If I have watched Western before, I would’ve put it in the same session with The Rider, as the two shares many similar themes, from its quasi-docu style that features non-professional actors who act as themselves, to their feminist jab at the western genre and male’s identity. But to say all that these double features have many appealing points themselves. They are also a dissection of the male’s psyche and status (in more ways than one) and the Western, but they’re also opposite in many ways. One favors the slow-burn, naturalistic approach, the other goes bold and divisive. One uses a big cast amateur actors, the other is a star-dubbed casts with only handful of characters. One plays mostly in exterior scenes, the other makes the best use of its interior sets. One is almost exclusively male cast, the other is almost exclusively female-lead. Both could be considered as the directors’ proud offspring. Day 9 of the competition, where the ladies give their touch to one of the most macho-genre in cinema, please welcome Western, and The Beguiled.
Valeska Grisebach: (1968, Germany) studied Philosophy and German Literature in Berlin, Munich and Vienna. In 1993, she started at the film academy in Vienna, where one of her teachers was Michael Haneke. She has become one of the leading figures of this loose “Berlin School” movement with only three feature films. Grisebach’s unique method, based on a time-consuming process of story development and pre-production, does away with the customary separation of “writing” and “filming,” naturalism and grand cinematic emotions as well as “professional” and “amateur” actors.
““I grew up with the western genre, sitting in front of a TV set in 1970s West Berlin. I felt the urge to return to it: it captivated me in a profound way. I wanted to grapple with the lonely, melancholic heroes and male mythology it portrays. I was excited by the genre’s modernity – despite all its conservative elements – in its attempt to capture social construction and individual responsibility, yet still fraught with its own contradictions. I was interested in the intimacy of the duel, the inversion of ‘love at first sight’
It takes 12 years for Valeska Grisebach to make another feature film since her 2006 Longing, but she hits gold again with Western, a slow-burn drama about a group of German workers working on a rural Bulgaria village near Greece border. Benefited greatly by its natural approach, Western flows organically and at times you can’t predict what happen next. It’s as if Western, and its main character Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), just goes with the flow and deals with the situations as they come. While that approach means that at times it’s meandering with no clear purpose, most of the times it feels entirely real. Meinhard, who plays what possibly a version of himself, at first finds himself and his team with the hostile attitude from the local villagers, then finds himself more at home with this strangerland than even his homeland despite the language barrier between him and the local people. His tough face commands the screen, and we follow him every step in his journey to this land. The film further addresses the tension for the alpha-male status between him and the de-facto leader of his group, Vincent.
What the most impressive things about Western is that it deals with many complex themes while telling very little. Our lead Meinhard isn’t the most talkative guy, he tends to observe and blend in to the surrounding. Even literally speaking, he has no mean to converse with the townspeople. Through simple words and gestures, however, they reach to the mutual understanding that makes him more at home to these people than his German peers. In one of the only heartfelt moment where his harden self breaks to reveal Meinhard’s emotions, he talks to Adrian, the localman about how he has nothing to return to in Germany, about the possibility of him killing someone during the war, and about his death brother. Language can be a barrier, but the film proves once again that we, as a human, still have some universal truth that can transcend the limitation of cultural knowledge and languages. Even then, as he gets closer to this town, he still can’t escape the aggressiveness of some people. After all, he’s still an outsider.
Inspired by the Western genre, in which this film is named after. It’s further telling that if we apply the normal Western tropes to this picture, it raises many interesting counterpoints. “I’m not a guy who is into violent”, says Meinhard at one point. Whereas one of the main goal of Western hero is to conquer, and to glorify that “conquering” aspect, Meinhard is a character whose only resort to violence to defend himself, and we don’t know for sure what he’s seeking in this wilderness. The ongoing alpha male conflict between him and Vincent, likewise, threaten with many underlying violence without the actual violence taking place. While shot almost entirely on-location, Grisebach prefers to focus on the cast’s face and their position towards the wilderness surrounding than the landscapes itself. It’s a emotional detached film, but it’s a fascinating character study that defuses (not a direct contrast, hence not an acid-Western) the Western tropes to look for something truer, something more realistic and deeper.
Sofia Coppola: was born May 12, 1971, in New York City, during the production of The Godfather. Sofia Coppola was born into Hollywood royalty. From the beginning, it seemed she was destined, like her father, for a career in the movies. Throughout her life, she continued to live and work under her father’s wing, but his wing often cast a long shadow. In 2004 Coppola finally stepped out of that shadow to claim her own celebrity. She became the first American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, for her movie Lost in Translation (2003). In 2010, she became the first American woman to win the Golden Lion.
“When I saw the movie it was so fascinating to me that these macho filmmakers – Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood – would make a story set in a girl’s school in the South. It’s such a male point of view of a group of women that I thought “Okay, I want to tell that story from the women’s point of view.”
Sofia Coppola has an interesting career after her sudden success for Lost in Translation, to say the very least. Her films that come afterward can be seen as her struggle to go away from Hollywood mainstream to more indie/arthouse appeal, and ultimately to find her own voice. Watching The Beguiled I have a very strong sense that she had a total control over her craft (kudos for her winning Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, only the second female director managed to do so). Based on the novel rather than the 1967 film that starred Clint Eastwood, the film is a feminist take to the source given it’s told mostly through the girls’ point of view by an incident in which an injured Union soldier stays in their mansion. Its aesthetic, from the dark interiors (wonderful use of lighting here) to the more symbolism motifs like how the person who stands usually have more power than the person who sits or lies down (which Corp John McBurney does a lot), is perfectly realized. The Beguiled’s resolve might come out as mean-spirited and extreme, but at the end it’s a perfect statement to the nature of gender power.
One factor that is most prominence in The Beguiled (either this version or the more-macho classic version) is the sexual tensions hanging in the air with the appearance of Corp John McBurney (Colin Farrell, he’s perfect for this role). Although basically telling the same storyline, Coppola makes damn sure that the girls’ increasingly jealousy come from themselves and NOT from how charming and smooth-talking the Corporal is. We see how most of the girls interact with the Corporal, how he brings different dynamic to each of them and only actively pursuit one, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). It’s not only one kind of sexual tensions, but I appreciate how the film displays layers of sexual attraction between the girls towards the only male specie in the house. There’s Alicia (Elle Fanning), a teenager who flirts actively and shamelessly. There’s Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman in one of her showy roles), the head of the school, who his presence reminds her of man’s role, and there’s Edwina, whose just wants to runaway from this strict and hopeless routine. While many of these elements are merely hints (thus, doesn’t flesh out as it could be), their temptation towards the man, come from their own frustration with the lives they’re currently leading.
“You keep talking about him as if he wasn’t right here in the room?”. Before the events lead to the violent climax, the film makes it clear that the Corporal can’t decide his own fate. Given the situation, he mostly has to depend on Miss Martha’s decision on whether or not he could stay. His injured leg, then, can be seen as the masculine’s pride, once it’s heal he walks and does things like a man, when it’s shattered he has no choice but to obey Martha’s decision. The violent climax, then, is the action of destroying man’s pride because of the girls’ mistrust towards men. It’s cruel, yes, it’s gruesome, yes, he doesn’t really deserve it but Martha’s message again is clear “Messing with us and receive the punishment”. As a result, The Beguiled is its most fascinating when it consistently redefines the macho roles of male in a gender conflict. It’s not always a smooth ride, but like Martha’s, Coppola’s message is crystal clear.
That leads to the end of Day 9. In the next installment, we’ll have two pictures: one about a teenage girl who keeps her eyes steady on the future, whatever the cost in Lady Bird by our darling Greta Gerwig, and the other is about a middle-aged woman who looks back to her past in the Taiwanese-set Love, Education by Sylvia Chang.See you guys shortly in Day 10 in the next few days.