dir. Park Chan-wook, 2013, USA
dir. Christian Petzold, 2012, Germany
The bottom line: a hell of a woman x 2.
Recently finishing first-runs at Chicago’s Landmark Theatre, and now playing around the country elsewhere in limited release, are Stoker, the American debut of South Korean director Park Chan-wook, and Barbara, the latest from German auteur Christian Petzold. On the surface, these films might not seem to have much in common: one is a Nicole Kidman-starring gothic horror movie that floats across the screen as episodically as a nightmare, while the other is an “art film” that precisely recreates the socio-political climate of East Germany in 1980. But one might also characterize both as dark, morally inflected psychological thrillers that center, crucially, on female protagonists. And it is worth pointing out that Park and Petzold are of the same generation and have even led somewhat parallel careers: both were born in the early 1960s, were university educated (Park studied philosophy, Petzold majored in film production), served apprenticeships as assistants to other directors before making their debuts in the 1990s, and toiled in relative obscurity in their native film industries for years before making their international breakthroughs in the 2000s (Park with 2003’s Oldboy, Petzold with 2007’s Yella). Barbara and Stoker are also both damn fine movies that are well worth your time.
I have to confess that it took me a while to warm up to Stoker even though I’ve long been an admirer of director Park. Perhaps I was prepared for the worst because of the depressing track record of talented foreign (especially Asian) filmmakers who have come to Hollywood and been incapable of replicating, whether through their fault or not, what made their work exciting to begin with. Or perhaps it was the fact that Stoker seemed to languish in post-production for a suspiciously long time — Park has admitted in interviews that Fox Searchlight, the distributor, forced him to cut the movie by 20 minutes, which will hopefully be restored on the forthcoming Blu-ray/DVD release. Whatever the case, as I sat through the first 20-or-so minutes of Stoker, my heart sank due to what I perceived to be its lack of cultural specificity: the events seem to be taking place in the American south (it was shot in Nashville), yet no one sounds remotely southern. All four of the film’s principles (Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode and Jacki Weaver) are either Aussies or Brits who speak with flat, neutral American accents. Then there is the matter of the schizoid production design. Stoker is set in the present day although the sets, props, and costumes skew heavily, David Lynch-style, towards the style of the 1950s and early 1960s: this is a world where high-school girls still wear saddle shoes, and the boys who court them wear black leather jackets and ride motorcycles. All of which made me draw the hasty conclusion that this was a movie made by someone who knew too little about contemporary American life.
Silly me. I should have known to trust Park and his production team better than that and not to have expected anything as mundane as “realism” from the director of the boldly stylized Lady Vengeance. As the film progresses, the indeterminate yet vividly dream-like setting (America as filtered through the imagination of a Korean obsessed with classic American cinema) starts to become its strongest virtue. Stoker is a coming-of-age story about India (Wasikowska), a troubled, violent and perhaps mentally unstable 17-year-old girl, whose sexual awakening and passage into adulthood are precipitated by the death of her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), as well as the mysterious arrival of the heretofore unknown-to-her “Uncle Charlie” (Goode). If that latter name sounds familiar, it’s because Stoker is a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, in which Joseph Cotton played a similarly sinister character with the same name. (Park has claimed that he actually pruned Wentworth Miller’s original script of more Hitchcock references, although this is hard to believe: he still manages to visually quote both Strangers on a Train and Psycho.) As both India and her mother Evelyn (Kidman) become irresistibly attracted to Charlie, Park spikes the perverse psycho-sexual stew with a startling array of sights and sounds: the sharpening of a pencil sounds like the grinding of human flesh, a digital spider crawls between India’s legs (a creepy-funny moment proving that the most obvious metaphors are also sometimes the best ones), an impressively unsettling use of the Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra duet “Summer Wine” and, best of all, an extreme close-up of Kidman’s strawberry-blonde hair, the individual strands of which digitally morph into blades of tall grass waving in the wind (one of the most astonishing images I’ve seen on a cinema screen in years).
While there is more cinematic vitality and intelligence in any one minute stretch of Stoker than there is in the entirety of Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo, such virtuosity has already brought out objections from the pilgrim-hatted “style-over-substance” brigade. But Park presents nothing if not a coherent and compelling worldview in Stoker as well, albeit one that is likely to make viewers distinctly uncomfortable. Chicago film critic Kevin B. Lee recently praised Silver Linings Playbook for its vision of America as a giant psych ward, persuasively noting that while much was made of Bradley Cooper’s “bi-polarity” (an angle the distributor unfortunately exploited by acting as if the film were some kind of breakthrough in allowing Americans to talk openly about mental illness), all of the characters were suffering from some form of addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder. I think Park Chan-wook offers a similar vision in Stoker, although none of his characters are afflicted by anything so benign as Robert DeNiro’s cuddly version of OCD; instead, they’re all psychotics and sociopaths. While I wanted to mentally rewrite another ending for Stoker immediately after I first saw it, reflecting on it over time has caused me to realize that the ending Park presents is probably the most logical conclusion to his story: shortly after she’s turned 18 and “come of age,” the dark seed within India’s soul fully flowers, which leads me to think that Park may be saying something specific about America after all.
I would be hard-pressed to name a recent movie more worthy of the phrase “culturally specific” than Barbara, which begins with the title character, a young doctor played by the magnificent Nina Hoss, arriving in a provincial East German town in 1980. We soon learn that she has been banished there as a result of merely applying for an exit visa from the German Democratic Republic. Understandably, this leads to her immediately adopting an attitude of aloofness to her new co-workers, including the kindly hospital director, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), who seems to have taken more than a professional interest in her. Barbara’s coldness towards her professional colleagues in these early scenes is contrasted with the extreme compassion she shows toward the hospital’s patients, especially Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), an adolescent girl suffering from spinal meningitis. We also learn that Barbara is secretly plotting with her lover, the West German businessman Jorg (Mark Waschke), to defect to the west, which she must do while simultaneously staying one step ahead of prying Stasi agents. This plot description, however, probably makes the movie sound like more of a contrived genre piece than it is; written in collaboration with noted avant-garde filmmaker Harun Farocki (the director for whom Petzold started out as an A.D.), Barbara is built on quietness and patience, and is grounded in an impressively real-world sense of what daily life in East Germany must have been like (i.e., an atmosphere of almost-banal mistrust) shortly before the worldwide collapse of Communism.
The most popular German movies to previously address the same subject as Barbara are the lighthearted comedy Goodbye Lenin! (2003) and the Hollywood-style melodrama/thriller The Lives of Others (2006). While I personally enjoyed those earlier films, there’s no question that Barbara blows them both out of the water. The great advantage of Petzold’s movie is the degree to which it more doggedly sticks to the subjective experiences of its fascinating protagonist, giving viewers a glimpse of a specific time and place in recent history as witnessed by a single person. Dr. Barbara may come across as one of the more uniquely bitter lead characters in contemporary cinema but we come to realize that’s only because she has been made that way by living in a cultural climate of widespread fear; she seems suspicious that virtually anyone might be a Stasi agent or an informer, only letting her guard down when meeting Jorg for a tryst. Nina Hoss does an incredible job of internalizing this suspicion through closed-down body language that suggests the actress has tensed nearly all of her muscles for most of her screen time. (Here’s hoping that she got a nice long massage as soon as production wrapped.) In an age when too many actors choose to express themselves merely with their voices and faces, Hoss’ full-bodied performance is an object lesson in what cinema acting should be. The character, unsurprisingly, does undergo a transformation as the plot develops, but one that leads to a pleasantly surprising conclusion that I won’t be giving away here. Let me just say that Barbara’s character arc is utterly believable in its quiet and natural way. Like everything else in this gem of a movie.