There is something flat about Cristian Mungiu’s film Graduation. Telling the story of a Romanian doctor who uses his influence to help his daughter get a scholarship to Oxford, Mungiu wants us to think about moral decay in Romanian society; almost every character in the film at one point asks another for a favour that breaks the normal rules – it’s a ripple, and the number of ripples are meant to show how widespread the problem is. The intended challenge, I think, is that Mungiu made his characters fairly likeable, which then creates the conflict for the viewer… do you root for them or against them? But Graduation suffers from a lack of imagination; you can feel the thematic hammer hitting you within the first ten minutes, and like the violence in Passion of the Christ, after awhile, it all becomes an empty exercise.
There is something joyous and magnificent in Maren Ade’s masterpiece Toni Erdmann. The story of an older eccentric father who forces his way into his busy daughter’s life to free her from the monotony of corporate existence, Toni Erdmann is easily the best film I’ve seen in a long time. There is a delicious slow build of goofiness, reaching a crescendo with a house party the delights of which I will never forget as long as I live. But the goofiness isn’t just fun… it captures the caring heart of the father, played by Peter Simonischek, and is every bit as emotional and warm as Mungiu’s film is cold. But the true highlight of Toni Erdmann is Sandra Hüller as the daughter who needs to rediscover life; hers is the kind of performance that the term bravura was created for – complex, nuanced, and then, when it needs to be, completely insane. I hope to see this film countless more times.
Speaking of emotional, let’s talk about Michael Dudok de Wit’s animated wonder of a film, The Red Turtle. The wordless story of a man who washes onto an island in the ocean after a presumed shipwreck, The Red Turtle is a fable, or maybe a biblical passage, come to life. There are mystical turtles who seem to know what the man intends and work to sometimes help and sometimes hinder him. There is a woman who may have once actually been one of the turtles. And all throughout, there is the carefree life force of the island’s few inhabitants, mostly crabs. The man’s personal journey and acceptance of his reality act as a kind of template for viewers to overlay whatever meaning they want to give it. A believer in God will find here a variation of the creation myth. A lover of folklore will see it perhaps as more of a fable by Aesop. Something about the way that the filmmaker chose not to have his film lean towards any particular story feels a bit like cheating, but it is a minor quibble. This was a wonderful film for anyone who tends to get emotionally attached to movies.
Finally for today, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is not exactly a new story. In fact, anyone familiar with film has seen enough double-crosses on the screen to realize much of what this film has in store quite early on. But Park’s goal is not to surprise us with twists so much as to let us appreciate them as they build up and burst onto the screen – not shocks, but rather a sense of decadence and, as silly as it sounds, naughtiness. Because this story, about two impostors hatching a plan to act as handmaiden and prospective lover to a young woman in order to eventually steal her family’s riches, is very naughty. And that’s the point – to make an utterly gorgeous film about people behaving badly.