12 January 2011

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2010: BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

In retrospect, it was my great misfortune to finally catch up with Maren Ade's Everyone Else in such immediate proximity to its thematic cousin Blue Valentine; not only because watching two pornographically detailed dramas about break-ups in two days puts you in a bit of an unsound place, mentally speaking, but more importantly, because the grandiosity of Blue Valentine's emotional fireworks show is so absurdly huge that it much overwhelms the much less histrionic German film, which is no less closely-observed but not nearly as aggressive. Which maybe makes it less successful; or maybe I am just a crude American who needs my themes writ large.

Setting all that aside, Everyone Else follows a German couple visiting Sardinia: Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) and Chris (Lars Eidinger). They're staying in Chris's parents' house, and he's taking the opportunity to check out a potential piece of work renovating a house (he's an architect); as the film goes by, we come to understand that this is their first extended period of time completely alone and always in each other's company, and two of the funnest hours of cinema that you'll ever see are spun out of their re-appraisals of one another, proving the George Costanza observation that long trips are relationship killers, but doing so in a much less comic way.

Ade is not going for the transformative moment so much as the process by which a superficially happy couple starts to figure out that they're actually not made for each other, and that the wee tiny annoyances are going to keep piling up at exactly the rate that the playful quirks and domestic silliness starts to fade away. There are few Big Scenes in Everyone Else, and one of these (it's not very spoilery to say it's the scene where Chris drives off in a furious huff) is among the least-convincing moments in the whole picture; far better are the long stretches where we get to watch these characters in the essential act of being, and observing their partner. It's hard to explain just how much mileage Ade gets from depicting one person watching another, but some of the truest, most cutting moments in the film come when one of the lovers has a sudden realisation that flashes across their face, for our eyes only. Everyone Else is all about psychological interiors, as they are revealed by such unguarded moments: it is at once a character study of two individuals and a character study of the relationship itself.

And yet, for a film that looks so long and hard at its characters, it's remarkably indirect: for one thing, it's shot almost entirely in wide and medium shots, excellent for drawing our attention to the characters's relationship to each other and to a disconcerting environment, but not what we'd expect from a film that puts so much stock in psychological depictions. Indeed, if there are any close-ups, I do not remember them (though some of the medium shots get tight enough that a more generous reviewer might say they count); hardly proof that there aren't close-ups, but a demonstration anyway that they aren't a predominant element of Ade's presentation of the material. At any rate, her visual approach distinctly unconventional: after some tussling, I don't know if this is because she presents a "feminine perspective", though Everyone Else would assuredly be a different and lesser film if a man directed it, so much as she presents an "anti-masculine perspective" - not the same thing, though no less valid. It's all in what she and cinematographer Bernhard Keller choose to privilege: the clearest example is probably found in the film's handful of sex scenes, which are certainly enthusiastic enough, but are shown from angles very unlike what we expect from such material. And that is true, if less obvious, throughout the film: Ade rarely chooses normal shots (and when she does, it's when the film is - again - at its least effective), instead staging the two characters in framing that, simply by being almost subliminally unusual, forces us to think much more about what's happening in front of our eyes.

I shouldn't, but let me return to the Blue Valentine comparison: the difference between the two films is ultimately the difference between a primarily visceral experience and a primarily intellectual one. Or perhaps more accurately, the difference between an act (fighting and ending a marriage) and a mental state (realising you don't necessarily love the person you love). Everyone Else makes considerable demands on its viewers, but it rewards them amply, if "reward" is the right word to use for a film that is so remarkably unhappy.

What ultimately makes Everyone Else triumph is its precise observation: both of the specific relationship at its center and about romantic relationships much more generally. In an unfairly perfect combination of sharp writing and tremendously aware, insightful acting (in a pinch, I'd admit that Minichmayr convinces me more than Eidinger does), the film establishes its characters quickly and completely, leaving us with the feeling that we've known them for some time now, so that we can quickly pick up on all the little tics of their behavior. It's certainly the case that we can see the two lovers aren't a good fit, and not just because this is billed as a movie about a relationship falling apart: Gitti is too indie and too good at picking fights, Chris is too cold and passive-aggressive. Plainly they have chemistry, but standing on the outside, where Ade is sure to keep us, we can tell that chemistry isn't enough.

The film is a collection of details, and I'd just as soon not catalogue them, but it's a bit eerie how true they all ring, showcasing all the little and less-little ways that lovers can talk past one another, bite down tiny annoyances but hold onto them (everything Chris does in the movie is in some way a reflection of his early frustration that Gitti keeps talking while he's trying to read), act in generally stupid ways that are meant to get attention through meanness (they're both outstanding at this). Best of all might be the way that despite how increasingly obvious it is that they've hit the wall, Gitti and Chris keep acting like maybe this time things will work out, right down to the deeply unsettled ending. Perhaps they have learned something, but the film leaves us doubtful that it will be enough.

All in all, Everyone Else is a bit clinical, and certainly too long: in her desire to pursue accuracy, Ade has fallen into the naturalism trap of letting repetitive moments go on and on, and there are definitely moments where it serves as a reminder that real life is inherently undramatic. But against this, there is the uncomfortable precision of its depiction of failing romance, and I have to believe that anyone who has ever felt anything akin to love will find something in it that resonates with some past regret, if not several. And that is a fine thing for art to do for us. It has some stiffness around the edges, but its emotional truth is beyond reproach.

8/10

2 comments:

chiaroscurocoalition said...

Strangely enough, I watched this for the first time the day after I saw Blue Valentine as well. You're right to say that this is more of an intellectual exercise (the overt gender-reversal coding, the sit-back and observe visual approach you mention), but I was stunned at how involved I was with every scene. I think seeing it with Blue Valentine had the opposite effect on me though. That film seemed (while still a powerful watch/experience) almost melodramatic in comparison. I thought of that film's greatest weakness, the asshole ex-boyfriend, and it seemed even more over-the-top and out of place when watching Everyone Else. It's unfair, and I loved both films, but I guess German detachment will always win over American Emotion (no matter how subtly crafted) for me.

Now I'm thinking of Herzog and Treadwell. There's a thesis in here somewhere.

Tim said...

I think Blue Valentine is only melodramatic in comparison to Everyone Else, but I agree with everything you've said. I just like the, I don't know, the "rrr!" of Blue Valentine more.