Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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Humbert Humbert goes to Russia

By Mohamed El-Assyouti

The Barber of Siberia (France-Russia 1998)

Nikita Mikhalkov's Le Barbier de Siberia (The Barber of Siberia, 1998) is a remarkably executed production despite flaws in the script and direction. Received coolly at Cannes, the film nonetheless showcases Mikhalkov's extravagant flair for period atmosphere.

Using fin de siècle political upheavals as an allegory for their contemporary counterparts, and then foregrounding a love story among them, is problematic: can merging Anna Karenina with Titanic ever really work?

The film's narrator Jane Callahan (Julia Ormond), writing a letter to her son in 1905 America, flashbacks into 1885 Russia where young cadet Andrei Tolstoy (Oleg Menshikov) is thrown into her train compartment as she is reading Anna Karenina. She is an American who is "ignorant of Russia" but who comes to know it as the events of the film progress.

Over three hours, Mikhalkov's film boasts a ball; a military pledge of loyalty to the Tsar; a duel; the uniquely Russian festivities of Forgiveness Day; a comic proposal scene; a romantic love scene; an opera performance in which Tolstoy plays Figaro; an affair climaxing in misunderstanding; a heart-breaking farewell-at-the-train-station scene; a Godzilla-like chase of villagers through a Siberian forest cross cut with another nostalgic parting; and a finale in which a 1905 drill sergeant announces to his soldiers from atop a cliff that Mozart is a great composer.

Besides contrasting the fading cultural wealth of 19th century Europe with the degeneracy of the contemporary scene, the film parallels the corruption of Russia's ruling class who grant Douglas McCracken, the greedy American entrepreneur -- disappointingly performed by Richard Harris -- permission to butcher the Siberian forests with his Jurassic machine, the Barber of Siberia of the title, with the tragedy of the two unlikely lovers, Jane and Tolstoy. Jane, the initially whorish American businesswoman, rescues McCracken's business by successfully pretending to be his daughter and seducing the Russian officials, and then marries him while Tolstoy, who sacrifices his career to demonstrate his jealousy over Jane, is imprisoned then exiled to a remote Siberian village.

This extravagant orchestration of the turn-of-the century novelistic romance, scripted by Mikhalkov together with Rustam Ibragimbekov, unfortunately contains terrible performances by miscast actors. Was the English language really so popular in 19th century Russia? Even the prison guard is Anglicised. The thank-you-message-delivered finale strikes an equally wrong note. The film's chief merits, however, lie in its luxurious production, lavish in real crowds scenes, which computer graphics have made obsolete, and Mikhalkov's distinguished visual sense.

The Barber of Siberia's 1885 Forgiveness Day celebration, top; Abel 'l'ogre' Tiffauges ( John Malkovich), middle; Besieged Shandurai Mpidge (Thandie Newton), left; Siberia's lover Andrei Tolstoy (Oleg Menshikov), right
Der Unhold (The Ogre, Germany-France-UK 1996)

Premiered at the Venice Film Festival 1996, Volker Schlöndorff's stylised version of Michel Tournier's novel Le roi des aulnes was only released earlier this year. It centres around Abel Tiffauges (John Malkovich), a Frenchman who likes children and seeks "to protect them from grown ups".

Abel was brought up in a Jesuit orphanage. About to be punished for some infringement of the rules, he wishes for the orphanage to burn down, and it does. His belief, though, that all he has to do for something to happen is to wish it, becomes frustrated.

He tries to change the fact that children fear him, and even call him an ogre, befriending a little girl and driving her from school everyday. She, though, tells the police that he hurt her and on the basis of this false molestation charge he is sent to serve in the French army.

Taken prisoner, he befriends his Nazi captors, becoming their faithful servant and is rewarded by being sent to work at Kaltenbom castle, a military training camp where he volunteers to recruit children into what he thinks is an infallible educational and physical training programme though it turns out to be a feeding system for an insatiable war machine.

Through his eyes we see the common-ground between the French and German characters, though the excesses of the latter prove their eventual undoing.

While the French officers kill Abel's pigeons to eat them, a marvellously detailed sequence shows the German field martial Hermann Goering (Volker Spengler) hunting dozens of stags, deer and foxes. The latter dresses in a coat of fur, has a voracious appetite and can only calm himself when upset by dipping his hands into huge bowls of precious jewellry.

In the castle Malkovich witnesses the clashes between the racist scientist professor Blaettchen (Dieter Laser) who believes "it is all in the genes", the enthusiastic young SS officer Raufeisen (Heino Ferch) who considers training the decisive factor and whose belief in the Führer is absolute, and the elderly Count von Kaltenborn (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who collaborates in a doomed conspiracy against Nazi rule.

Schlöndorff's visual style, realised through Bruno de Keyzer's splendid cinematography, is at its best. The outstanding production standards, the war scenes in black and white, others in colour, the occasional voice-over narration, the distinguished performances and Michael Nyman's superb music make this film both a remarkable experience and a worthy tribute to Louis Malle, to whose memory it is dedicated. The Ogre, Schlöndorff's second remarkable WW2 epic, following his 1979 adaptation of Gunther Grass's The Tin Drum, stands as one of the best two war films of the present decade -- the other being Terence Malik's The Thin Red Line (1998) -- just as Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) and Elem Klimov's Come and See (1985) stood for the previous one.

L'Assedio (Besieged, Italy-UK 1998)

Bernardo Bertolucci is finally back. At the end of a decade in which his films have been consistently flawed, this TV production of his and Clare Peploe's adaptation of James Lasdun's story nears perfection.

The film is a cinematic poem depicting an unlikely situation in a deliberate, off-hand and delicate manner that Bertolucci is among the few filmmakers to master. In Rome, Shandurai Mpidge (Thandie Newton), an African political refugee, works as a housekeeper for British pianist Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis) in addition to carrying on with her medical studies. Her husband, a political activist, is imprisoned in the unnamed African country of which they are nationals.

Her pianist employer shows every sign of admiration and enchantment. He gives her his aunt's ring and proposes to marry her but she refuses. At his declaration that he would do absolutely anything to make her love him; she responds "get my husband out of jail!". While Shandurai does not know whether he is dead or alive, Jason was until this point entirely ignorant of his existence.

Gradually she notices that the precious ornaments, paintings and statuettes have begun to disappear from the house, while letters from her home country begin to arrive.

Finally, his piano is also sold, quickly followed by the arrival of a letter from her husband announcing that he is to arrive in Italy. It is at this point that she discovers that she is in love with the Englishman whose piano compositions, which initially clashed with her favourite African music, began eventually to appropriate its rhythms.

Besieged is a beautifully performed and directed cinematic metaphor that announces Bertolucci's return to the concise lyrical approach that marked his beginnings in the 1960's. His visual style, accomplished in collaboration with cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti, is a hybrid of hand-held, steady and tracking camera systems, made all the more pronounced by fragmentatory editing. The flashback inserts are intentionally unsettling, obtrusive and chaotic; and the presence and songs of African blues singer Ali Faarka Toure are as hearty and agonising as they are real and incomprehensible. The acting style is spontaneous and understated, and characters are realised through poise and gesture. The sparse dialogue alternates freely between the African dialect of the house-keeper, English and Italian and the whole structure of the film, interweaving African, Italian and British motifs, serves as a vivid metaphor of the status quo, of the vastness of the open world and, simultaneously, a state of inevitable siege.

Lolita (USA 1997)

From Adrian Lyne of 9 1/2 Weeks (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), and Indecent Proposal (1993) comes this second controversial version of Nabokov's novel. Jeremy Irons's performance as the infatuated Professor Humbert Humbert is outstanding while Dominique Swain as Dolores -- 'Lolita' -- Melanie Griffith as her mother and Frank Langella as Quilty are all convincing.

Stephen Schiff's script is effective in its attention to detail, the only thing that can give value to screen versions of literary masterpieces. Lolita's glamour magazines, tiny skirts, teeth braces, chewing gum and toe nails are among many details that become the unforgettable object of Humbert's lingering glance.

It is ironic that this adaptation of Nabokov's intense satire on American consumerism is directed by Lyne, who began his career making commercials, and though set in the 1940s' Coca Cola and Mobil signs figure prominently at some points. Ennio Morricone's music is superb, especially at the violent finale sequence where its theme recalls the confrontation scene in Once Upon A Time in the West (1969) in gallow-humour fashion.

Irons and Langella are more than a match for their James Mason and Peter Sellers in the 1962 Stanley Kubrick version, though the latter's more sedate and observatory visual style was more effective in depicting the protagonist's psychological dilemmas than Lyne's dreamy, insert-oriented route.

The controversy that suffocated this film, delaying its release and finally restricting it to video and cable-TV, appears to have been a storm in a tea-cup.

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