‘Frantz’

**spoilers**

The good film is characterized by a pensive interlude, often silent. It extends from the final credits to the callousing return to daylight, and is broken when one asks one’s friend: ‘Do you think he was a coward?’.

Frantz is such a film. Set in 1919 Germany, it offers an astonishing flashback to the adolescence of the avid reader, who surely read his share of Remarque. It rings with that slower, more pensive and inherently poetic atmosphere that we grow to forget as we mature – away from the world of dreams. The rain-slickened cobblestones accentuate that intensely natural, woodsy flavor of Central Europe. The beautiful protagonist, Anna (played by the demure Paula Beer), remarks that what makes her love springtime is the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. I recall savoring the remarkably fresh greenery of Berlin last summer, and found it indeed apt to have viewed this film so close to the delicate (if allergenic) flowering of Bloomsbury squares.

It is a superb film: the plot is ripe not only with mystery but with emotion. All actors finely avoid melodrama, and many of them inspire tenderness. It is a multi-facted film that conjures up not only the tropes of love and death but the workings of the strange and fabulous construction called life.

2016. François Ozon: director of ‘Jeune et Jolie’ and ‘Dans La Maison’. Dark films all three; ‘Frantz’ is less satirical – although it retains Ozon’s observance of how life’s ironies turn on humans. Like his other films, this one too is voyeuristic: it is the slightly unstable Adrien who encroaches upon his victim’s deepest intimacy by way of the imagination: he comes to fall in love with the dead, rather artistically, through observation of what remains after the death of a man who he killed in an accidental lovers’ embrace.

Cinematography is in keeping with the themes: elegant, lyrical, sombre in a simultaneously tragic and quiet muteness. 2013 ‘Ida’ comes to mind, and both films showcase the timelessness of black and white, which can indeed translate into the 21st century without seeming jarring or outdated. ‘Frantz”s moments of symbolic coloring were not overdone, though they did encourage a wish in the viewer to see Anna perfectly happy.

Pierre Niney’s intense eyes and superb French complement the fascinating and incomprehensible character of Adrien. Paula Beer is sweet and appropriate in her perfume of mournfulness, though occasionally excessively stoic. Anton von Lucke did not strike a particular impression as ‘Frantz’, but might have been incapable of doing so as a result of the plot. In exchange, Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber are realistic enough to inspire veritable pity.

What makes this a rare movie is its detachment from moral judgments. It avoids didacticism, but is rather objective through its multi-vocal nature without being smug: like an Aznavour song, it successfully reflects on a passage of life that simply is… in a point in time, smelling of cigarette smoke and impenetrable enigma.

Chance

The pride of my small home nestles its fat self in a corner of the couch. It isn’t a cat, though it’s stuffed and squishy. It’s a pillow: brocaded, regal, and esoteric. Two chaste medieval lovers rendered by an expert embroider. Birds hover over them against the black background. Their sumptuous clothes indicate nobility. She is paused with her feather in hand, mid-two-dimensional-air, distracted from her script as he enchants her with his clarinet. They do not speak. Their eyes brim with meaning.Made of threads, they look at each other with the passion of centuries. They do not watch me as I spend innumerable days in ageless quotidian pressed against them. If you look at their embroidered eyes, it’s evident that they dream about each other at night. I suppose their souls must now be living somewhere in another form, perhaps across the planet from each other or unknowingly close, searching for what they do not know, along a lifetime.

Toxic Verses

Against me

your heart beat to the rhythm

of verses,

of Russian phrase;

And the headlights of cars passed outside the window,

ordinary,

Against the dying light of day.

I smelt myself,

Perfume and cigarettes,

Wooden in scent

and in attitude.

I watched you stare,

your blonde curls against the seat,

as always

melancholic,

and slightly warped as my head twirled, waltzing against the walls.

I remained estranged in a foreign room

of foreign tongue,

with only the sway of leaves outside the window

And a wet pansy,

drenched in alcohol,

To keep me company.

Review: ‘Benjamin Fondane: The Existential Ulysses’

 

An event about Benjamin Fondane, poet and existentialist philosopher, was held in honor of the Romanian Cultural Institute’s tenth participation at the London Book Fair. Panelists included Professor Mircea Martin of the Faculty of Letters of Bucharest, Ramona Fotiade, lecturer of French at the University of Glasgow, Nicholas Lezard, star journalist for The Guardian, and Andrew Rubens, translator of Fondane’s poems.

The evidently distinguished panel discussed an evidently distinguished, though lesser-known literary figure. The event was dedicated to Fondane, also known as B. Fundoianu, as a result of the resurgence his work is making as a result of two publications recently launched by the New York Review of Books. One is Fondane’s ‘Existential Monday’ and of particular notability is ‘Benjamin Fondane: Cinepoems and Others’, a first bilingual edition in English.

 

Professor Mircea Martin is widely accepted to be the biggest authority on Fondane in Romania, and kicked off the evening with a detailed, complex train of thought regarding the subject. Fondane ‘elevated the Romanian language to great heights’ and gained notoriety as a poet in Romania from an early age, but is now know for his anti-rationalist philosophy. Particularly interesting is an exposition that the professor gave us regarding Fondane thought on the ‘decolonization of Romania’: Fondane saw Romania as a cultural colony of France as a result of the bilingualism of the upper classes, and condemned the phenomenon as a problem of ‘a lack of echo’ (in other words, of inferiority complex) that characterizes all peripheral countries/cultures. Although the Western world is so globalized and so infused with ideas of postcolonialism today, Fondane’s observation highlights the reality that even now, countries such as Romania and most of Eastern Europe, tend to be culturally overlooked. Fondane is a pioneer of national self-examination in this sense, and therefore a consequential and seminal figure.

 

Statements such as ‘these translations indicate that his work is both the present and the future’ provoked questions for the audience. One gets the impression that Fondane is a titan of postmodern sensibility; his holistic thought is representative of the linear train of thought that Europe has been following since he was writing and has continued to follow naturally. This involves, for example, ‘a world in which there are no facts left, only interpretations’.

Professor Martin suggested that if Fondane had not met his tragic end in Auschwitz, his book on Baudelaire would have been championed over Sartre’s. Dr. Fotiade remarked that he wanted to make his own Un Chien Andalou, and was an early sort of Man Ray that, unfortunately, lacked funds. Such information was striking, as the common consensus even among many people in the field of literature who were present at the event was that Fondane is not widely known. Revelations of the sort pose a challenge, and induce a weighing up of who gets written out of the history, and the essentially arbitrary reasons this tends to occur.

The highlight of the evening was Andrew Rubens’ reading of the poetic introduction of his poem Exodus:

‘Remember only that I was innocent

and, just like you, mortal on that day,

I, too, had had a face marked by rage, by pity and joy,

quite simply, a human face!’

 

This was written shortly before the poet’s death and speaks to us in the 21st century, according to Rubens. His piercing reading of it was deeply moving.

Another positive feature of the event was a documentary about Fondane, discussing his life and his ‘polymorphous identities’, all the while enlivening his personality with photos from through his life. Panels have a tendency to become drawn out and overly long; a documentary adds a bit of freshness and completion.

 

 

However, as it was an event at the Romanian Cultural Instiute, there might have been more focus on ‘Fundoianu’ than ‘Fondane’, as he wrote very interesting things about Romania. He is not only a Jewish poet, but it seems like the panelists preferred to, perhaps unconsciously, refer to him as such, which doesn’t do justice to the extraordinarily multilateral figure he was. Fondane ought to be remembered as a fundamentally cosmopolitan character, as this is what makes him strikingly original.

 

Despite this, the event was a thoroughly interesting affair, worth attending. It succeeded in its scope of posing questions, many of which were elucidated in an intellectual manner. Others remained hanging pensively over the empty chairs after the event was over, allowing Fondane to take various flexible forms in the minds of the listeners after they had gone down for the customary glass of Romanian wine downstairs.

 

 

The Vernal Equinox

The Sun oversteps the horizon,

traversing the imaginary boundary of winter’s dream.

Bow-like,

the sky rises over the newly human Sun,

now an Adam,

sweating drops of honey and of light.

Denuded,

today he crosses the threshold of his golden house,

contemplating,

on the equatorial line,

the universe at an angle.

He is with us.

Be it that he has descended in the dawn,

but over us it snows,

though it is impossible to say whether with holy water

or with mottled balls of newspaper.

’The Olive Tree’

Director Icíar Bollaín’s 2016 drama grabs your heart and shakes it by its frail shoulders.

Simply put, El Olívo’ is about a granddaughter’s love for her grandfather. It is a reminder that modern materialism keeps us in shackles,  and that we must try to get to the heart of the world’s magic by recalling our past, our history, our childhood. I whisper this to myself, when I can get away from the haze of busy city life and back into my childhood bed don’t forget, don’t forget, don’t forget.

I felt close to this film, as one does when one is accepted naturally and seemingly without cause into a family’s problems. Familial disputes, honest and bravely awkward, give one the impression of shadowy invisibility in the humble kitchen. The flashbacks are so well done that I believe anyone close to their grandparents would have difficulty avoiding that twinge.

This is an anti-materialistic film that does  not depend on fancy lighting, huge budgets; that doesn’t sell itself out by conforming to cliché (however desirable this may seem). Finally, finally something about what’s inside of our hearts and heads, instead of where we shop, what political parties we associate ourselves with, what we look like outside. It is a modern fairy-tale through the lens of arid snapshots: arid snapshots, it seems, there is no visual attempt to create something that is not there – the hoards of monsters, birds, and biblical trees lies underneath, awaiting for imagination to make what it will of them. Such undercurrents challenge the viewer: it doesn’t show us certain things but rather allows us to think about them, for example, that delicate olive branch growing at super-speed across millennia and ending up bigger, better, even more monstrous than its mother.

It is a film not only about what it means to have an heirloom, but about what it means to have honor. Watch it, you won’t forget it.