and the parking-phobic residents of Merion by means of evil spells and incantations written into the state budget.
This may indeed turn out to be the case. I cannot speak to the legality of it all, which is something for the courts to decide (but then again, according to the movie, the judges are in on it, too). But what I can speak to is the holier-than-thou attitude and the one-sided presentation of evidence that, true or not, makes it hard to take the movie’s claims seriously.
The script would make any conspiracy theorist proud: Former governor Ed Rendell, then mayor John Street, Pew Charitable Trusts president Rebecca Rimel, and the ghost of newspaper magnate Walter Annenberg, along with the city’s snobby art establishment, are the nasty villains; the poor students in Barnes’s art school, the hapless victims of the “steal.” That Barnes himself was intensely hostile to serious art-historical discussions of works of art and promoted a reactionary, ahistorical, and quasi-religious understanding of aesthetic experience is never questioned, let alone raised as a point of debate.
It becomes obvious that the people who have the most to lose from the Barnes’s relocation are not the Joe Plumbers of the world, who now have to suffer easy access and entrance signs, but the self-anointed guardians of Barnes’s vision, who now have to share their precious collection with—God forbid—other students, among others.
I’m not saying that everything about the move was on the up-and-up or that Barnes’s original, idiosyncratic installation should be changed. But I do find that an argument made on the basis of hagiography rather than on a balanced view of the facts is obfuscating at best and nauseating at worst.
But of course, I’m just an art critic and, according to the logic of The Art of the Steal, another happy would-be conspirator.
The Art of the Steal is now playing in select theaters.
Felix Moeller, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, 2009, still from a black-and-white and color film, 99 minutes. Lotte, Nele, and Lena Harlan.
VEIT HARLAN’S HYSTERICAL COSTUME MELODRAMA Jew Süss, seen by twenty million Germans and twenty million other Europeans on its release in 1940, is widely regarded as the most virulently anti-Semitic of the films made during the Third Reich. Directed by Harlan under Joseph Goebbels’s close supervision, it recast Lion Feuchtwanger’s anti-Nazi novel about the life of the Jewish financier Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, adviser to Duke Karl Alexander of Württemburg; Süss was hanged at the behest of his court enemies in 1738. Harlan’s movie-star wife Kristina Soderbaum played the Aryan woman who kills herself after Süss rapes her. The film’s value to the Nazis as rabble-rousing propaganda is indicated by Heinrich Himmler’s order that it be seen by all SS guards and police.
Two current films address Harlan’s loathsome work. Oskar Rohler’s Jud Süss: A Film Without a Conscience, a fictional piece about Goebbels’s coercing of the actor Ferdinand Marian to play Süss, was ridiculed by some critics after it premiered at the Berlinale in February and has been criticized for historical inaccuracies. First to these shores is Felix Moeller’s Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, a trenchant documentary that probes whether or not Harlan himself was an anti-Semite or a mere fellow traveler, based on the evidence of his other films; it also explores the effect of Jew Süss on his family. To this end, Moeller interviewed Harlan’s three sons (including the author, filmmaker, and Nazi hunter Thomas Harlan) and surviving daughter (the other committed suicide), a nephew, a niece (Stanley Kubrick’s widow, Christiane), a grandson, and five granddaughters. The result is a tapestry of guilt, disgust, and incomprehension, though two of the children remain protective toward their unrepentant father and one of the grandchildren is indifferent. Thomas believes the family cannot be purged of its associative guilt and must continue to bear the burden. We learn that Harlan had many Jewish friends. We also learn that the breakup of his first marriage to the Jewish actress Dora Gerson, who would die in Auschwitz, may have led him to hate Jews. (Or did she leave him because he hated them?)
Moeller had access to remarkable home-movie footage of Harlan: touring the Charles Bridge in Prague with Soderbaum and one of their babies on a day off during the filming of Jew Süss; on his deathbed in Capri. Nothing, though, is more telling than the footage of the doomed Jews he brought from the Prague Ghetto to play their ancestors entering Württemburg after Süss had repealed the law banning them. Whatever florid talent Harlan had, he apparently had no scruples, as one of his granddaughters asserts.
Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss plays March 3–16 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.