Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Walking a Tightrope (Nikos Papatakis, 1991)


Nikos Papatakis’ Walking a Tightrope in fact figuratively walks (or runs, or leaps) across a series of them, stretched across a strange, highly iconoclastic variety of narrative and thematic divides and contrasts. The film does feature a fair amount of literal tightrope walking: famous author Marcel Spardice (Michel Piccoli) fixates on and later seduces Franz-Ali, a young man who catches his eye while picking up elephant dung at the circus, and then invests much time and resources in helping Franz-Ali work toward his high-wire dream. But with Franz-Ali failing to fulfil Marcel’s vision for him, and another young lover appearing on the horizon, Marcel’s attention moves on, and Franz-Ali eventually ends up back where he started, except that it’s unbearable now, and only obliteration awaits. There’s much genuine longing and loveliness in the film - not least in the character of Helene (Polly Walker), initially little more than a procurer for Marcel (it’s clear how those with power and connections manipulate the system to their advantage), but later overcome by a doomed love for Franz-Ali – and much personal and societal pain. The film counterpoints Marcel’s initial pursuit with a damning portrait of engrained racism – Franz-Ali’s mixed ethnicity causes him to be randomly rounded up and thrown into jail, after which a policeman volunteers to his German-born mother that as bad as the Nazis were, her dilution of racial purity by marrying an Arab is a worse sin. But this aspect of the film rather recedes as it goes on, while certainly remaining implicit in Franz-Ali’s decline – for instance, even at the height of her love for him, a large part of Helene’s plan is to have him work as a uniformed manservant either for her or her sister. That’s just one aspect of Papatakis’ consistent confounding of expectations, of his highly singular, energized sense of cinematic and emotional form and balance.

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