The Free Will

Hard-working German actor Jürgen Vogel plays the serial rapist Theo in Matthias Glasner’s almost unbearably grim The Free Will (Der Freie Wille). When we meet Theo, he’s heavy-set and angry, working at the cafeteria of a seaside youth hostel. Within minutes of the film’s beginning, he spots a potential victim, knocks her off a bicycle and drags her into the dunes, where he ties her up, rips off her clothes, beats and rapes her in a brutal sequence that seems designed to weed out those audience members who won’t have the stomach for what’s to come.

When we see Theo again, nine years later, he seems profoundly changed: with a buff body but a docile and contrite manner, he tells his parole board just what they need to hear to release him. Told in handheld scenes with an authentic, documentary feel, Der Freie Wille unflinchingly observes Theo’s struggle to contain his own aggressive desires and insecurities.

Glasner’s script manages to steer clear of any move that could be construed as making excuses for Theo as we follow the tortured paths he takes through the provincial German town, including harrowing scenes in which he follows random women through subway tunnels and darkened streets. Der Freie Wille takes a surprising turn when we’re introduced to Nettie (the striking Sabine Timoteo), a young woman who is just leaving behind her overbearing father.

The brittle love that blossoms between Theo and Nettie is the film’s thorniest conceit. We’re trained to wish happiness on all screen couples, but the heavily fraught intimacy we become a party to here is exceedingly difficult to watch. In fact, without the eye-opening performances by Vogel and Timoteo, the film is impossible to imagine: they don’t seem to be afraid to lay bare their very souls.

Glasner softens the blows with moments of fragile joy, but this is not a film that harbors any illusions that love will conquer all. No doubt, Der Freie Wille goes places where not everybody will want to follow, but it stays emotionally true to its frightful subject and finds moments of startling honesty at the extremes of what audiences can endure.

Benten Films will release The Free Will on DVD in the U.S. later this year.

Der Freie Wille. Matthias Glasner, 2006. ****





Yet another Tribeca dud, Taxidermia is one of the most unpleasant movies I’ve ever sat through. György Pálfi (Hukkle) directed this Hungarian Grand Guignol grotesquery that riffs on exactly three ideas: pig fucking, speed eating, and self-taxidermy. Based on short stories by Lajos Parti Nagy, the movie presents the fable-like history of a freakish family. In the first section, a harelipped country pervert who can shoot fire from his dick is looking for ever-new kicks in well-lubricated glory holes and Hans Christian Andersen tales that turn into their porno versions. Imaginative camera work and extreme close-ups create an intense physicality, but they don’t lead to a place you want to follow: by the end of the segment, butchery, adultery, and shocking acts of bestiality and necrophilia sent waves of nervous giggles through the audience. The walk-outs started.

The remainder of the movie tells the stories of the pig-fucking pervert’s offspring. His son, born with a curly tail (ha ha!), becomes one of the Eastern Bloc’s most successful “sport eaters,” an obese guy in a wrestling leotard wolfing down chunky soups and Russian horse sausage from troughs. Between rounds, the competitors power-barf and chat about the groupies in the audience. Like an SNL sketch that stretches its conceit well past the breaking point, Taxidermia milks the “sport eating” joke for more than its worth: there’s the cross-swallow, the hollowed out red star filled with caviar, the threat of lock jaw. It’s as if Pálfi had decided to take the “mint leaf” sequence from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life and turn it into a feature film. There seems to be some satirical intent, but it’s not pointed enough to sting.

The third section is the most repulsive: close-ups of taxidermy in progress were never on my must-see list, and the skinning, gutting, and sawing is made worse by the fact that the pervert’s ghoulish grandson is operating on himself. And I haven’t even told you about the gutted fetus, to be filed under “sights that cannot be unseen.” Not every movie has to be a pleasant experience, but Taxidermia struck me as a pointless gross-out, inventive but without sufficient character or story to support its grotesque excesses.

Taxidermia. György Pálfi, 2006. *

  • Filmbrain finds Taxidermia “a fascinating treatise on excess, desire, and the politics of the body.”
  • The trailer:

Day Night Day Night

A harrowing movie about a female suicide bomber headed for Times Square. Unlike Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, which followed two Palestinian “suiciders” into Israel, Day Night Day Night refuses to give any kind of context. The nationality, ethnicity, religion, political and private motivations of the girl with the detonating knapsack (Luisa Williams) are never revealed; at most, a few hints are sprinkled throughout the movie. We don’t even know her name: Williams is merely credited as “she.” Instead of the socio-economic, cultural, moral and political web surrounding the characters of Paradise Now, first-time director Julia Loktev focuses on minutiae: the way “she” carefully bathes and trims her nails in the nondescript motel room where she meets hooded men who outfit her with cheap clothes, a fake ID, and the strap-on explosive device, the way the organizers makes sure she wears a seat belt on the way to her attack, the way the zipper of her jacket gets stuck when she fumbles to readjust the trigger of her bomb.

The first half of the movie is tightly controlled and claustrophobic; the second half, in Times Square, is sprawling and chaotic, but no less wrought with fear. The enormously expressive face of Luisa Williams carries most of the film’s weight; it wouldn’t be much of an overstatement to say that the movie is her face: fierce determination shot through with existential dread. Loktev seems to be saying that death, murder, and suicide will always remain mysteries to the living, and when all three are folded into the single push of a button, we can only approach this singularity like a Black Hole. There is no way we can truly understand what led to it, or what comes after.

Day Night Day Night opens on on May 9; we’ll have a full review on About.

Day Night Day Night. Julia Loktev, 2006. ****

The trailer:


A new disc from the Criterion Collection can feel a little bit like trying a new vegetarian dish. Sometimes it’s juicy and delicious, sometimes you feel like you ought to like it just because it’s oh-so-healthy (and then you’re glad you did), and sometimes it’s broccoli rabe.

Robert Bresson’s final black-and-white film, an adaptation of a tragic novel by Georges Bernanos, delivers a striking portrait of abject poverty. The early scenes, when young Mouchette shuffles on oversize clogs between school and flop house home (drunken father, wasting mother, screaming baby) are quite affecting. Bresson is up to his usual exposition-less tricks, and the stark naturalism is bracing. Mouchette is unloved at home and abused at school, so who’s to blame her when she throws some mud at the pretty classmates in their fancy dresses? But then, she turns out to be a character with no options, and storylines involving a) poachers and b) epileptics and c) rapists are always a problem for me. When there are poaching rapists with foaming epileptic seizures, I’m in deep trouble. Au Hasard Blathazar struck me as sublime evocation of suffering, but here, after only 81 minutes, I was just glad that the suffering–Mouchette’s and mine–was finally over. The DVD comes out tomorrow.

Mouchette. Robert Bresson, 1967. **

[tags]2 stars, film, french, robert bresson, criterion collection, tragedy, suffering, poachers, epileptics, rape, poverty, alcoholism, suicide[/tags]

The Bridge

Eric Steel aimed two cameras at the Golden Gate Bridge and filmed every daylight hour for an entire year. You see, the bridge isn’t just the most-photographed man-made structure in North America, it’s also a deadly magnet for suicide. About two dozen people jump to their death there every year, and Steel figured that he’d catch at least a few of them on tape–and he did. The resulting movie, which delivers awful footage from the bridge and interviews with witnesses, family members, and one survivor, is disturbing and probably a little exploitative (Steel saves the “best” jump for last.) I haven’t entirely gotten my head around this thing, so hang on for a proper review. My sense of it right now is that it’s slightly overlong, but missing too much context. The director was there for a post-screening Q&A, and there were a lot of questions that the movie didn’t address at all (the non-existent barrier, the question of helping the people he filmed etc.). The Bridge opens on October 27.

The Bridge. Eric Steel, 2006. ***

[tags]film, 3 stars, documentary, suicide, san francisco, golden gate bridge, death[/tags]