US, Germany / 94 minutes / color / Flying Box, Getaway, Arden, Cine Plus Dir & Scr: Lulu Wang Pr: Bernadette Bürgi Cine: Stefan Ciupek Cast: Jack Huston, Brit Marling, Lambert Wilson, Alexander Fehling, Tom Schilling, Nikolai Kinski, Pamela Knaack, Harald Siebler, Isabelle Redfern, Morice Marcone.
An interesting movie that takes a noirish premise and makes of it something really quite different. It’s tempting to call it a romantic comedy, but really it isn’t a comedy, despite some amusing and/or wry moments; it’s a tale concerned (a) with the relationship between art and life, (b) with the need to try not so much to make an artwork out of one’s life (yawn) as to approach it with creative artistry in mind, and (c) with the destructive tyranny of pragmatism.
Liam (Jack Huston) throws a tantrum at the gallery.
Liam Price (Huston) is a stereotype: the penniless, hard-drinking, obsessed creative genius—the sort that crowds out every art college in the world. He used to have a certain amount of popularity, but his last exhibition was a disaster, not least because influential collector Arman Rubell (Siebler) dumped a load of Liam’s stuff onto the market not long beforehand, thereby driving prices down. Now the Berlin gallery run by his friend Daniel S. Volpe (Wilson) is holding an exhibition of eyesore installation art by one Kaleb Moo (Kinski). A booze-fueled Liam turns up at the premiere to destroy as much of his own work as he can find in the gallery basement. With a cry of “I might as well kill myself,” he vanishes into the night.
Pages from Liam’s workbook.
As he sleeps things off in a pedestrian underpass, a bum (Marcone) steals his shoulderbag, containing his workbook. The next morning the bum is found dead, having either fallen or jumped under a train. Everyone assumes the corpse is Liam’s, especially after Daniel’s wimpy assistant Ben (Schilling), dragged to the morgue to identify the body because Daniel can’t face the ordeal, gives it a quick, nauseated glance and agrees it’s Liam.
The recovery of the body.
Immediately Liam’s work gains market value. As Arman says in a moment of celebratory smugness,
“Let’s face it, dying is the smartest career move Liam’s ever made. It’s fascinating, isn’t it, how something tragic can give birth to such beauty.”
Arman (Harald Siebler) explains to Daniel how useful Liam’s death is.
By the time Daniel discovers Liam’s actually still alive, preparations are well under way for the memorial exhibition. Daniel, staring disaster in the eye, isn’t too reluctant to be persuaded by Liam that the best idea is to maintain the fiction of his demise, and the show goes on.
Daniel (Lambert Wilson) explores Liam’s studio.
Come the premiere of the memorial exhibition, Liam’s unable to stay away. Having shaved off his beard, he walks the room pretending to be just another punter. The only person who recognizes him is Daniel, who, horrified, introduces him to—while trying not to introduce him to—freelance journalist McKenzie Grain (Marling). Liam on the spur of the moment identifies himself as the dead artist’s brother Jackson.
McKenzie is interested by the prospect of doing a story on Liam—his life, his art, whatever it was that drove him to his death—and the opportunity of getting an in-depth interview with the brother is too good to pass up. She’s here in Berlin living off her fiancé Erik Alder (Fehling); Erik’s in the business of buying slabs of art for corporate and hotel lobbies, and he’s been posted to Berlin temporarily from NYC. She really wants a big juicy story because a while back she was fired by her editor, Randy (Redfern), from the magazine where she worked and feels she has a point to prove.
McKenzie’s every-mother’s-dream fiancé Erik (Alexander Fehling).
McKenzie (Brit Marling) spies on Liam/Jackson.
She tracks “Jackson” to his studio—supposedly the dead Liam’s studio. “Jackson,” wary that any publicity might expose the subterfuge, is at first reluctant to help her:
McKenzie: “Why don’t you let me take you to lunch?”
“Jackson”: “I don’t eat.”
As she persists in trying to worm information from him he tries a different tack:
“Jackson”: “Did you ever think that maybe Liam killed himself because he wanted to be left alone?”
That doesn’t work either. In desperation he takes her out on an excursion to various parts of Berlin, and the two begin to talk to each other with more candor than either seems able to do in their own setting—McKenzie with Erik, Liam with Daniel. It’s as if in “real life” the two have managed to hook themselves up with the wrong partners. Even though the partner in McKenzie’s case is a romantic one and the partner in Daniel’s is a professional one, there’s quite a degree of symmetry between the two relationships—a symmetry that gives the movie an intriguing dynamic balance. Liam is constantly trying to jolt McKenzie out of the psychological and emotional rut she’s been accepting for far too long as the best she can expect from life, but quite often she returns as good as she gets, and we realize that Liam too is in a rut, even though—with all his artistic wilfulness and wild self-expression—he believes absolutely the opposite to be true.
Daniel (Lambert Wilson) parries McKenzie’s questioning.
Early on, McKenzie cottons to the fact that “Jackson” is really Liam, and that this could be not just the big story she’s been craving but a corker. She keeps the discovery to herself, though, playing along with Liam’s charade of being the nonexistent brother.
McKenzie (Brit Marling) indulges in a bit of housebreaking.
The day when she’s due to accompany Erik to a formal dinner with the other arty principals—Daniel, Ben, Arman and another collector/dealer, Camille Seekamp (Knaack)—McKenzie and Liam go out for another potter around Berlin, this time impulsively joining an impromptu barge party. As before, the pair talk about what really makes each other tick, about how life can be lived to its best, about the desirability of security on the one hand and independence on the other . . . and, however much McKenzie might want to deny it, it’s clear the two are falling in love with each other.
McKenzie (Brit Marling) and Liam (Jack Huston) chatter . . .
. . . and chatter as darkness falls . . .
Both of these excursions around Berlin reminded me of the scenarios of Richard Linklater’s trio of movie begun with Before Sunrise (1995), in which the focus is on the conversation between Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke rather than on their actions.
A story that Liam tells McKenzie concerns an artist who posted illustrated messages all over Berlin about his lost love Linda, begging her to return to him. In due course others in the artistic community joined in, contributing their own posters, either telling Linda to give the guy another chance or warning her to steer clear of the cad. Only after a long time did the artist announce that Linda had never existed. His was an attempt to make everyday reality into an artwork . . . or vice versa.
After this day of heady exchange of ideas (far more than I can sensibly summarize here), talking about life the universe and everything and doing some actual living, McKenzie is late for her dinner engagement. She has just joined the others when Erik leans across to murmur in her ear, “I bet all my money that we’re the most beautiful couple in this place.” The clash between this complacent recognition of the superficiality of their relationship—a superficiality to which she has not just acquiesced but actively contributed—and what she’s learned about herself during the day is too much for McKenzie. She staggers from the restaurant, gorge rising . . .
McKenzie (Brit Marling) frets for her future as Erik leaves.
We know, obviously, that by the end of the movie McKenzie and Liam are going to admit their love, but there are lots of unexpected events en route to that outcome, not least the resolution of the problem of Liam’s living-or-dead status.
Ben (Tom Schilling, left) and Kaleb (Nikolai Kinski) at the memorial service for Liam.
Marling’s a bit stiff and prissy at first, speaking her lines with a sort of Elizabeth Warren earnestness, but we soon realize this is because McKenzie is, as it were, on her best behavior all the time. As Liam brings her out of the shell that Erik seems all too content to keep her in, she relaxes; by the time she tells him, in response to some probing personal question or other, to “just fuck off,” we can recognize her as a person now rather different from the corporate art buyer’s decorative fiancée she was when we first encountered her.
Marling and Huston (whose performance here is such that sometimes you half-believe you’re watching Johnny Depp) have great chemistry together. They don’t sizzle, or anything like that—there’s romance inherent in their discovery of each other, but far more important than any sexual attraction (hardly touched upon) is the engagement of ideas. Liam is desperate for her to find the wings to burst out of her gilded cage, and after a while so is she; they become workers toward this common goal, they become friends and eventually, we know, some time after the final credits roll, they’ll become lovers.
Special mention should be made of Ciupek’s cinematography. Every now and then he shows a Berlin cityscape of such spectacular beauty that the mouth dries:
But it’s his other work in this movie that impressed me so much: the wonderful use of light (rather than film noir’s more customary use of shadow!) and the superb deployment of soft focus to turn so many otherwise merely functional shots into something almost painterly—more painterly, indeed, than the examples we see of Liam’s own supposed work, which seems without exception to be self-indulgent drek.
In case a couple of the names in the cast list seem familiar, Jack Huston is grandson to John and Nikolai Kinski is son to Klaus. This is the first time I’ve seen Kinski in anything, and his part is really too much of a cameo for me to form any opinion, but I become more impressed by Huston each time I see him.