Friday, July 21, 2006

Recent Watching: Gabrielle (2005)

Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle (2005) is a wholly professional film: breathtaking authenticity abounds in this 19th century chamber drama about an aging aristocratic couple that, after ten years of marriage, still has not grown to love one another. They host weekly parties for their milieu in their home, assuming the roles of a respectable couple. When one day Jean (Pascal Gregory) finds a note from his wife, Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert), saying she is leaving him for another man, he is shocked. But, when only hours later Gabrielle mysteriously returns home to reassume her role as his wife, Jean is utterly confounded, not only as to how to deal with his wife’s infidelities, but how to save face in front of his milieu and their social codes.

Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Return” by director Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic, the film is a cinematic splendor. Cinematographer Eric Gautier figures the story through an array of styles: leaden blach and white images; deep, murky colors; and at times giving the faces a jaundiced pallor, reflecting the severity of the moral breach felt by Jean and Gabrielle. The film, however, does not fully embrace the constricting ethics of 19th century France. Instead, Gabrielle’s story is filtered through many gradations, and prominence is given to her own stoic dissatisfaction while married to Jean.

The acting is high caliber all around, with every performer believable in her their role. Isabelle Huppert lives up to her legendary reputation as one of international cinema’s greatest living actors. Pascal Greggory recalls Lancaster’s performance in Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), conveying aristocratic nobility with such grace that it seems absolutely genuine. More than authentic, his airs do not seem forced, nor are they over-played, which makes his own egoism less reactionary and more convincingly realistic.

The middle third of Gabrielle is devoted, largely, to a conversation between Gabrielle and her maid, Yvonne (Claudia Coli), as she assists in undressing and preparing Gabrielle for bed. Structurally, devoting this much time (approximately 30 of 90 minutes) to a conversation is decidedly atypical, as is the attention paid to Yvonne. Maids are often transparent characters who thoughts and motivations can be discerned through the slightest glance—or they are simply ignored. As Yvonne, Coli balances loyalty to Gabrielle, along with sympathy for her plight as the unsatisfied wife. But at the same time, Yvonne is silently dissatisfied at Gabrielle’s return, what she believes is Gabrielle’s acquiescence to society’s morays.

Gabrielle’s reason for returning remains a mystery, an ambiguity that makes the story compelling and engrossing. Huppert conveys determinism without belying the motivations or reasoning behind her actions. She tantalizes the audience by disclosing just so much her character; more than subtle, she is reticent. All of Gabrielle, in fact, is a redolent, myriad reticence: a mystery that concludes, but is never solved.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Recent Watching: Time To Leave (2005)

Perhaps I’m just too cynical, but I wanted to like Francois Ozon’s latest film Time to Leave (2005) much more than I actually did. The story focuses Romain (Melvil Poupaud), a 30s-ish photographer who, after collapsing on assignment, is told he has terminal cancer. Declining medical treatment, he has three months to live. What was initially appealing about the story is its refreshing take on the subject: instead of telling everyone he has only months to live, he chooses to keep it a secret, revealing it only to his grandmother, Laura (Jeanne Moreau). This restrained emotion, however, finds its outlet elsewhere—in sappy scenes that reach for easy sentiment and eschew Romain’s complex decision and its consequences.

The film is, essentially, a series of goodbyes. Romain visits his parents, his grandmother, his sister, and his boyfriend, secretly concluding their relationship and setting things straight before he dies. Each scene ends with the same ironic touch: Romain snapping a photograph for keepsakes. His stoicism isn’t so much poignant as it is pitiable. We recognize the futile gesture in taking the photograph, and it pulls at our heart strings, begging us to feel some sort of emotion for this dying character—but does the film really have to try so hard and use (and re-use) such a gesture until it becomes a gimmick?

The best moment of the film is the scene between Romain and his grandmother. When she asks why he chose to only confide in her, he says, “Because you, like me, will be dying soon.” This touch of fatalism is sobering, because it isn’t trying to make us cry or feel nostalgic in any way. Its motivations are unadulterated by sentiment.

As the grandmother, Jeanne Moreau is fantastic. But she’s on-screen for a sparse few minutes. It’s a shame, because hers is a character that intrigues and vies for our attention, something that very few other characters manage to do. Likewise, Marie Rivière, the charming star of Eric Rohmer’s Summer (1986) and Autumn Tale (1998), appears onscreen for only one scene as Romain’s mother, and her character is given no opportunity to grow beyond the periphery of importance. This is the pervasive problem with Time to Leave: the characters are not fleshed out enough to be compelling.

RIP, Mickey...

Just found out that Mickey Spillane has passed away. He was 88 years old. One of my favorite writers, he is always an inspiration. His prose is lucid, dripping with detail, and--most importantly--kinetic. I appreciated how his mysteries were not hackneyed yarns that you race to finish before the end of the book--they seem to be written off the cusp, improvised almost: it's about how Mike Hammer acts and reacts. When actions spoke louder than words, the action hollered. And Hammer, too, is not the usual detective hero: he's not the smartest cookie, but he's the most wired, explosive detective there ever was, and he'd go farther than anyone around. That was his strength: to be unafraid of extremes. The same can be said of Spillane's writing, which unabashedly used italics and exclamation points, punctuation that has become taboo over the years. Spillane was fearless.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Recent Watching: Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

Legendary bottom-feeder Davy Jones is the old haunt in the bottom-of-the-barrel Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest (2006). As a sequel, it fails to achieve the same level of spontaneity and charm of its predecessor, largely because it is reusing the same bag of tricks, but to lesser effect. Action sequences and special effects take precedence over story, a compromise that barely keeps the movie afloat for its bloated 2 1/2 hours.

Like hidden treasure, the plot is buried deep within a chaotic structure filled with too many ghost ships, sea serpents, island cannibals and conniving British exporters—only once you dig up the plot, you discover how little it is worth. Squid-faced ghoul Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) is out collecting on Captain Jack Sparrow’s (Johnny Depp) soul. Meanwhile Sparrow, with Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) in tow, is in search of buried treasure—a chest that contains Jones’ still beating heart. Whoever is in control of this is in control of Jones and, in turn, the seas that he still haunts. However, Sparrow isn’t the only one who wants the treasure: Will Turner has his own reasons for assisting Sparrow, as does the tyrannical East Indian Trading Company, who wants to create a monopoly on trade waters.

The script leans more on adventure and excitement than on character, a decision that weakens our connection to the story. It is as though writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio expected our empathy with the characters to carry over from the first film, and they do little in this sequel to help re-forge the bonds. For example, the relationship between fiancés Will and Elizabeth (whose marriage is interrupted in the opening scene) seems stagnant: they hardly share any on-screen time together, and when they do the proverbial “sparks,” typically felt between the ingénue and leading man, are decidedly absent.

Johnny Depp, the highlight of the first film (who even garnered an Academy Award nomination), reprises his role as the gangly, strangely flamboyant pirate Jack Sparrow, but adds nothing new to the role. His mannerisms have grown redundant, and his character meets, but never exceeds, our expectations—in short, he is predictable. He shies away from valor and adventure at first, choosing always to save himself over others, but just when you think he’s a selfish lout, he joins the fight and waxes gallant like the rest.

The film tries to maintain a sense of humor throughout, but often it feels out of place. Instead of being witty, the writers often resort to anachronisms: modern jests that are out place in the movie’s historical setting, such as Depp sprinkling paprika under his arms as though he were in a deodorant commercial, or the way in which characters slip out of their stylized dialect to say lines in a more contemporary manner. During these winks at the audience, the historical façade drops, and it seems that neither the actors nor the writers are up to the challenge of creating authentic pirate humor.

I also had the feeling that I had seen some parts of Pirates’ before, and not just in the original. A scene on a cannibal island where Jack Sparrow is mistaken for a god and Will Turner is bound to a log seems very much a scene from Return of the Jedi (1983) in which the ewoks think C-3PO is a god, and Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca are bound to logs in preparation for cooking.

As often happens when too much attention is given to special effects, they cease to be neither special nor effective. Such is the fate of Pirates’ densely grotesque visuals, particularly Davy Jones and his salt-water zombies, whose scaly flesh writhes as though it were still living. Director Gore Verbinski and his special effects crew have painstakingly integrated live-action footage and computer animation seamlessly, but they lay it on so often that the spectacle soon loses its impact. It might be archaic of me, but with blockbusters becoming increasingly reliant on CGI, I long for another filmmaker like David Lean who is able to create epics without all the artifice and gloss. In films like The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965), Lean was able to craft visceral, exciting images using actual landscapes, and the simplicity is effective and immediate. I find the spectacle of reality more invigorating than any computer generated sea monster, which is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive and cannot share the multiplex together, but just that they don’t anymore. Blockbusters like Pirates and superhero movies dominate theaters, and I am left to look elsewhere for other varieties of cinema.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

"Born to Kill" (1947): Dead on Arrival

Born to Kill (1947) hardly fulfills its lot: it lives long enough for a double homicide, then promptly turns to hang itself. Its ailment is a confused script: characters that are neither here nor there (though, perhaps if they actually went somewhere the movie might be better). As it stands, the characters seem amorphous, with ill-defined motivations and stock personalities from any number of better hardboiled yarns.

The opening ten minutes are the movie’s finest moments. The story begins in a boarding house owned by the elderly, beer-guzzling Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), one of those colorful, eccentric personalities that old Hollywood specialized in—and if only there were more characters of this sort in Born to Kill, because most of the rest of the characters are far too serious to be enjoyable. One of the tenants, Laurie Palmer (Isabel Jewell), is two-timing her boyfriend Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), and when he finds out, he murders both her and her other beau. Killing the girlfriend is one of the archetypical noir plots, and Tierney is well suited to this sort of raw violence with his steadfast and unperturbed demeanor. Director Robert Wise films the scene without a hint of melodrama or exaggeration, setting a precedent that is disregarded for the rest of the picture.

Taking the first train out of town, Sam meets Helen Brent (Claire Trevor). Fate (or coincidence) has thrown them together: unbeknownst to Sam, Helen is Laurie’s roommate who discovered the bodies, but for furtive reasons did not inform the police; and Helen is unaware that Sam is the murderer. This hardboiled match-made-in-heaven meets an early death when Sam discovers Helen is already engaged. In retaliation, he marries her sister. Both relationships begin to disintegrate when Mrs. Kraft appears with a private detective and a determination to bring Laurie’s killer to justice.

The biggest problem with this story is its lack of focus: the film awkwardly switches gears and is unable to efficiently combine its multitude of conflicts. There is the issue of Sam’s psychosis, which seems to just be the result of a bad temper. Likewise, Helen’s attraction to violence is an unexplained anomaly (it is never sufficiently explained why she doesn’t call the police when she discovers the bodies). Under the surface there is sub-plot about Sam marrying for money, and how Helen is jealous of her sister’s inheritance (of which Helen received none), but like many of the undercurrents in Born to Kill, they are more underdeveloped than subtle.

My biggest disappointment with the picture, however, is with Elisha Cook, who plays Sam’s confidant Marty Waterman. Cook, with his small frame and whimpering voice, is famous for playing the fish-out-of-water in such noir gems as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Big Sleep (1946) and The Killing (1956)—a softboiled soul in a hardboiled world—but in Born to Kill he’s so much the softy that it is difficult to believe. When Sam confesses to Marty that he murdered Laurie and her boyfriend, Marty’s concern is so congenial it seems to be in jest but, in actuality, he is being earnest.

Versatile director Robert Wise, who early in his career edited Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and later went on to direct such classics as The Set-Up (1949) and West Side Story (1961), stoically commands the unsteady script, but seems unable to balance all its deficiencies. The performances are, by and large, professional and convincing (Tierney and Trevor, in particular), and occasionally brilliant (such as Mrs. Kraft, the landlady). Still, Born to Kill lacks the cohesiveness of something like This Gun for Hire (1942), where the script and story is rock steady and can provide a solid foundation for the actors to build upon. Born to Kill, with occasional flashes of excellence, lacks the foundation necessary for consistency.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Revealed in the first moments of Richard Fleisher’s The Narrow Margin (1952) is a plot impossibility so contrived it almost makes the movie seem like one big train wreck. The story concerns police detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw). who is assigned to escort Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), the wife of a recently murdered gangster, from Chicago to Los Angeles where she is to testify in court and identify key mob personnel. On the same train, however, is a pair of mob hit men with instructions to make sure the moll only leaves the train on a stretcher.

Now, for the kicker: the hit men don’t know what the woman looks like—but they know what the cop looks like, so they’ll identify her that way. Talk about un-organized crime: she’s the wife of someone in their own racket, yet they don’t know what she looks like, and are unable to find a photograph of her. They even know where she lives, because in the opening scene they arrive at her apartment to knock her off; a gunfight with her police escorts results only in the death of Brown’s partner. This impossibility wouldn’t be so onerous if it were not reiterated every few minutes, or play such a big role in the plot—and there’s even a “mistaken identity’ plot twist waiting for you at the end of the line, and it’s a real doozy.

Almost, but not quite, a train wreck. The collaboration between director Fleisher and cinematographer George Diskant is the best part of the movie: the narrow confines of the train are realistically created, as well as highly affecting. There is a physical constraint that emanates and infuses the suspenseful plot with even greater anxiety. During the fights and chases, the camera is in such close quarters with the actors that it seems as though a collision is inevitable.

The script, written by Earl Felton from a story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard, is a mixed bag of half-baked plot and hardboiled dialogue, the sort that has become indicative of the whole film noir genre. Lines like, “She’s a 60-cent special: cheap, flashy, and strictly poison under the gravy,” are some of the highlights of the movie. Actually, that line is pretty classic, and ranks up among some of the best hardboiled quotes.

The actors do their best, given the incredible senselessness of their characters. Marie Windsor, especially, seems to have gotten the short end of the stick: as the femme fatale, Mrs. Frankie Neall's only weapon is her stupidity, and she seems to be a threat only to her own safety. Charles McGraw plays Walter Brown the way Dana Andrews might: monotone, with few vocal inflections. McGraw delivers lines like, “Mrs. Neall, I’d like to give you the same answer I gave that hood—but it would mean stepping on your face,” the way a hardboiled detective should.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Saraband (2003): Ingmar Bergman's Most Recent Masterpiece

Like many of Ingmar Bergman’s films, or any masterpiece for that matter, it is difficult to get my mind fully around his latest film Saraband (2003) after only two viewings. Which is not to say that it is overly complicated—because it’s not. As with most Bergman films, there is a pure and simple core around which more complex layers begin to grow, and with it expand the film’s meaning. This is why Bergman’s films contain such depth: not from one particular philosophical statement, but from the intersection of so many intimate details from so many multifaceted characters. When revisiting a Bergman film, it is possible to choose a different character to follow—and one must choose only one, or risk both overloading oneself and overlooking so many subtleties—and garner a different experience each time.

My experience changed between my first and second viewings of Saraband. The first time I was drawn to Marianne, played by Liv Ullmann, a familiar face from many of Bergman’s films. On a whim, she decides to visit her ex-husband, Johan (Erland Josephson), whom she has not seen in thirty years, and ends up staying in his guest room for the remainder of the summer. Their reconciliation is immediate: perhaps it is time that healed wounds, or that in their old age they appreciate the intimacy that they once shared; as Johan reminds, friendship was always the strongest part of their marriage. It is not that Marianne has forgotten Johan’s infidelities and cruelties—she hasn’t, and even discusses them with Johan’s granddaughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius)—but by accepting his faults she has come to a deeper understanding of him.

Marriane’s impetus for visiting Johan is one of the biggest mysteries of the film—several times Johan even asks Marianne, but she is unable to come up with an answer—and, in some ways, I think it remains a mystery to her even when the film ends. Sitting at her desk (as she was in the opening shot), she tells of how she had to leave his house to get back to work as a lawyer and, while for some time they kept in touch over the telephone, eventually they lapsed out of communication once again. The circularity of the story is a fatalistic gesture to end the movie on: by not bringing closure to all of the characters in Saraband, Bergman acknowledges the lack of resolution that exists in our own lives, the loose ends we all let go of at some point.

On this second viewing, I was more attuned to the conflict between Johan and his son, Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt). Having taken an early retirement from work when his wife died, Henrik is unable to pay for his daughter to attend a music conservatory. Johan, disapproving of Henrik’s overbearing parenting, offers Karin the money himself, asking in return that she sever ties with her emotionally unstable father. The rift between Johan and Henrik runs deep: Henrik blames his father for not always being a strong presence growing up; and Johan, having tried to reconcile with his son and been rejected, has resigned himself to bitterness. When it comes to Karin’s future, both men bid for her loyalty, but it seems that each of them is equally interested in beating out the other as in Karin.

Bergman’s writing here is among his best: the characters are rendered with such intimate and intricate precision. Bergman first introduced these characters in Scenes From a Marriage (1973), and reprised them again in After the Rehearsal (1984) (though no prior knowledge of these films is necessary to follow or appreciate Saraband, which functions independently from its predecessors), and Bergman’s familiarity with the characters is easily apparent through each of their distinctive and thorough personalities. Too, the acting is magnificent. Bergman veterans Ullmann and Josephson, reprising their roles from Scenes From a Marriage (Josephson actually plays Henrik in After the Rehearsal), deliver pitch-perfect performances (as should be expected), as does Julia Dufvenius, for whom Saraband is her first leading role in a feature film (she has previously starred in the Swedish miniseries “Glappet” [1997] and appeared in the movie Suxxess [2002]). But it is Borje Ahlstedt who delivers the standout performance: he plays Henrik with just the right amount of pathos and perversion: we empathize with his devotion for his daughter, but at the same time we are disgusted with his attempts to turn her into a surrogate wife (a particularly polarizing moment is when he kisses her on the mouth, and she recoils back in alarm). These are characters of gradation, not archetypes, and if there are things we love about them, there are also things we hate. Liv Ullmann’s Marianne, perhaps, is the only character we can admire without reservation: hers is a maternal presence, both to Karin but especially to Johan, and she seems to be the sole voice of reason amidst all the conflict.

At the time of Saraband’s release, Bergman announced his retirement from filmmaking. If that is to be, then Bergman will have gone out on a high note with not only one of the best films in recent years, but also one of the finest films he’s ever made.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Elegy for the Aged Gangster: "Choice of Arms" (1981)

Alain Corneau’s Choice of Arms (1981) is a solid crime drama with an outstanding cast: Yves Montand, Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve. Montand is Noel Durieux, an aged, reformed mobster who now breeds thoroughbred horses with his wife Nicole (Deneuve). Noel is thrust back into the crime world when two escaped criminals show up at their door seeking refuge: Serge Olivier (Pierre Forget), Noel’s old partner-in-crime, and Mickey (Depardieu), a sociopathic, low-level gangster. Mickey becomes problematic when he threatens to expose Noel to the police for aiding and abetting them. When the police track the criminals to Noel’s house, Mickey flees. Noel must then keep the police off his back and at the same time track down Mickey to ensure his mouth stays shut.

The story’s foundation is secure, but on the whole the writing seems uneven: some characters and scenes feel extraneous, and the first half of the film doesn’t flow too well. Partly, this might be because the American cut is only 114 minutes long, 21 minutes shorter than the European cut. But while the first half of the film seems awkwardly assembled, with characters and situations lacking the necessary exposition, the second half is tight and gives new depths to the characters, Noel Durieux in particular.

Knowing that the cut I saw wasn’t complete, I want to believe that all of Choice of Arms’ faults would somehow be fixed if the 21 minutes were reinserted, but the most I can do is speculate. As it stands now, the biggest flaw is with Nicole Durieux. Catherine Deneuve has proven herself as one of the world’s strongest actors in such films as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Repulsion (1965), and Belle de Jour (1967), but here she isn’t given a chance to lend her talent: hers is only a peripheral role. It seems that whenever Mickey shows his face around the house, Noel is forever telling Nicole to deal with the horses. Thus, all the important scenes take place between Montand and Depardieu—Deneuve is never given a chance to develop any rapport with them.

Depardieu, however, gives a magnificent performance as Mickey. He delivers his dialogue with such immediacy that pre-meditation seems impossible. It is this unpredictable quality that makes his scenes so rife with anxiety. One of the highlights of the film is a scene where Mickey gets into a scrape with a female gas station attendant. When he pulls his gun on her, she keeps right on at him, screaming and provoking him still further. In a way, her cheeky impudence is rather humorous, but after having witnessed him kill before, we can’t help but think she’s asking for it. Instead, Mickey gets back in his car and backs into the front window of the store.

Contrary to Depardieu’s wired performance, Yves Montand plays his character as stoic and aloof. There’s an unnerving calmness about Noel, even when Mickey is running around the room firing off his pistol: it is as though Noel has seen this before, and knows exactly how to handle the situation. Noel inspires in us a murderous confidence, knowing well that if he has to, he will go to the farthest measures to assure he and his wife’s safety. Which is not to imply that Noel is a trigger-happy retiree: like Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III (1990), Noel is happy to be out of the game and not at all anxious to get back in it, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten how to play if need be.

As effective a story as Choice of Arms is, it still follows the gangster movie code in many ways. Aged gangsters are always calm, cool and collected—Noel in this film, Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) in Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), Jean Gabin’s Max in Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954), and Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972) amongst many others in the genre. The young gangsters are always too hotheaded, as well—Depardieu in this film, Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, and the list continues. These archetypes, clichés though they have become, are almost essential to the genre: an inherent way to communicate generational conflict, nostalgia for the past and uncertainty for the future. There is always something elegiac about these stories, the we watch the old generation, so staid, unable to pass on quietly; it is as though the world is so unstable in the hands of the young that the old cannot leave well enough alone. This is really the core emotional conflict of Choice of Arms, with Mickey being a threat to the security that Noel has established. Such a timeless theme that permeates multiple genres and such disparate films such as La Dolce Vita (1960) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Choice of Arms may not be the most original movie ever, but Yves Montand and Gerard Depardieu really make the film worthwhile.

The Visual Artistry of Fassbinder's "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus craft a dense image that combines cinematic techniques with theatrical traditions and elements from painting and portraiture. The intersection of all three is a film of rare visual splendor: rare, because hardly ever does a filmmaker savor the basic kinetics of motion, the texture of fabrics and the collision of fashions from disparate time periods like Fassbinder does. The story concerns fashion designer Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) who invites Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla) to move in with her in order to play a dual role as both model and lover. Marlene (Irm Hermann) is Petra’s secretary, who bears witness as Petra and Karin’s relationship disintegrates under their struggle for power and domination over one another takes precedence in their relationship.

Fassbinder stages his characters in a tableau-style manner, often choosing to have them recite their lines while standing still, as though they are portraits speaking the lines. Sometimes the camera stays still, respecting the characters’ poise, while other times it navigates the set, highlighting the complex layers of visuals constantly at play: always choosing the long take, the camera racks focus to shift from Petra speaking to Karin listening, then it pans across the room, passing by statuesque mannequins on its way to Marlene who, in the corner, has stopped typing to stare at the two lovers philosophize about the politics of relationships.

Confined to only Petra’s apartment, the film’s theatrical origins are apparent (Fassbinder originally wrote The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant as a stage play). At the same time, the film feels organically cinematic: the intimacy of the shots often reveals details that would not be noticeable from the audience’s perspective in a theatrical setting. So much is conveyed through the actors’ subtlety—Margi Carstensen and Irm Hermann’s facial nuances are particularly revealing. Likewise, Fassbinder and Ballhaus’ compositions are equally telling, be it through the positioning of mannequins in the background that mimic the characters or the use of mirrors and windows to symbolically represent deception and disconnection.

Poussin’s painting of “Midas and Bacchus” covers an entire wall in the bedroom. As Petra and Karin sit on the bed in front of it, they begin to take on iconic statures like the characters depicted in the painting. The irony is that, if Petra, Karin and Marlene are to be idealized like the nudes in the painting, they are anything but perfect: they are constantly donning eccentric costumes (jeweled brassieres and long flowing robes) and covering their faces thickly with make-up in comparison with the bare skin in the painting—this, perhaps, reflecting the layers of deception and costumes worn by the characters. Too, the presence of the painting forges a bond between disparate time periods, commenting that the conflict between Petra and Karin is timeless, and has been performed throughout history. The parallel between Midas and Petra is not so obvious. Both are stories of ironic comeuppance: Midas received “the golden touch” as a reward, only to discover that it made life impossible for him to live. Petra’s comeuppance is less straightforward, and thankfully less moralistic: after recognizing Marlene’s loyalty, Petra decides to love her as a human being and not a servant. Hearing this, Marlene packs her bags and walks out the door, all the while “The Great Pretender” plays on the stereo. The song says it all: “Oh yes, I’m the great pretender / Pretending I’m doing well / My need is such I pretend too much / I’m lonely but no one can tell.” Petra’s “pretending” is her undoing: she doesn’t care for Marlene, and is only reaching out for a replacement for Karin, who has left her. Marlene, well aware of Petra’s motivations, prefers true insensitivity to false affection. As Petra says, “It’s easy to pity…but so much harder to understand. If you understand someone, don’t pity them—change them. Only pity what you can’t understand.”