Woman in Gold is a film version of a ‘true story’ that has, as one reviewer put it, been ‘Weinsteined’ to within an inch of its life. This means that it is quite difficult to discuss without dealing with all the opprobrium that producer Harvey Weinstein in particular attracts. The Weinstein touch means that what would otherwise be a mainstream, middlebrow film stuffed with good performances has been accused of all kinds of terrible crimes against history and the representation of arguments about ‘art restitution’ that might be expected from a sober art picture. If we ignore the hot air created by the most violent attacks, this is a crowd-pleasing film marred for some audiences by misjudged action sequences and cartoon villains. At its centre is another striking performance by Helen Mirren that will no doubt attract admirers. However, although her exaggerated Austrian-accented English might be justified by the script, she does create a character that is probably too much like some of her other well-known portrayals.
Mirren plays Maria Altman, a woman who we later learn escaped the Holocaust, literally running from the SS in Vienna in 1938. The narrative begins in 1998 when she hires a lawyer to attempt to get back a painting of her aunt stolen by the Nazis and now hung in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna. (The events of 1938 are represented through detailed flashbacks at various points of the narrative.) The lawyer she chooses is ‘Randy’ (Randol), the grandson of Arnold Schoenberg (who left Vienna for the US at the same time as Maria). Played by Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds as a tall, intelligent but also rather nervous/vulnerable young man with wire-rimmed spectacles, Randy kept reminding me of Jimmy Stewart playing the lead in The Glenn Miller Story. When I looked later the resemblance isn’t that close but he certainly has some of that tension between hesitancy and forcefulness that Stewart used so effectively in similar kinds of roles. The film is in effect a two-hander and Reynolds does well to hold his own with Mirren. (I hadn’t seen Reynolds before and his performance seems to have been a surprise for those who know him from action films such as Green Lantern (2011) or X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).)
The drama in the story depends on two aspects of the painting (Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907) – one is the ‘personal’, involving the portrait of a beloved aunt and the trigger to remember those left behind during the attacks on Jewish families that followed the Anschluss of 1938. The other is the fact that the painting, one of five commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and painted by Gustav Klimt, was already worth around $100 million in 1998 and was considered a ‘national treasure’ of Austria. The designation ‘Woman in Gold’ was used by the Nazis to describe the painting. These factors underpin the determination of Maria and the Austrian gallery curators to fight a bitter battle through various courts to establish ownership. Unfortunately, the Austrian characters are portrayed in a one-dimensional manner and the merits of their case (i.e. the other issues in the arguments about ‘art restitution’) are lost in the general feelgood tenor of the campaign as conducted by Maria and Randy.
The film ‘works’ for its target audience (the over 50s?) and it is driven by its casting. Director Simon West is a very experienced producer/director in UK film and television and this is a co-production with BBC films. The supporting cast includes cameos from Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce and Charles Dance while the 1938 sequences include performances by Henry Goodman and Allan Corduner. Three prominent German actors appear. Tom Schilling and Moritz Bleibtreu are seen only briefly but Daniel Brühl has a bigger role as Hubertus, a local journalist who supports Maria’s cause. Brühl is a strong actor in German cinema but now seems to pop up in ‘international’ productions in a predictable way. Here he is rather wasted I fear.
In genre terms the film is primarily, I think, a melodrama – which may be one of the reasons it has been traduced by reviewers who want it to be a Holocaust story or an investigative narrative. The focus is on Maria ‘now’ and the family as it was in 1938 (the starting point of the narrative is the death in Los Angeles of Maria’s sister). There is an attempt to draw some kind of parallel with Randy’s family ‘now’ – he takes risks with his career and his marriage to support Maria. I’m not sure this works. There is a melodrama score by Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer and I have to confess that my eyes were moist for much of the film. I’m a sucker for Hollywood sentimentality and my critical faculties didn’t kick in until the film ended. Some audiences have drawn parallels with Philomena (UK 2013). This didn’t occur to me but in retrospect I can see the links. Visually Woman in Gold depends on a distinction between the sunny present in Vienna and Southern California and the depiction of 1938 – still bright but with more sepia tones. The ‘escape’ of the young Maria seemed ludicrous to me. However I was impressed by the playing of young Maria by Tatiana Maslany, a Canadian actress making a name for herself in the TV series Orphan Black.
This film has a current IMDb rating of 7.5 indicating a strongly favourable audience response but the critics really didn’t like it. I’ve noted what I think are the weaknesses here but I understand why so many have enjoyed the film. One further point, I’ve called it a ‘Hollywood film’. This is mainly because of Harvey Weinstein’s influence. But even then it would be technically an American independent. In fact this is essentially a British film, with Harvey Weinstein as an executive producer. I’m not really sure why it is listed as a US production. Perhaps the Weinstein Company paid for distribution rights ‘up front’ and effectively co-financed the film?
The second film by Andrey Zvyagintsev in 2007, five years after the completion of The Return, certainly confirmed the emergence of a major filmmaker and, in its Biblical allusions (and running time), in some ways looked forward to Leviathan seven years later. Like Leviathan, its inspiration was an American story, but in this case a fictional story by William Saroyan. I don’t know how much of that story made its way into The Banishment, but it is striking that there is a balance between relatively short, sharp sequences that might be generic in their references to familiar crime/thriller/melodrama narratives and much longer introspective pieces in which landscapes and interiors come into prominence.
The story involves a couple with two small children, a boy and a girl. Alex is played by Konstantin Lavronenko (the father in The Return) and Vera by the Swedish actress Maria Bonnevie. We first see Alex in ‘the city’ tending to his brother who has been shot. The family then take the train to the isolated country house that belonged to Alex’s parents. During their time in the country it becomes clear that the marriage is under great strain. The crisis point is reached when Vera announces that she is pregnant. Alex’s reaction to her announcement becomes the trigger that ‘fires’ the rest of the narrative.
As in all great cinema, the power of this film resides in the meticulous creation and manipulation of narrative time and space. Zvyagintsev spent three years trying to get exactly what he wanted in terms of locations and dressed sets. According to the interview on the DVD he found landscapes in Moldova and the city locations in Charleroi in Belgium. The sets erected in Moldova were dressed with materials from German flea markets. The intended result was to suggest an environment that is not specifically ‘Russian’ and this it certainly does. When I first saw the film I thought of Ukraine for the landscapes and the industrial centre of Sheffield for the city, so I wasn’t a million miles away. The rural location also evokes American landscapes and even specific Hollywood films. There is a cemetery on a hill-top above a church and the family home with its verandah looks out over the valley. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think your way into a Ford film or perhaps Malick’s Days of Heaven. In the DVD interview Zvyagintsev refers to the ‘American painter Andrew White’. What he then describes can only, as far as I can work out, refer to Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting of ‘Christina’s World’ (1948) which I last discussed in relation to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. The house in this painting became in the director’s words “. . . colour and texture-wise our reference point in our designs for the film”.
The original Saroyan story was published in 1953 and set in California. Having created a non-specific location, Zvyagintsev also set out to create a world ‘out of time’, so though clearly updated from the 1950s, there are no indicators as to when the story is taking place. Given the thin plot for a film lasting 157 minutes, much of the narrative of the film is carried by the richness of the images, both in terms of narrative space to be explored by the viewer and also the possibilities of symbolic meanings or intertextual references embedded in the mise en scène. It is perhaps this aspect of the film which has so split critics and audiences.
The great success of The Return in 2002 built up an enormous expectation for The Banishment which was screened in competition at Cannes. The film did win the Best Actor prize for Konstantin Lavronenko but in retrospect this seems a strange award. Not that it is a bad performance, but that it doesn’t seem like the most striking aspect of the film. A good example of the critical reaction to the film when it was released in the UK can be found in Neil Young’s review from 2008:
There’s a definite sense that, in straining so hard for auteur-style greatness, Zvyagintsev has ended up merely aping the cinematic giants who have come before him – emphasising his own shortcomings in the process. But there are sufficient compensations and distractions here to suggest that he is a genuine talent – albeit one who needs a firmer editorial hand if he’s to fully maximise his considerable potential.
Young’s review is fair and the ‘cinematic giant’ he refers to is Tarkovsky. He argues that a new Russian auteur inevitably gets called the new Tarkovsky and that Zvyagintsev is in this film making the Tarkovsky gestures but not yet achieving the results. What The Banishment does for me is to send me back to Tarkovsky, a filmmaker I only know from his earlier films, determined to find out more. In the process it occurs to me that though Young’s review is quite even-handed it misses two points. First, I think it requires several viewings and some very close textual analysis to determine how Zvyagintsev’s use of interiors and landscapes matches up to Tarkovsky. Second, the critical context, the social institution of cinema – the festival structure, the veneration of certain types of cinephilia, the scholarship, the availability of DVDs etc. – has changed enormously between the appearance of Tarkovsky’s Venice-winner Ivan’s Childhood in 1962 and Zvyagintsev’s The Return in 2002. And, of course, Russian cinema is very different from how it was in the Khrushchev years of the early 1960s.
When Zvyagintsev speaks about his work he seems aggressive but possibly this also masks a defensiveness. He isn’t a trained filmmaker (instead a trained actor) and he had little experience before directing his features. He sees himself as ‘self-trained’ through exposure to those ‘cinematic giants’ whose work he watched in Moscow when acting jobs were scarce. Like many directors interviewed for festivals and DVD releases he quotes many different directors but often comes back to Bresson, Antonioni etc. Those are two directors I don’t know well so I’m probably seeing different references. I’ve recently watched Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974) and there seem to be several ‘borrowings’ and ‘celebrations’ of Tarkovsky’s image-making. For instance a key scene between husband and wife is played out amongst trees in a scene which uses a similar setting and camera techniques seen in the opening of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. We could find other Tarkovskian moments (and the casting of Maria Bonnevie as the wife seems to evoke Tarkovsky as well). Personally, I don’t have a problem with this. Zvyagintsev, his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and designer Andrey Ponkratov, seem in complete control of what they are doing and with the music of Andrey Dergachev and Arvo Pärt they create a melodrama of great power. I think I’ll watch it again.
This clip shows what I take to be a dream sequence heavily influenced by Tarkovsky and, according to a colleague, Antonioni. Either way it is a terrific piece of filmmaking:
[This is a second posting on Elena, the third film by Andrey Zvyagintsev. The original posting is here. The film was screened on a day school focusing on Zvyagintsev’s films and his potential status as a ‘film artist’.]
The screening at Kala Sangam in Bradford brought out several interesting film comparisons. A brief warning – there are no direct SPOILERs here, but there is a discussion of scenes and the tone of the ending. I completely agree with the reference to Christian Petzold in the original post on this film. I thought of his Ghost Trilogy several times and wondered whether the shared austerity of these two filmmakers reflects a desire to strip away ‘noise’ in the mise en scène so that they can ‘forensically’ examine what modern economics in the New Europe has done to its people. Interestingly, Petzold utilised landscapes in a similar way, for example in Yella, to create a commentary on economic power and class, both films seeming to represent the soullessness of the no-man’s-lands each female protagonist has to cross or inhabit. Petzold’s film also alludes to a particularly German history of economic divide between East and West in his country which reinforces the need of his protagonist to move. (And movement also is a key feature of Ulrich Seidl’s economic migrants through the film frame in Import/Export (2007)). This moral emptiness is not confined to the poorer landscapes – Yella‘s boardrooms and Elena’s home with Vladimir both reverberate with the emotional coldness of minimalist chic. (A trope present in Christoph Hochhäusler’s Under dir die Stadt (2010)).
There were also resonances for me of Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Both Zvyagintsev’s film and her’s present the rhythm of domestic routines undertaken by these women although different choices in mise en scène highlight each directors’ different aims. However, there are parallels in the representation of sexual relationships as comprising fundamentally economic transactions, more literally of course in Jeanne’s case. Elena, like Jeanne, is a gnomic figure. Never do we go behind her inexpressive face to be given a direct insight into her emotions and thoughts. This invests the narrative with greater power and realism – who knows exactly why they do things so why should our faces always show it? – and her pivotal action seems both spontaneous and a response to deeply-held feelings about her partnership with Vladimir. Elena seems to have held a particular understanding of the ‘deal’ that had been struck over the past ten years she has stayed with him on which he has lately appeared to renege. This is reinforced for me as Zvyagintsev seems to allude to this theme of transactions again through a short sequence foregrounding an office secretary during a visit made by some of the main characters. Whilst she is young, slim, blonde and conventionally beautiful – dressed in a professional outfit that accentuates her figure – her movement in making and bringing in teas and coffees is an exact echo of Elena’s daily movements around the flat earlier. Significantly, she closes the door on leaving the office – mimicking Elena’s exits from her husband’s bedroom. Her action – as part of her job as secretary – is domestic labour as part of economic work. It elegantly and lightly alludes to Elena’s work in her marriage. How much she is ‘owed’ for that work remains part of the moral debate handled in an fruitfully ambiguous way by the writer-director.
Allusion and symbol is a poetic technique and the use of visual symbols featured in today’s discussion about Zvyagintsev’s status as a film artist within Russian cinema. We might want to recall a more overtly expressionistic use of mirrors in Douglas Sirk’s posing of Cary (Jane Wyman) in front of her mirror in All that Heaven Allows (1955) as her romance with Rock Hudson’s Ron blossoms and then founders. Even more expressive is the construction of her reflection in the ghastly TV set her children buy for her to replace her young lover with a more appropriate ‘companion.’ Aspects of Elena’s love for her feckless and generally ungrateful son might recall aspects of these classic, Hollywood melodramatic plots. (An interesting analysis of mise en scène in Sirk and Fassbinder here).
Sirk was considered to be a master of ‘aporia’ – of creating a mood that was emotionally unresolved at the end of his films despite their conventional endings. Elena certainly strikes several notes of ambiguity – in our feelings towards all of the characters in what is both a narrative about very Russian concerns of class, power and money but one which still feels immediately empathic for a Western international audience. This narrative is filtered through the perspective of the female protagonist – quiet, unassuming (like Jeanne) her inner world is not opened up to us as it would be through Sirk’s expressionistic style. However, Elena exerts the greatest power in the narrative, driving it forward as the men stay inactive or relatively powerless. Still, we may be left wondering what her personal actions really mean for wider society and class mobility in modern Russia; the film’s ambiguity (or aporia) adding impact to its social commentary through (rather than despite) its irresolution. In other words, whilst the family story may be (temporarily) settled, the future for all feels rather uncertain.
Writer-director Roberto Flores Prieto gave a great performance (in English) in the Q&A following the screening of his film. He told us a great deal about the background to the film and what motivated him to make it. He was at ¡Viva! last year as well and he obviously feels at home in Manchester (I’m tempted to make a joke about rain, but more of that later).
Roberto told us that he liked the title simply as a phrase. If it has a link to the film’s narrative it is because it refers to a certain type of audio signal picked up on the radios and TVs repaired by Luis, a man in late middle age who lives on his own. Early in the film we meet him in a bar where he appears to succumb to the siren call of a bar girl and the couple then retire to a run-down hotel. A little later we meet Carmen (Mabel Pizarro), a woman in her early fifties who cleans the rooms in the hotel and occasionally sits at the reception desk. She lives on her own in the hotel and begins a tentative pursuit of Luis (who she has presumably known for some time since he lives locally and advertises his repair business).
Without the background about the city of Barranquilla before the Q&A I didn’t really get all the nuances of the film’s narrative. The set-up is very simple. There are just a handful of main locations, Luis’s room, the hotel, the bar and the streets between the three. Carmen visits a Chinese takeaway and a hairdresser and Luis delivers/picks up some items for repair. Not a great deal happens ‘plot-wise’ and the film is 110 minutes long. However, in its exploration of film language in terms of cinematography, costume, set design and use of sound and music, the film is rich in meanings. (The look of the film is inspired by the American painter Edward Hopper.) Prieto wants to spend time with his two central characters. He wants us to understand what they feel and to think about their responses. These two people are attracted to each other for a variety of reasons but they are sensitive and wary about allowing someone else into their lives. They might be easily hurt. I won’t spoil the story so I’ll simply point out that this isn’t a Hollywood narrative.
Back to the rain: Barranquilla is on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and it rains a lot in season. Prieto told us that the city (the third largest in the country), is ‘looked down on’ from Bogota but the director lives there and he was determined to use it as a not just a location but almost as a character. The rain is so heavy that in the old parts of the city, the roads become fast-running streams. These are dangerous, so in the symbolism of the melodrama, rain doesn’t only signify ‘sexual release’, but also the danger of sexual congress/relationship. I realised a little after the screening that in several different ways, Ruido Rosa resembles Wong Kar-Wai’s classic In the Mood For Love. Certainly the dark streets, the rain and the music/costumes are important in both films. So too is the question of exile/migration. In this case it is Carmen who has long dreamed of travelling to New York. Will she decide to stay with Luis or to finally join the other 5 million Colombians living abroad? How will Luis deal with Carmen’s desire to leave? These are the important questions that give an edge to the relationship between the two.
Ruido Rosa is a classic ‘meller’, but it is also very funny at times – in certain carefully presented deadpan scenes e.g. when Carmen and a colleague at the hotel solemnly chomp on Chinese take-away meals and in a neighbourhood cinema when we watch Luis and Carmen but listen to hilarious versions of dialogue from typical Hollywood genre films (all provided by the director). Carmen goes to the cinema to practise English, repeating the lines she hears. Music is integral to the film and I enjoyed it very much. At one pint we join Luis and Carmen in a local bar with live music from a trio (?). Like much of the film, this sequence reminded me of old Havana and of Cuban cinema. Afterwards I noted that Roberto Flores Prieto had studied at the International Film School in Cuba. This little bar scene also reminded me of the wonderful sequence in the Claire Denis film 35 rhums which includes the characters dancing to a version of ‘Siboney’.
In the end the sense of a love story told almost in defiance of Hollywood convention is what defines Ruido Rosa. The shooting was completed in just three and a half weeks. The two principals are not ‘stars’ but they have experience, Roosevel Gonzalez as a dancer and Mabel Pizarro as a drama teacher. Director, writers and crew seem to be on the same wavelength – making something that requires patience to watch but which is ultimately rewarding. Prieto told us that in Colombia cinephiles no longer go to the multiplexes but prefer to watch films at home on DVD and download. But the success of Ruido Rosa at festivals does seem to have helped it get more screenings at home (see the film’s Facebook page) and that must be good. I look forward to seeing a Roberto Flores Prieto film in Manchester again.