After nearly two and a half hours, I think I heard something like a collective sigh of relief. But, even though you could guess that you’d find the words ‘unrelenting’ and ‘bleak’ in the standard review (I saw them in The Week), I don’t think that the audience’s response meant that the film had disappointed all of them. (Although a comment nearby was a philosophical: ‘Well, you pay’s your money . . .’)
Seidl’s Import/Export, is a film that can shock/challenge/horrify you. It characterises a modern Europe where, across the borders of East and West, people regard themselves, and others, as commodities to sell. It follows two story strands – of Olga (Import) and Paul/Pauli (Export) – disconnected stories that only link thematically. Some of the elements recall the stereotypical story of those forced to prostitute their lives to economic need. Frears’ Dirty, Pretty Things, for example, examines the lengths that those forced down into lowest economic rung will go to. Seidl’s film is similarly uncompromising – without using the one, central ‘shock’ of black market organ trading. It does include elements that are melodramatic – and when you might be tempted to challenge him on some of the extremes, you believe that he would answer that it goes on – and his film makes you believe that it does go on.
This is a film that could alienate, but it doesn’t, because it makes its melodrama credible. In my limited view, it works because it punctuates scenes of interminable flatness with moments of high drama that appear ‘real’ – in the way our daily lives are routine punctuated by ‘events’. When the hospital nurse attacks Olga, it is ridiculous. Seidl tells us he knows that by putting them in fancy-dress costume. However, emotionally, we know exactly why she does it, because we’ve observed all those small moments of frustration and resentment growing in the disconnected scenes.
As interesting, in a less conventional narrative, is Paul’s story. Seidl is masterful in moving our revulsion/dislike of this violent and inadequate man into real sympathy, perhaps even empathy by the end of the film. Everyone’s doing what they have to/need to do. Unlike Dirty, Pretty Things the plot device is not so melodramatic. Seidl’s characters are not ennobled by their entrapment – they are people – their hopes, their ideals mixed in completely with their selfishness. And they are rendered with very little judgement or typical narrative developments. You lived with them for the 2 plus hours – and I knew before the film had ended that Seidl would have ‘tricked’ me into thinking about what happened (I mean ‘could happen’) to them next!
One affective scene is where Olga regards the dead body of an elderly in-patient, a potential suitor, who she might have used to gain citizenship in Austria. Try to read her emotion in that moment – Seidl and Ekateryna Rak (who plays Olga) have judged a perfect mix of variant emotions – disappointment, realism, a faint grief at his loss.
This might be the ultimate cinema of brutal realism, but the cinematography is highly expressionistic. Edward Lachman, who has credits from Soderbergh to Todd Solondz to Todd Haynes (including I’m Not There) and Wolfgang Thaler were joint collaborators here. Shots use depth of field to prevent the worlds of his characters becoming flat, disengaging. Without poeticising the landscapes, every location uses colour and composition to make us look – deep – into that world, because of the layered presentation. The use of colour filters and lighting signifies the anaemic, antiseptic worlds of work – green, sickly light illuminates the inhabitants. We are initially ‘caught out’ by some beautiful snowscape compositions – deep focus into the distance. However, our perspective is changed – since these are just the setting for the characters’ walk to work, to find work or where a high rise monstrosity house the very poorest, the snow falling on the trash surrounding their ‘home’. Look at the people – not the landscape – both the episodic narrative and the visual style seem to be teaching us to look more closely and pay attention. No doubt Seidl is didactic, always in charge of what he determines we should look at, but because there is such humanism in the way he (along with his actors and his filmmaking collaborators, including writer Veronika Franz)) presents these stories – I find I struggle with agreeing to the idea of ‘bleakness’ in this film.