Friday, June 20, 2014

Movie Review: Faust

Directed by:   Aleksandr Sokurov.
Written by: Aleksandr Sokurov & Marina Koreneva based on the book by Yuri Arabov and the play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Starring: Johannes Zeiler (Heinrich Faust), Anton Adasinsky (Mauricius), Isolda Dychauk (Margarete), Georg Friedrich (Wagner), Hanna Schygulla (Moneylender's 'Wife'), Antje Lewald (Margarete's Mother), Florian Brückner (Valentin), Katrin Filzen (Margarete's Maidservant), Prodromos Antoniadis (Notarius).

Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov has said that he views Faust as the completion of his quartet of films about men of power on the verge of losing that power that also includes Moloch (1999) about Hitler, Telets (2001) about Lenin and The Sun (2005) about Hirohito. I have not seen Moloch or Telets, but did see (and greatly admired) The Sun. Faust is a different movie of course – the central character spends most of the film debating whether or not to sell his soul. He is not interested in power in the traditional sense – like Hitler, Lenin or Hirohito – but power on a different level.

The film with two images that are in immediate contrast, and let the viewer know what they’re in for over the next two hours and twenty minutes – a grander, CGI laden swirling shot of the German town the movie will be set, and then immediately cuts to a shot of a corpses’ limp penis. Faust (Johannes Zeiler) is dissecting the body to try and learn it’s mysteries – like where the soul may reside (something that interests his assistant far more than Faust, who isn’t sure it exists at all if he cannot find it). It’s an ugly scene, filled with death and decay – that the movie will pretty much wallow in for nearly its entire runtime.

Most of the movie is made up of Faust walking around this thoroughly ugly town with Mauricius (Anton Adasinsky), the film’s Mephistopheles character, debating and negotiating the price of Faust’s soul. Faust wants knowledge, wealth, power and the beautiful Margarete (Isolda Dychauk) – something Mauricius makes more difficult, as he gets Faust involved in a brawl that end’s with Faust killing Margarete’s brother. Mauricius will get Faust into all sorts of trouble through the film’s long, slow buildup to the moment where Faust actually sells him his soul. Mauricius is the film’s most interesting character – a far cry from the typically charming and attractive Mephistopheles character. He is ugly, fat, smells bad, and when he strips naked, reveals he has no penis, but a strange little tail. He’s also not all that smart – when he gives Faust the contract to sign, Faust first spends time correcting the spelling and grammar before signing.

The film is deliberately ugly pretty much from start to finish. Sokurov shots in a boxier aspect ratio than most films, and often distorts the imagery. Almost everyone we meet in the film is ugly and vile in one way or another – not quite as bad as Mauricius, but close. The film wallows in mud, blood and shit for most of the time it’s running – all of which serves to make the already angelic looking Margarete seem even more so.

As a visual experience, Faust is almost never pleasant, and yet it certainly is one of the distinctive visual films of the year. Sokurov is the director, after all, of Russian Ark – a film made entirely in one, 90 minute shot through a Russian museum which tells Russian history in one go. His camera here is just as restless as it was in Russian Ark, but to different affect. Sokurov and his brilliant cinematography – Bruno Delbonnel – have crafted a film that if nothing else, at least looks like no other movie you’ll see this year. There is nothing beautiful about Faust – not in the traditional sense anyway.

Thematically, I have no idea what to make of Faust. Is Sokurov saying that Faust is essentially the same as Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito – a man willing to sell his soul as a way to satisfy his own ego? What then to make of the film’s final scene, which seems an odd way to end the movie.

There is a reason why Faust won the top prize at the 2011 Venice Film Festival – even above great films, that may more mainstream – like Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Friedkin’s Killer Joe or McQueen’s Shame. This is film art. There is also a reason why it took more than 2 years to be released in North America – it is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. That isn’t necessary a shot at the film – it was designed to be unpleasant – but the film is also rather tedious at times (it takes a long time to do just about everything), at times confusing, and ultimately perplexing. If you think the film sounds interesting, but all means check it out – there will be some who think it’s a masterpiece. There will also be some who think it damn near unwatchable. You’ve been warned.

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