Saturday, November 5, 2011

Hanging in a trance - "Faust"


I don't even know if I particularly like "Faust," but qualifying a movie like this based on personal enjoyment seems somewhat counterintuitive to the kind of work it's doing to sustain an immersive and very particular mood. Already the winner of the Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival, Alexander Sokurov's film is difficult, occasionally maddening, emotionally empty, and strangely beautiful. It's also one of the best adaptations I've seen in quite some time, and deserves to be taken very, very seriously.

Johannes Zeiler assumes the titular role of professor with a thirst for more, but Sokurov's adaptation (co-written with Marina Koreneva and Yuri Arabov) makes a few major shifts in traditional perceptions of the character. First, there is a marked interest in carving up and understanding bodies and anatomies. The first shots of the film are an autopsy, or perhaps more accurately of Faust exploring the internal organs of a corpse. Over and over, bodies are twisted, fetishized, placed in oppositions, sexualized and desexualized, making this a very physical manifestation of the play. Second, Faust is not so much knowledge-hungry as he is desperate -- he is poor, hungry, and not making a particular amount of difference in the world.

His pact with "The Moneylender" (read: Mephisto) doesn't even take solid shape until perhaps 90 minutes into the film. Anton Adasinksy plays the Devil beautifully as a whimsical, disgusting, misshapen old man who engages Faust philosophically as much as he takes delight poking him in bizarre antics. His plot to gain Faust's soul comes less from exploiting his desire for knowledge than simply his desire to be recognized, sought after. That takes the form of Margarete, a young beauty whose brother the Moneylender kills (by manipulating Faust to do it) so that the good professor may console and seduce Margarete. It's a much more conniving, drawn out plan that introduces a rather fascinating (and, admittedly, deliciously creepy) romantic vibe.

The story of "Faust" is immensely well known, so while Sokurov and his writers take certain departures to make it their own, the real creativity comes through in the visuals. It feels like the camera is floating through most of the film, taking characters out of the center of compositions to almost lust over the architecture of the small German town or the nearby woods. There are also many instances of canted angles, intensely soft focus, and gels on the lens to create a reality that is constantly shifting (not to mention the beautiful intrusions of natural colors like greens and browns into the color palette), made more explicit from jump cuts that induce a lack of logic to the narrative progression and detached voiceovers that cobble together bits of conversations. Adding in some subtle (and some not so subtle) surreal imagery, the overall effect of the film is to be sustained in 135-minute trance.

That's both the most appealing and unappealing quality of the film. Occasionally, the languid pace is simply maddening; the film often feels like it sincerely is going nowhere and just wandering about. But at the same time, this often makes for the most captivating sequences -- this is a journey for Faust, where he may just be walking around his town and the surrounding areas, but the conversations he's having with the Moneylender and the truths these are revealing about himself start to confront us with his need for power.

All the gears of a poetic, abstract cinema are operating in full swing, which shouldn't detract from the rather wonderful performances given by the principals. If the film confronts us with startling, at times profound and even moving images of nature throughout, it still manages to let its story of multiple seductions creep in occasionally. The narrative is sublimated for the sake of exploring the visual landscape, and this at times lends the feeling of improvisation. That improvisatory atmosphere adds to the laboriousness of the film in places, but also makes it feel like a genuine exploration into the Faust story.

Certainly, Sokurov is doing a wonderful feat of adaptation, turning an established work of art into a meditation all his own. He uses adaptation as an excuse to transform the text narratively and visually, creating a version of the film that certainly goes heavily against its more renowned filmic adaptations of the past (specifically, Murnau's classic from 1924). While it's a potentially fresh film for visual theorists and adaptation scholars, especially towards its more ambiguous final twenty minutes (let's face it, the whole film is rather ambiguous and at times seems simply unsolvable), it's very tempting to just toss Sokurov aside as creating, frankly, masturbatory images loosely assembled around a classic story.

But to dismiss the film in such a way is to simply balk at its experimentive nature that seems, all in all, genuinely excited about the process of exploring narrative in such a sublimated visual way. That may come across as boring or over-long -- which it certainly is in places -- but that doesn't take away from the overall effect: it uses the camera to cast a spell.

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