We were in Edmonton over Christmas, and we planned to go to a movie on Christmas Day with my mother in law as usual, but we couldn’t agree on anything. We nixed Les Miserables on our behalf; we nixed Django Unchained on her behalf; she surprised us a little by expressing no interest in seeing Barbra Streisand; and since hell wasn’t actually freezing over, there was no need to see The Hobbit. In the end we all agreed on A Late Quartet, but it meant we had to wait until Boxing Day, because it was in an old downtown theatre that did the civilized thing and took a day off. My nephew came with us, and because of weather conditions (I guess I lied about hell not freezing over), it looked for a while like we were going to miss the start of the movie. So I asked him what he’d think of a Plan B by which we went to see Hitchcock in the same theatre, which started a bit later, and he surprised me by saying he’d already seen it; when I asked what he thought of it, he said the first half was much better than the second. On further questioning, it transpired he was thinking of the old Will Smith movie Hitch. I like my nephew very much, but this story tells you something about why I’m glad I belong to my generation rather than his.
A Late Quartet
Anyway, in the end we made it to A Late Quartet (which is just about playing its final notes on the Toronto circuit) with a few seconds to spare, and I think my nephew might have ended up enjoying it more than I did, although this might be in large part because it’s the kind of thing he’d never usually see, whereas in broad terms it’s the kind of thing I always seem to be seeing. Directed by Yaron Zilberman, it depicts a long-standing and esteemed string quartet, suddenly in jeopardy when its cellist (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; this opens up other tensions within group members, some of them long-simmering, others new. In broad terms, I suppose the notion is that the human equilibrium that keeps the four together is as intricate, and potentially fallible, as the technical demands of the music, but whereas they nurture the latter through painstaking rehearsal and attention to detail (possibly to the extent of stifling the sense of risk and excitement), the former develops much more haphazardly and incompletely.
At one point, Walken’s character talks of the “transcendent moments” that push through a performance’s faults and imperfections, but A Late Quartet is disappointingly short on such moments – if there are any at all, they’re provided by Walken himself. The film is intriguing when it studies the contours of the professional musician’s existence, but it’s contrived, overwritten and/or melodramatic in dealing with most else. And while the inherently resonant Walken might be striking some unique notes, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener might as well have been directed to give their canonical “standard” performances. If I’d seen the movie in November when it came out in Toronto, I’d have been quite disappointed. But these are the three things I know you need to do at Christmas: (1) put your normal expectations aside; (2) focus on the glass half full, and (3) keep in mind that as long as you avoided having to sit through The Hobbit, you’re ahead.
The following weekend, back in the city of choice, we returned to the cinematic life to which we’re accustomed, and went to the Lightbox to see Christian Petzold’s Barbara. Barbara is a doctor in 1980’s East Germany, compelled to work in a small town for reasons that aren’t fully explained; she’s subject to constant surveillance and frequent searches, and maintains a self-protective distance from her surroundings and colleagues. Despite the difficulties, she occasionally manages to meet up with a lover from the west, who devises a plan for her to defect. At the same time, she gradually makes connections, in particular with her immediate supervisor, and with a troubled patient.
With superb, almost subliminal precision, Petzold makes Barbara a compelling study of lives lived under perverse constraints. The film shows little of the State at work, and spends no time on the merits of the governing ideology, but it conveys a constant sense of inner siege, all the more powerful for withholding its details. Near the beginning, her supervisor talks about Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, casting it as a study in perception and composition, and thus alerting us to the film’s strategy. Right afterwards, he acknowledges his monologue might have been unwelcome: in this environment, every utterance is potentially suspect for one reason or another, every act of apparent kindness potentially duplicitous.
At Last I Am Free
However, Petzold doesn’t overdo the greyness of things – there’s still some beauty in this world, both natural and manmade. And he doesn’t present the west as a perfect alternative – when her lover tells Barbara she won’t need to work over there, because he makes enough money, we sense her choice as one between competing pressures and strictures, not merely between confinement and freedom. In one of the film’s best scenes, she meets a younger woman, also the lover of someone from the west, a man who gives her gifts and says he’ll marry her; the exchange only lasts a few minutes, but is remarkable in conveying a tangle of excitement, fear, capitulation and awareness. And what about Petzold’s decision to run the closing credits over Chic’s At Last I am Free – a very witty evocation of the relative texture of Western culture at the time!
It’s unclear what degree of freedom Barbara actually attains at the end. The decision she makes, if less subtly handled, might be regarded as one of those “triumph of the human spirit” machinations in which the emotional and moral payoff transcends the possible physical toll. But Petzold leaves the final accounting ambiguous, as it presumably must always be in such an environment. Overall, Barbara is one of the year’s most satisfying pictures, and I hope my nephew gets to see it some time. It sounds like his favourite foreign film might currently be the recent Little White Lies, but that movie seems to me almost as contrived and calculated as any Hollywood “product,” with its Frenchness providing only the most trivial layer of difference. Oddly, he thought Little White Lies might have been directed by Jean-Luc Godard, which for an art movie aficionado ranks with that Seinfeld episode where someone thinks Dustin Hoffman was in Star Wars. But it’s endearing that he even cares, and (Christmas wish coming up) I truly hope he manages soon to identify and love the immense difference between the two.