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The Reeler Blog

Musty Orphans and Minor Tarr

Your guess is as good as ours: Generic spookiness from Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage (Photo: Picturehouse)

By Vadim Rizov

Friday morning's press crush for The Orphanage may have been exacerbated by the early-morning news that Spain has chosen Juan Antonio Bayona's horror film as its official submission for the Oscar Best Foreign Film race. The ramifications of this are complicated; for the second year in a row, the Guillermo del Toro juggernaut seems to be the biggest story in Spanish film. His Pan's Labyrinth suffered an unexpected defeat last year at the hands of The Lives of Others, leaving The Orphanage -- which del Toro co-produced -- to give it another shot. In short, expectations are running high: The Orphanage is more than a movie; it's a referendum on Spain's international cinematic presence.

Sad to report, it's well-executed schlock with delusions of grandeur. I haven't been this scared in a theater in recent memory, but file it alongside similarly retarded but effective works like The Ring and The Others. "We've been here before," one can't help but think over an opening shot of kids playing an innocent game as poignant music plays in the background; this is the kind of movie where kids' laughter becomes an ominous soundtrack cue. Soon we're introduced to Laura's (Belen Rueda) new house -- the orphanage in which she grew up, repurposed as a foster home for disadvantaged and ill kids. The house, of course, is a nightmare waiting to happen: Gothic angles look upward at the looming walls. The sky glowers. Bad stuff ensues.

The most notable thing about The Orphanage is how it jettisons slowly building dread: within a half-hour it's gone gonzo, offering up screaming and terror like no one's business. Anti-climax follows anti-climax, and the symbolism is excessive: There are shots of Jesus crucified; a lighthouse standing in for the light of God; musings on AIDS; and invocations of Peter Pan alongside child abuse. The scares keep coming, interrupted by increasing bouts of press corps laughter at the sheer ludicrousness of it all. "You won't find an exorcist in the yellow pages," offers up one character, which about sums it up. Bayona offers up any number of slick and surprising shots, and his scares are built on palpable dread, not shock cuts. But the movie's aspirations to grand seriousness are misguided.

In any case, the press conference was about one theme repeated over and over: What about del Toro?

Serving as the film's producer and presenter, his spirit is all over the film: "One way to talk about the film," Bayona told the press, "is the way we need fantasy in our lives to confront reality." No surprise here: Pan's Labyrinth all but had its characters deliver a lecture on this subject. But did del Toro influence the film? After all, Bayona and del Toro are long-time acquaintances, having met in 1993 when the Mexican director came to Spain with his film Cronos. "At that point, I was 18 and passing as a journalist to get into free film screenings," Bayona said. "I went to interview him, and that was the start of our friendship. He did make many suggestions, but we honestly didn't listen to him. As thanks to him, I hope at some point in my career to produce a debut for a filmmaker, like he did for me."

The press kit has Bayona ranting about having to "permanently fight against the Hollywood style." He's a liar: The Orphanage is as slick and professional as they come. The real antithesis was in the afternoon screening of Bela Tarr's The Man From London. No easing you into the rhythm here: the opening shot is an incredibly slow crane up a ship's prow. Business as usual for Tarr, a filmmaker who seems to privilege form over content more than anyone working and -- like Michael Almereyda and self-admitted disciple Gus Van Sant -- seems to be as much indebted to avant-garde as narrative strategies. The Man From London, though, seems like a transitional work -- a weird thing to say, seeing as Tarr has made exactly three features in the last 15 years. Nevertheless, In his own way, Tarr is as much of a maximalist as, say, James Cameron: every frame of Sátántangó and Werckmeister Harmonies is calculated to stagger the eye, an orgy of complicated lighting, tracking shots and staging marvels.

London calling: (L-R) István Lénárt and Miroslav Krobot in Béla Tarr's The Man From London (Photo: Yannick Casanova)

The Man From London, if not a clean break, is the most determinedly minimal feature Tarr's made since 1988's Damnation. For once, formal issues take an occasional back seat to the plot. In brief: Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) witnesses a murder for money, grabs the cash and witnesses his entire life turn to shit. It's a thriller framework drained of all possible urgency, with actors speaking very, very slowly, Maloin a near non-participant until the end, and Tarr's welcome trademark sense of misanthropic black humor highly missed. As with all his work, there's any number of staggering shots -- the simple act of opening and closing a window has never seemed like such an overwhelming act, with light alternately flooding the room and/or plunging into total darkness.

Yet there are also a surprising number of shots which seem merely functional, a real surprise for a filmmaker who's disowned traditional narrative for so long. Werckmeister's symbolic framework is daft but compellingly outre; the far more mundane one here amps up the self-importance, confusing this new stripped-down-ness with profundity. If Werckmeister is a relatively terse recap of Sátántangó's greatest formal coups, London finds Tarr self-consciously striving to avoid repeating himself; instead of the long tracking shot from behind someone walking, for example, there's a sideways shot of protagonist Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) walking, the camera keeping a church in the background constantly in the same place, emphasizing stasis over movement. Indeed, with Tarr's obsessive revisitation of the same few sets and actions, he alternately repudiates and embraces stylization. More's the pity: the flashy parts are the best ones.

Posted at October 1, 2007 8:19 AM

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