The art-house patron can only take what he gets. Last time out I noted that the Japanese director of Departures, Yojiro Takita, though he has literally dozens of films in his résumé, was a new name in these parts. Context is nonexistent. The new name this week, though his previous films could be counted on the fingers of both hands, no thumbs, is Götz Spielmann, the Austrian writer and director of the tantalizing if ultimately unsatisfying thriller, Revanche. We might wish at least that we had had the opportunity, as those in busier markets had had, to see his notorious Antares, with its (so they say) explicit sexuality. For the curious, the film would be available from Netflix. But then, so would thousands of others, including three action films from Yojiro Takita, apparent departures from Departures — or, more likely, vice versa. Where to start? Where to stop? The reality is, we depend on the art house to provide “alternative” fare, but we cannot depend on it to provide context and continuity. Hit or miss. Like it or lump it.
We could wish additionally, and even more hopelessly, that we had had a firmer grounding in Austrian cinema. On the present evidence, Spielmann betrays a marked kinship with his better-known countryman (owing to his working outside his native country) Michael Haneke: a high degree of orderliness and cleanliness in his visuals, the meticulous plotting and measured pace, no incidental music for emotional cues, a penchant for unsettlement, a palpable suspense in the strictest sense of not knowing what’s coming, but a coolness and dispassion in outlook, a refusal to identify overmuch with any of the participants. How far this represents a national character is an open question, and a broad one. How far it represents a conscious emulation is a narrower question, but still open.
The opening shot of the film, a long-held reflection of upside-down trees in a tranquil lake suddenly shattered by a plopped rock, is the rough equivalent of Haneke’s opening to Funny Games — the opera on the car stereo interrupted by shrieking metal rock — except Spielmann’s opening is easier on the ears, and it’s perfectly natural and unforced. (The moment will be replayed in proper chronology much later on.) All the same, it serves warning. And it serves as synopsis. The initial situation unfolds far from bucolic tranquility. An Austrian Viggo Mortensen (Johannes Krisch, lean, sinewy, and wolfish), an ex-convict employed as a custodian in a Viennese house of ill-repute, is carrying on in secret a heartfelt affair with an immigrant Ukrainian sex worker deep in debt to the slave-driving owner. The ex-con, on a dutiful visit to his failing grandfather at a small farm in the country, next-door neighbor to a uniformed policeman and his wife, sizes up the local bank as an easy knockover, a fast exit from servitude. It all sets up nicely, and it develops unpredictably, and I hope I’m not giving away too much when I say that it has a surprise nonending. My own feeling about the ending is that if we’re going to be dragged through a seedy sex club, past some stickup clichés (the girlfriend: “I have a bad feeling”; the boyfriend: “Nothing can go wrong”), and into a classic revenge scenario pitting two tortured men, cop and robber, in a game of cat-and-mouse, then we might not be prepared to ascend to the high-minded summit that Spielmann has in his sights. He must bear some culpability for our baser expectations. It’s all very well to rise above genre conventions, yet the film is arguably more rewarding when not rising above. Genre conventions, after all, are famously elastic.
Moon, set in the near future at a one-man mining camp on Earth’s only satellite, speculates on the anomie of the self-knowing human clone, a reasonable stand-in for the self-knowing human. Written and directed by the British team of Nathan Parker and Duncan Jones respectively (bona fide new names), it’s a nice little piece of short-story-sized science fiction freighted with reminders of 2001 — some of Silent Running as well, less burdensome — and stretched out to just barely endurable length. As in its eminent forebear, the human cast is very limited, mostly Sam Rockwell in a dual role — at one point playing pingpong with himself in the same frame, at numerous points matching the ostentatious torment of Bruce Dern in Silent Running — supported if not upstaged by a talking computer called GERTY 3000 (smarmy voice of Kevin Spacey) instead of HAL 9000. A sufficient innovation in design is the emblematic Smiley Face that signals the computer’s “mood,” or alternatively a Frowny Face, Quizzical Face, or Noncommittal Face, every bit as expressive as the Jack-in-the-Box of fast-food TV ads. It’s quite astonishing how even the most modest-budget science fiction now approximates the nonpareil special effects of the Kubrick monument of forty years ago.
In Away We Go, director Sam Mendes travels the sunnier side of Revolutionary Road, travels it, together with a playful, lovey-dovey, loosey-goosey couple expecting their first child and looking for a spot to put down roots, to Phoenix, to Tucson, to Madison, to Montreal, to Miami, evoking little sense of place anywhere outside of the lived-in house they left behind. This unmarried couple — a blackly bespectacled John Krasinski, bespectacled even in bed, even under the covers in the act of cunnilingus, and a bronze-skinned Maya Rudolph, a shade warmly and expansively photographed — escape the suburban bourgeois stereotype of Revolutionary Road, or any recognizable stereotype for that matter (“Are we fuck-ups?”), although all along the way they run into assorted models of parents who do not escape stereotype: the true itinerary of this plainly signposted road movie. (Bump. Falling Rock. Wrong Way. Dead End. Keep Right.) The folky pop songs on the soundtrack perhaps seek to hem them in, but the best thing about them, and the film as a whole, remains their individuality (he wants to marry, she won’t; she’s of mixed race and no parents; he’s got a breast fixation; etc., etc.), an individuality not best expressed in their looks of supercilious amusement and bemusement in the face of all those bad parental stereotypes. The upshot, even so, is a show of courage and optimism, just not a very convincing show.