Of all the genres into which I could dump Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War—action thriller, political satire, green polemic, star vehicle—the most encompassing, on-key choice might be wide-screen color musical. Granted, the singing is all choral, the dancing (if you want to call it that) comprises a little tai chi practice and a lot of running around, and the numbers are principally scored for wheezy keyboards (harmonium or accordion), Sousaphone, and a trap set augmented by a circus drum. Considering that the film’s odd instrumentalists keep showing up on camera, I’d even go so far as to call Woman at War a backstage musical, with the proviso that the wings might be in the heroine’s mind. Nobody (except for the movie audience) actually sees the trio of musicians solemnly performing on the mountain tundra, or wherever the heroic Halla happens to be. She alone hears the cockamamie suspense-theme rat-a-tat as she ventures out alone to halt an aluminum-smelting operation, and its contribution to global warming, by disabling Iceland’s electrical grid.
If this description makes Woman at War sound unbearably quirky, consider that the lightest-hearted musicals can answer a hunger for physical grace, while the most daring, even before the Sondheim era, have spoken to situations far beyond boy-meets-girl. Erlingsson strikes the balance between humor and urgency right from the start, thanks in large part to having cast Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as his Artemis with a backpack and cozy sweater.
Rangy, redheaded, and just about 50, Geirharðsdóttir dashes across the terrain with fluid strides in her establishing scenes (a police helicopter is pursuing her, only minutes after her attack on the power-transmission lines) and, when able to pause for a moment, expertly disassembles her weapon of choice, a takedown bow, as if by second nature, keeping her eyes on the horizon rather than watching her hands work. Since seeing Woman at War, I have learned that Geirharðsdóttir is a star in Iceland, where audiences presumably add layers of associations to her performance as Halla. All I know is that she’s utterly convincing in the wild as a fierce eco-warrior and equally persuasive when Halla returns to Reykjavik, where people know her as the lively, peaceable, bright-faced director of an amateur choir.
Normal life: the ground to which people are supposed to be morally committed, though as the planet warms, it does have a way of flooding. The conflict in Woman at War doesn’t concern whether Halla might be justified in committing sabotage—the framed photographs of Gandhi and Mandela in her home answer that one—but whether she’s making tactical and emotional mistakes by turning her back on common, daily ties and going it alone. Although she has accomplices, both cultivated and ad hoc, Halla strives to keep them at a safe distance from her actions—which is admirable, except that when she gets around to issuing her manifesto (in a daredevil stunt straight out of Les Vampires), no one has helped her by vetting the text. The few ill-considered phrases she’s sprinkled into her flyer are all the government needs to discredit the self-styled “Mountain Woman” through an all-channels media campaign. There it is, to her dismay, playing on every TV screen and echoing in every passing street-corner conversation: the propaganda of do-nothing centrism. Erlingsson mimics the language so well that you might find it chucklesome, if it didn’t ring so dreadfully true.
But the trashing of Halla’s pseudonymous reputation is only half of her dilemma. The other half is that her activism might force her to abandon the cherished hope of adopting a child: a 4-year-old Ukrainian war orphan who unquestionably needs Halla, but who might have to wait for her forever. With the possibility of a warm domestic relationship floating into view and, at the same time, threatening to vanish, new musical performers appear out of nowhere—a trio of wailing Ukrainian folk singers in traditional costume—leading you to wonder if Halla’s self-dramatizing internal soundtrack might be evidence that this heroine, although valiant, is also a little cracked.
Well, who isn’t? Although Halla is sometimes magnificent in her defiance, the drollery deflates her just enough to let you feel close to the character. In that sense, the most whimsical element of Woman at War—the music—is the one that brings you closest to ordinary life. The resolution of Halla’s dilemma, by contrast, is effected through a narrative sleight-of-hand that is well prepared but wildly artificial. Although satisfying in a movie-ish way, it leaves you with a package that’s tied up so neatly, you might suspect that it’s empty.
But then, in his cleverness, Erlingsson deliberately roughs up the story again, inserting a running gag about a South American wanderer in Iceland (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada), who in his hapless innocence is always in the wrong place when the cops come by. This is the most high-handedly satirical part of Woman at War, and in its way the one that keeps the movie honest. In the end, Europe is flooding, its fate mourned at full vibrato by the Ukrainian folksingers, and yet Halla the demigoddess has come out all right. But the young guy in the Che T-shirt? He’s screwed.
Although it’s common in the theater to transpose historic plays into modern dress, filmmakers seldom make the prince of Denmark prowl a Manhattan office building, as Michael Almereyda did in his Hamlet, or have Beatrice and Benedick go at each other in a suburban California house, as they did in Joss Wheedon’s Much Ado. The usual practice in movies is to adapt freely, like Cocteau in Orphée or Alfonso Cuarón in Great Expectations, or update facetiously in the Coen brothers’ manner. Only rarely does a filmmaker attempt a true double vision, calling up the original period in its integrity and at the same time showing us our present condition.
This is the brilliant, unsettling feat that Christian Petzold pulls off in Transit. He takes the characters and events of the 1944 novel of the same name by Anna Seghers and sets them without comment or explanation in present-day Paris and Marseille. A young German man, Georg (Franz Rogowski), is on the run in occupied France. He slips in among the desperate people crowding the US and Mexican consulates, where they wait day after day for exit visas. Policemen—exactly like those you’d see now—prowl the streets, demanding papers and throwing people into vans. In the bistros—exactly like those you’d sit in today—rumors circulate that the “cleansing” has reached Lyon and will soon get to Marseille. Nobody goes into detail about the forces that have occupied France (though it’s clear they’re German) or what the cleansing might be. Although the people in the consulates talk obsessively about the documents they need, they don’t say too much about why they must be on the ship that sails tomorrow—the one that, for all they know, might be the last. And so, as the movie opens up in your mind, the Nazi occupation stops being a relic of history and starts happening in the here and now, where today’s multitudes of stateless people hold on in the shadows against their own imminent cleansing.
To be in focus, a dual vision requires an immaculate style. Petzold weighs the effect of each image in Transit, never faltering in his camera placement, never cluttering the action with an unnecessary shot. The edits are crisp, the soundtrack precise with its jabs of ambient noise, the lighting clear and pitiless in the play of shafts and gloom, and the compositions as full to the edge as Edward Hopper’s with physical detail and loneliness. Action scenes unfold with unforced drama—this is, of course, a film about people on the move—but as the protagonist settles more deeply into Marseille, extended moments of interpersonal negotiation come to predominate, each as complex as a bomb needing to be defused.
Giving life to all this, Rogowski brings a combination of athleticism, shrewdness, and brooding vulnerability to Georg. A wiry, dark, sharp-featured man who sometimes resembles the young Joaquin Phoenix, Rogowski is a dancer and choreographer as well as an actor, who moves with a self-confidence that you imagine might enable him to evade the police, or hold his own in a fight. When he speaks, though, it’s in a light, slightly choked tenor that betrays Georg’s exhaustion and disillusionment. A communist of working-class rather than intellectual formation, Georg has made it out of two prison camps and evidently would no longer care to follow his principles into a third. Circumstances have given him a chance at escape through a false identity, but also have presented him with emotional complications he doesn’t want. Instead of slipping invisibly through Marseille, he becomes involved first with a young Arab boy (Lilien Batman) and then with Marie (Paula Beer), a beautiful, enigmatic woman who likes Georg but turns out, ironically, to be faithful to his phantom double.
Living phantoms are everywhere in Transit. They present dubious papers, occupy cheap hotel rooms off the books, and tell stories about themselves that probably aren’t true (and wouldn’t matter if they were). Many people are also phantoms in potential, since nobody knows who might disappear next, and some are already dead, though nobody knows that either. Everything is at once pressing and insubstantial; there’s no time to waste, and nothing to do but wait. Add to this ghostliness the vision of a time past that’s also present, a time present that’s out of place. There you have the sorrow and fascination of Transit, an imaginary trip through the anteroom of two genuine hells.
On my way home from watching Gaspar Noé’s latest film, Climax, I did a little reality-testing as self-defense. I had just seen Noé snatch away the ground from two dozen characters, and I wanted to know if he’d done it to me as well.
Jolting along with me in the subway were people of every faith and none, every gender and none, from many ethnic backgrounds and almost all ages and economic levels. During rush hour, as many as 258 of us will be packed into a car, united in discomfort, strain, and fatigue but otherwise not merely diverse but deeply divided. Multiply by 10 and you get the number of riders jammed onto the train, who by any reasonable expectation should be ready to lash out—and yet, over the course of 40 years of daily commuting, I can recall fewer than half a dozen fights or even shouting matches. Some theorists of animal behavior say we’re hard-wired for aggression; some theorists of society think the corruptions of New York encourage every kind of selfishness and anger. Your own nerves, too, may tell you at times that conditions in the car favor a riot. Yet we ride on in the millions, getting along with one another so well that we hardly even notice we’re doing it.
That’s reality. To Noé, though, this sociability is a mediocrity and a sham, beneath which lurks the brutal, authentic truth. He means to plunge your face right into the guts of that terrible, beautiful Absolute. Never mind that it’s more like the bowl of cold spaghetti proffered to blindfolded middle-school kids in a Halloween house of horrors. You’ll plunge! And so will his characters—in this case, a recently assembled troupe of dancers, all young and fit but otherwise as disparate as subway riders, who are sequestered in an isolated building after a rehearsal and driven nuts by the LSD-laced sangria they unknowingly drink while partying.
It’s possible, barely, that Noé had an idea when conceiving Climax. At the conclusion of the prologue—a series of video interviews with the members of the fictitious troupe—the company’s manager babbles about how she’s proud to take the group on a tour of America, where people don’t see anything like the excellence of French dance. Cut to a dress rehearsal, conducted in front of a glittering tricolor backdrop, onto which Noé superimposes the title: “A French film and proud of it.” Now you see, at considerable length, what the manager calls French artistry: a been-there-done-that mishmash of voguing, hand jive, street-dance contortionism, promenades on the diagonal, and writhing on the floor with a crotch-is-burning sneer. Pure mediocrity, endlessly repeated. Does Noé realize it stinks, and is he poking fun at French cultural pretensions? Is he also sticking a thumb in the eye of his French producers, including government funders? Maybe, briefly. But then it’s time for the acid to kick in, and the characters to start reeling through some ultraviolence and the old in-out, in-out.
I admit there is virtuosity in Climax. It’s extremely difficult to film long, hand-held takes in which the camera follows or encounters actors engaged in whatever the hell they’ve been told to do. It’s even trickier if you meanwhile tilt the camera woozily, or turn it upside down, in sympathy with your tripped-out characters. But this is virtuosity without thought or purpose, other than to show that everyone’s beastly. And though I can’t say that any character in Climax is admirable, I note with added queasiness that Noé has chosen to make the ones with the darkest skin tones the most brutal and obscene.
There’s a climax here, all right—the climax of a certain strain of European bad-boy cinema (it’s always boys), in which fantastic visual skill is devoted solely to the lifting of a middle finger. Well, the same to you, Gaspar Noé. The New York rush hour is all the extremity I need—and it comes with a comity you evidently wouldn’t believe.