When James Agee wrote in these pages sixty years ago, he often complained of the paltriness of this or that movie, as judged against the events of the day. His standard of seriousness was World War II–and so, for that matter, is mine. I see enormity rather than grandeur in the current Administration’s agenda: freeing a region by making it captive, creating prosperity through looting, countering terror with horror. I like Nowhere in Africa and The Safety of Objects because they fall short of such imperial ambitions. These movies put their faith not in geopolitics but in the sight of one woman’s hand reaching for another’s.
Although Nowhere in Africa ends on just that moment of contact, the film is more ambitious than you might suspect, since this domestic drama also turns out to be a travelogue and a war movie. Written and directed by Caroline Link, based on an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig, Nowhere in Africa encompasses Kristallnacht, Stalingrad, D-Day and the Nuremberg trials, though it presents them as reports heard on a whiny radio or seen in a newsreel. Instead of blowing her money on scenes of history in the making, Link has focused intimately on Jettel and Walter Redlich and their young daughter, Regina, German Jewish refugees who are holed up indefinitely in Kenya.
“Holed up,” of course, is entirely the wrong phrase, given that Walter has rescued his wife and daughter from the Nazis by taking a laborer’s job on the savannah, where his shack is so isolated that Link needs a helicopter for the establishing shot. Here’s where she did blow the budget, as well as the logistical resources of her crew, by shooting Nowhere in Africa in rural locations, including areas near Mount Kenya and Lake Baringo. The landscape is wunderschön, as Jettel says upon joining her husband–“but of course one can’t live here.” The china she’d insisted on packing stays in the crates, awaiting the day (very soon, she imagines) when she’ll return to Breslau; and the German language remains on her tongue. While her husband converses easily in Kiswahili with the wry and lanky Owuor (who is officially the family’s cook and unofficially its protector), while her daughter quickly soaks up African words, Jettel communicates principally by snapping orders, telling Owuor to “learn German if you want to talk to me.” She seethes, until flames seem to migrate from her head into the terrain, where a brushfire breaks out. She must leave at once, she howls, as orange tongues lick up from the grass. Walter can think of no better way to calm her than to break the news about Kristallnacht. There’s nowhere to go.
The rest of the movie might be described as the story of how Jettel, yielding to necessity, slowly learns to love Kenya. The witness to this change is presumably her daughter (played at different ages by Lea Kurka and Karoline Eckertz), who provides an intermittent voiceover narration; but in a pleasant surprise, the film’s consciousness resides mostly with the mother. She is played by the red-haired, blue-eyed Juliane Köhler, who at the beginning reveals more than a hint of self-righteous anger under Jettel’s tailored outfits and careful makeup. You can guess that this now-mature woman, who prizes her looks, fears the last of her youth will be lost in Kenya. Then, playing out a transformation that is linguistic, attitudinal, sartorial, sexual and moral all at once, Köhler shows how Jettel comes to seem happier, prettier, perhaps even younger as she ages. It’s a progress that lets Köhler warm up as she goes along, to her evident pleasure.
Maybe this synopsis makes it sound as if Nowhere in Africa proposes the refugee experience as a kind of spa treatment. The criticism would not be entirely unfounded. There’s something a bit facile in the film’s way of playing off Köhler’s fleshiness and vivid coloration against the dark, neat, somewhat bland features of her Walter (Merab Ninidze). He’s always got right on his side–he was a lawyer back in Germany and has the skill in debate to prove it–whereas she’s got nothing but her willpower, plus a body that men find admirable; and these assets are enough to make her the stronger spouse. That outcome ought to have been enough to redeem the character; but it’s not enough for Link, who has decided that Jettel must also be the one who really understands Owuor (the magnetic Sidede Onyulo). On top of that, Jettel succeeds as a farmer where Walter could not, gets to announce the moral of the film (people should enjoy their differences) and makes a beautiful sacrifice of herself, more than once. By the end, the uplift quotient is running pretty high.
And yet I can forgive Link for telling the audience what it wants to hear, just as I will excuse the rhetorical camera flourishes she occasionally attempts amid a basically pedestrian style. Whatever is conventional and right-thinking in this movie tends to recede into the background, while the frame fills with intensely observed landscapes, faces, local customs and privileged moments–those few seconds when one person breaks through to another.
I will long remember the end of Nowhere in Africa, when Jettel has a brief exchange with a Kenyan woman who is peddling bananas along a railroad line. “I can’t buy,” Jettel says in Kiswahili, grinning comfortably into the sunlight and the hawker’s face. “I’m as poor as a monkey.” The hawker smiles back through ruined teeth, then hands up a free treat with the words, “For the monkey.” This isn’t spa food–it’s nourishment, served up with the kindness that so many ordinary people have offered to refugees in so many different places. By now, Jettel knows how to accept it; and we know what she’s had to go through to gain that grace.
Nowhere in Africa is Caroline Link’s gift to her, and to us.
There’s a similar meeting of hands–silent and more fleeting, but just as filled with meaning–at the conclusion of Rose Troche’s moving and elegant The Safety of Objects. In the course of an outwardly bland backyard cookout, Annette (Patricia Clarkson) touches Esther (Glenn Close) and so acknowledges to her, for the first time, the pain that’s bound their families throughout the movie.
Based on a collection of short stories by A.M. Homes, The Safety of Objects is, in formal terms, an exercise in cross-cutting–like The Hours, except done with real talent. (Troche knows what the Oscar-nominated Stephen Daldry does not, that the camera can travel faster or slower, and follow irregular paths, and tilt, and change its focus, and pick out details that can be oddly, inexplicably eloquent. A director can use these resources to give sensuous impact to a cut; or else he can just make sure that the wallpaper in one shot matches the dress in the next.) Moving back and forth fluidly among four neighboring families in a suburban development, Troche shows how her characters deal with or deny the effects of a catastrophic loss.
Troche is so canny with her montage and gives such good support to her actors that the catastrophe needn’t be shown (although it is, ultimately, in the film’s sole obvious gesture). I don’t want to worsen the overstatement, so I’ll just say that The Safety of Objects shows how small, random causes can sometimes yield terrible effects, and how the survivors of these events can be touching but also exasperating, scary, absurd or strangely funny.
The prize for being exasperating and absurd would probably go to Esther–even though Close (who is riveting) uses her clarity of eye and cleanness of jaw, her tight muscular control and intellectual force to show that this character just tries to stand firm. Clarkson, with that voice that pours out like single-malt Scotch, would qualify as the most touching; her Annette, though endlessly, selflessly devoted to her children, manages to lose complete track of them. Dermot Mulroney gamely takes on the job of being the butt of all jokes as Jim, the neighbor who falls apart after a relatively small reversal and ends up as a cheerleader to Esther’s monomania. (Mary Kay Place also gets some laughs in a subsidiary, somewhat underwritten role as the neighbor who is starved for sex–but then, Place could find the chuckles in Medea.) As for the scary one, he’s played by Timothy Olyphant (one of Hollywood’s hunks of the moment, thanks to Dreamcatcher), whose Randy the Gardener becomes more and more alarming as he weaves among the other characters.
So much for text. As for subtext, I will mention that the children in The Safety of Objects include a girl called Sam (who is taken to be a boy called Johnnie) and a boy called Jake (who has an alarmingly vivid relationship with a Barbie-like doll). You might expect something like this from Troche, whose previous films were the London-based, polymorphous sex comedy Bedrooms and Hallways and the delightful Chicago-based lesbian date movie Go Fish. You’d also expect that the climactic meeting of hands between Clarkson and Close might suggest something more than neighborly concern.
It does; but the touch is satisfyingly light, as it is almost everywhere else in The Safety of Objects.
Short Takes: As someone who enjoyed Lisa Cholodenko’s debut feature, High Art, I’m sad to report she’s fallen into a sophomore slump with the new, heavily promoted Laurel Canyon. Once again, she’s told the story of an ambitious and heretofore conventional young woman who ventures into a raffish milieu, where she is seduced and in turn does some influential seducing. But whereas the first movie involved art photographers in downtown New York–a scene that Cholodenko understood from the inside–the present movie involves pop-rock musicians in Los Angeles, who are apparently known to Cholodenko mainly through back issues of Vanity Fair. She gives us the high-gloss version of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, which is doubly unfortunate, since as a director she’s got no gloss. Frances McDormand brings what life she can to the picture, looking smashing in denim with her hair bleached and frizzed out, and Alessandro Nivola does a fine turn as a British singer (the very nicest decadent musician you’ve yet seen in the movies). But the lost opportunities are all too evident in the performances of Christian Bale (a powerhouse actor, here reduced to fumfurring) and Natascha McElhone (who looks Irish, speaks with a Russian accent and is said, late in the movie, to be Israeli).
So let me conclude by welcoming a really good movie from China: Platform, by the remarkable Jia Zhang-ke. The story of a theatrical troupe from Shanxi province and its changing fortunes over the years, from subsidized agitprop performances in the 1970s to free-market, Western-style pop today, Platform stars Wang Hong Wei (the bespectacled James Dean of contemporary Chinese cinema) and uses a hyperrealistic, long-take approach, which in Jia’s hands is absorbing and quietly ironic. One of the outstanding features of the 2000 New York Film Festival, Platform is now getting a truly long-awaited theatrical release. Highly recommended.