VIFF Capsule Reviews #4

A handful of filmmakers at the Vancouver International Film Festival reached back into the past for inspiration, with various levels of success.

Elie Wajeman recreates the “Paris d’hier” in The Anarchists, a tale of French class warfare starring Tahar Rahim as a policeman ordered to infiltrate a group of anarchists plotting against the regime. There, he falls for an intellectual rebel played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, complicating his mission.

Things happen in The Anarchists, and then more things happen, and along the way the various agitated characters argue, yell and plot, but the film is quite cold. There is little to empathize with here, as the characters don’t seem very focused, and the love affair between the leads is lifeless. A grey color palette only serves to heighten the sense of ennui permeating the film. But perhaps the most damning problem of The Anarchists is that it is boring.

Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days covers a different piece of Paris’ past as it tells the tale of a young man who can best be described as the aloof curmudgeon of his group of friends. Forever a step away, sarcastic, unengaged, Paul is a very challenging character to wrap a film around, but Desplechin mostly manages it. Paul’s golden days took place sometime before the Berlin Wall came down, when his personality fit with the sense of rebellion in his group of friends. As they age, though, his persistent refusal to be “normal,” and his inability to fully commit to long-suffering girlfriend Esther, start to drag everyone down.

My Golden Days reminded me strongly of Truffaut’s Two English Girls – a similar narration going into the thoughts and concerns of the characters; a lead actor in his first starring role (Quentin Dolmaire) with the unmistakable air of Jean-Pierre Léaud; and most key, a story built around a very fragile sort of untraditional romance. My only complaint is that there is little rise and fall to the film; it’s not that it required more drama or action – this is a story anchored to a string of thoughts and desires – but I believe the lack of shifts in volume or tension weighs it down by the end. Still, it’s a wonderful film.

Another trip back in time, to 1961, occurs in Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter. Covering the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram and his experiments on authority and behaviour that seemed to show proof of how mankind could commit atrocities such as The Holocaust, the film is a docudrama, swerving from classic storytelling to Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to us about what is going on.

Staged as a recreation of his experiments, followed by the fallout to Milgram’s career as his colleagues fought against his methods, Experimenter is yet another aloof film about the past. As Milgram, Sarsgaard plays things with a lack of emotion that borders on boredom. His Milgram is seldom engaged or seemingly interested in anything, even as he is telling us about his own connection to The Holocaust. And the rest of the film is similarly devoid of emotion or energy. It offers no new insight into Milgram’s work and fails to link it to the viewer. I honestly do not understand why Almereyda felt he should make Experimenter so bland, but it felt like a designed decision.

One last trip back in time for today. Like all of us, Horst von Wächter and Niklas Frank both had fathers. The difference is, their fathers were high-ranking Nazi officials, men who were in charge of Nazi Poland as the Jewish population was horrifically liquidated. In the documentary What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy, the two men are led through the details of what exactly their fathers did by Philippe Sands, a lawyer with both a professional and personal interest. The three men walk through their old family homes, peruse photo albums, and slowly reveal starkly different views of their dads.

One man fully acknowledges his father’s horror – the other feels that there is not enough proof to denounce his father and protects the man’s legacy at every turn. Both seem like decent guys, but their stances are fascinating to watch play out. That fascination turns to emotional responses, though – pity, sadness and exasperation at how far a man will go to ignore what is right in front of him.