Isabelle Huppert as Anne with the lifeguard and the umbrella – two recurring features of ‘In Another Country’
I chose this screening based on Isabelle Huppert’s appearance and the vague recollection that the writer-director Hong Sang-Soo was important. I wonder what I might have written if I wasn’t aware of the director’s pedigree? I later realised that this was one of the films in competition for the Palme d’Or in 2012 and that Hong is a celebrated figure on the festival circuit. As I watched the film I had mixed feelings – but I kept watching.
This is a classic ‘festival film’, aiming to please very specific audiences. I would be surprised if Hong’s films get much distribution beyond festivals, but who knows? A low-budget offering, this features a total of seven actors, most of whom play roughly the same characters in three separate scenarios set in an attractive seaside location – little more than a few houses and a hotel/bar in a small bay with a beach. The scenarios are presented through the device of a young woman writing them out – as short stories I thought, but I later read that they were meant to be screenplay ideas. The writer works with her mother in a small hotel/B&B.
In each scenario Isabelle Huppert plays a Frenchwoman called Anne who stays in the B&B and who is first a film director, then a married woman meeting her lover and finally a woman who has just been divorced. Each scenario involves similar characters and settings – a walk to the shops, a stroll on the beach, an encounter with a lifeguard and an altercation with another Korean man involving accusations of infidelity. Huppert speaks English throughout and, since this is ostensibly a comedy, there are several interchanges between characters which depend on mis-communication. The serious discourse underpinning the encounters appears to be a satire on Korean men’s attraction to foreign women and the social consequences of the over-polite exchanges between men and women. I confess that the humour didn’t completely work for me – I could see that it was clever and it was at times amusing, but not laugh-out-loud funny. The repetition of similar jokes and the play around getting drunk on soju began to get tedious after a while.
Isabelle Huppert, who presumably met the director at Cannes (where he has been ‘in competition’ five times) relishes the opportunity to play against type, skittering along on heels or slouching in flats clutching a soju bottle. The overall look and feel of the film is certainly attractive but I was irritated by the abrupt camera zooms (a familiar trait in the director’s style it would appear) and I wanted more about cultural differences in adultery and small talk. I’m clearly not the ideal festival audience. Hong Sang-Soo has won many awards at festivals across the world since the 1990s so I’m probably missing something. Here’s a sequence from the film used as a trailer at Cannes:
Andre and Barbara as Bogie and Bacall?
There was a moment when I was watching Barbara – which admittedly means quite a lot of watching the wonderful Nina Hoss – when it occurred to me that if there was a film like this to watch every week, I’d be very happy. When the film finished, my viewing companions surprised me by not agreeing with my sense of satisfaction. Perhaps they’ll comment on this post and explain why?
Many of the press reports have compared Barbara to The Life of Others (Germany 2006) which proved a major international hit. Barbara is similar in theme, but not in ‘feel’. Some aspects of Das Versprechen (The Promise, Germany 1994) seemed more apposite for me. I think director Christian Petzold set out to make a film quite unlike The Lives of Others in its depiction of life behind the Berlin Wall.
The setting of Barbara is East Germany in 1980. Barbara (Nina Hoss) has arrived in a small town in Pomerania near the Baltic coast to take up a new post in a hospital. Gradually we learn that she has been forced to leave a prestigious hospital in Berlin following her request to leave the country. Having angered the authorities with this request, she is now not to be trusted and is therefore subject to routine surveillance in her allocated apartment and suffers doubly in the hospital. It will take her time to sort out who is unfriendly because they think she is a stuck-up metropolitan type and who has been assigned to watch her closely and report back.
Barbara knows the score and therefore she is reluctant to respond to the overtures of Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) who is effectively her boss. He seems warm and welcoming, but is he too good to be true? Forced into moments of close contact (they are paediatric surgeons, working together) he at one point tells her a story to explain why he too has been ‘sent to the provinces’. Is he lying? Zehrfeld, who comes across as a slightly podgy but much nicer Russell Crowe, is very engaging but the film’s production design and cinematography creates a narrative space so pregnant with distrust that we are equally as unsure as Barbara about who to trust. (He clearly is under surveillance himself, but this might be a cover, a double-bluff.)
There is an excellent Press Pack for the film available here (as a pdf) in which Petzold discusses the film at length in terms of what he was trying to achieve and how he and the cast and crew prepared themselves. He tells us, for instance, that the two films that were most important in influencing the story and how he approached it were Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not in which Bogart and Bacall develop a romance in Martinique under surveillance by the Vichy French police in 1940 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons. The latter is one of several Fassbinder melodramas which present the feel and tone of life in post-war West Germany. Petzold showed the Hawks picture to his would-be lovers before the shoot and then looked to create something similar to Fassbinder’s mise en scène in representing the GDR in 1980. He argues that in recent films, the GDR has been portrayed in greys and browns – too symbolically drab and desperate. Petzold claims to have steered away from symbolism as such and tried for a very realist presentation, meticulously recreating hospital rooms etc. Certainly he shows the late summer as full of vibrant colours in the fields, but some scenes still seem to have an expressive edge (on several occasions when Barbara makes dangerous journeys by bicycle near the sea in order to secretly meet her West German lover or to hide incriminating evidence, there is a howling wind blowing). Overall though I think the approach works and the atmosphere is created more by narrative suspense than clunky symbols.
The last section of the narrative is both the most emotional in terms of the potential romance and the most suspenseful. It is also the sequence in which Petzold seems to contrive a thriller narrative with a plot that is either full of holes or too obvious in its direction. I can see these criticisms but neither of them bothered me as I watched the sequence. The careful mise en scène and slow pace – even as the tension mounts – kept me enthralled. I felt both the horror of living in a society where every sound of a motor vehicle or a step on the stair means possible discovery and arrest and the romantic intensity of choosing between security on the one hand and genuine passion but no security on the other. This kind of desperate choice is really what the film is about. I though the film’s ending was appropriate and satisfying and overall I found the film to be humanist in its approach.