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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Differing Modes

Patience (After Sebald)



If we were to choose the fine modern novelist whose work is least apt for screening, it would probably be W.G. Sebald. His novels are meditative, pensive. If we were to choose the least apt among his works, it would probably be The Rings of Saturn. It has no cogent narrative. Here is a film made from that novel, called Patience (After Sebald), that confirms, though it somewhat buffets, our prejudgment.

Grant Gee, the Englishman who made the film, is known for his work on music documentaries, but he was a university student of geography. Presumably it was this latter interest that drew him to this book, which is the account of a journey that Sebald made through East Anglia. He was revisiting—he knew the area pretty well—but he had a variety of reasons for this protracted return. Gee attempts to reproduce the sensitive and affectionate feeling of the journey.

Difficulties occur. First, the fact of the filming itself. It seems a curious treatment formally of a book that, like all of Sebald’s novels, is already illustrated with photographs, made or selected by the author. Gee reproduces many of these photographs as he goes, and his film at times seems to represent the material between those photographs from the book. He also inserts archival film footage from time to time, always in grainy black and white. (Very little of the film is in color.) Much of this footage seems a rough substitute for Sebald’s unique woodwind prose.

Gee is aware of this danger, apparently, and attempts to forestall it, not only by actually showing bits of text on screen, but by showing various individuals— including Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate of England, and Marina Warner, herself a well-known writer—speaking bits of it. All this has a curious double effect. It supports the bookishness of the source in a visually and aurally engaging way; but for those who know something of Sebald, it is diluting. These film visitors, as partial protagonists, scatter the book’s gravity.

Sebald was a German who lived in England and taught German there for thirty years: he inevitably carried within him some of the complexities of modern European history. He had been born in and taught the culture of a country that had been beaten by the country he was now living in, a country that had badly damaged—quite necessarily—his own. (I once knew a former Luftwaffe fighter pilot who for a few postwar years had taught German literature at Oxford and was somewhat numbed by the ease of it.) Because of Sebald’s long residence in England and because of England’s innate qualities, he had clearly come to love this second country. But his historical complexity is here eliminated by these English readers. What’s worse, it’s hard to say how it could have been retained except to have only a single speaker, and with a German accent.

The film’s title is incomprehensible. The director says that it refers to a game of patience, the British name for solitaire, in another Sebald novel. Even if it does, it’s still incomprehensible. The original title is understandable if one remembers that Saturn was the god of harvests and that the narrator is in several senses harvesting.

Gee does capture the book’s nineteenth-century feeling of a journey mainly on foot, often featuring feet going on. Sebald must have been literature’s greatest pedestrian after Wordsworth. (The poet sometimes set out from the Lake District on foot—for a European trip.) Yet the film is finally only an enjoyable tour, almost devoid of the book’s resonances.

A FRENCH FILM called Polisse is one of the best based-on-facts police pictures. Often their relation to fact seems stretched by screenwriters. Here Maïwenn, the one-name writer-director, and Emmanuelle Bercot, who co-wrote the script, have worked assiduously to enter the subject, and Maïwenn has directed with passion. The locus is the CPU—Child Protection Unit—of the Paris police. (Presumably the title is the way some people whom they deal with pronounce “police.”) We never see any of the CPU in uniform. They are all on the young side, and many of them are women. All of them have had at least some rudimentary training in psychiatry, and they treat the crimes—usually disgusting— professionally.

The film’s method is mosaic—that is, it keeps moving through a series of short scenes, so that the effect is addition rather than exhaustion. Mostly they are interrogations in police quarters, with a good number of searches and some highly personal sequences with the police people themselves. At first we fear that we will get only a snapshot survey, but before long we can see that Maïwenn is building. We see the mindsets that are created in these officers after spending much time on the protection of children—even babies—from adults, including parents.

Nothing in these cases is surprising; child abuse is not a Parisian monopoly. But we can see these officers becoming hardened—or, explosively, not being hardened. The criminals are often sane-sounding persons, which only toughens the officers as they realize that their jobs will never be finished.

The many child actors who are involved in the inquiries have all been brought to unwavering truth by Maïwenn. She has also dealt perfectly with her large and excellent cast. The editors, Laure Gardette and Yann Dedet, contributed much to the film’s vitality.

ONWARD GOES THE contrapuntal mode lately noted here. This is the method in which the style of filmmaking is in some sort of commenting relation to the story. Bonsái, from Chile, derived by the writer-director Cristián Jiménez from a novel by Alejandro Zambra, is the least inflected film story I can remember. It flows along placidly, heated only occasionally by a bit of sex or disco dancing. Otherwise, people talk to one another calmly, even about feelings, with verisimilitude but not much else. Meanwhile, Jiménez is recording this even-tempered life with a dazzling display of cinematic inventiveness—unusual and interesting angles, rapid cutting, unexpected close and long shots. The net effect is also unexpected. All this display is engaging.

The very first item announces bravura. A subtitle tells us that, at the end of this story about Emilia and Julio, Emilia dies and Julio lives. It is important, apparently, that we know this from the start. In fact, however, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference. The subtitle is really only an announcement of Jiménez’s heterodox intent.

They are both university students in Santiago, studying literature. A professor asks his class if anyone has read Proust. All of them raise their hands, Julio belatedly. He then gets a library copy of the first volume and takes it to a beach. Lying in the sun, he falls asleep with the book open on his chest. (Surprise shot: we see this from directly over his head looking down, à la Dalí.) His chest is sunburned except where the book lay, and when Emilia, his girlfriend, asks him about the white patch on his chest, he says, “Proust.” References to Proust recur as the film goes on, but they have no intrinsic relevance.

The film is in six parts: three of them are set in the time of the opening, and the alternate parts are set eight years later, when Diego is bearded and has a different girlfriend. He is in the same job he had at the start, typist and assistant to a famous novelist. His new girl is a translator of Japanese. We keep leaping back and forth, eight years at a time, to no apparent purpose except that an atmosphere is sustained of conventional lives more or less in the literary world. And Proust gets mentioned often.

Also, the bonsai. This is a miniaturized tree which we see first as a seedling and then eight years later as a rugged little shrub. Again the relation of this symbol to this story is unclear. Julio, for instance, does not have a completed novel of his own at the end.

Nathalia Galgani as Emilia and Gabriela Arancibia as the second girlfriend are adequately present. Diego Noguera, as Julio, seems so intelligent that he must have known he was playing a foil for the film’s style. Similarly, Jiménez, truly talented, must have had his chuckles all through the filming. So, after a fashion, do we. Now we can hope that he will find another subject and treat it straight or contrapuntally, if only it is a little less flat. 

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.