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Breathless 8

Mmm celery!: Guy Maddin's "Brand Upon the Brain!" (Forum)

The screening of "Brand Upon the Brain!" in the Deutsche Oper was a veritable orgy of the senses. "Every sound you will hear has been produced inside this hall," Guy Maddin tells the packed auditorium, with visible pride and excitement. "That's assuming a bomb doesn't go off outside or something." A group of no less than 40 people were assembled to ensure that Maddin's silent film was anything but silent. The 34-piece Volkswagen orchestra provided the music, composed by Jason Staczek. Then there was a counter-tenor, three sound-effect creators and Isabella Rossellini as narrator.

It was often impossible to know which way to look. It would have been enough to watch Isabella Rossellini in her dark suit and red tie, not just telling the story, but living it out. She whispers and shouts, hurls her fist in the air, lays her hand on her chest. The counter-tenor is an ox of a man. Women sing in this film on two occasions and it takes a while for it to sink in that this huge creature is putting the words in their mouths. His everyday voice is normal, as I found out afterwards at the party in the foyer. Despite its size, the orchestra went relatively unnoticed, perhaps because it didn't make a single mistake and the timing was precise to last image. But little attention paid to the musicians can be attributed to the true stars of the evening, in their laboratory adjacent. The three sound-effect creators, all in white aprons, barricaded themselves behind badly oiled doors, hanging sheets of metal and a huge tub of water. During the hour and a half performance, they proceeded with the utmost concentration to pump bellows to make the wind whistle, make seagulls cry and kiss themselves wildly on the backs of their hands when things got intimate on the screen. I learned that squeezing a wet cloth sounds exactly like a wet paintbrush on a wall, and that the sound of surf on a pebbly beach is indistinguishable from the noise tiny stones make when rolling around in a drum. The crowning moment came in the cannibal scene when the mother, on the hunt for her daily dose of brain nectar, munches on an orphan. This was accompanied by a huge bite into a bunch of celery. So real, so revolting! I won't be eating celery again in a hurry.

The film itself was the classic Maddin fare of quotes and autobiographical references laced with brief laconic dialogues. By resorting to the silent movie form, complete with plenty of grain and not quite enough images per second with the resulting jerky movements, Maddin only seems to be quieting down. In fact it allows him to convey the trauma of a childhood filled with erotic confusions, grim evening meals, neurotic to incestuous mothers and feeble-minded fathers with even less restraint. The comical and antiquated form works like a sort of ironic pressure vent which allows Maddin to dig deep without having to commit himself either to the ground of his actual biography or the ocean of his obsessions. Thisshock and awe strategy is all about the present. The images are too bright and garish to allow a clear visual memory to form. What does remain from this opulently whacky evening is a sense of restriction, the claustrophobic feeling that Maddin associates with his childhood. And the knowledge that a cannibal going cold turkey should try celery.

Christoph Mayerl

"Brand Upon the Brain!". Directed by Guy Maddin. With Erik Steffen Maahs, Gretchen Krich, Sullivan Brown, Maya Lawson, Katherine E. Scharhon. Canada, 2006, 95 mins (Forum)

From flirtation to catastrophe: Jacques Rivette's "Don't Touch the Axe" (Competition)

Behind "Don't Touch the Axe," hides a film destined never to be shot. The title of this film is – or would have been – "Next Year in Paris." But Jacques Rivette and his producer weren't able to find funding for the film, in which Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu were to play the leads. It's hard to believe, but true: in film-land France, the almost octogenarian Jacques Rivette, veteran of the Nouvelle Vague and one of the greatest living filmmakers, can't raise money for an ambitious project that would have followed up on his major works from the 1970s.

Rivette can hardly conceal his disappointment as he tells this story at the press conference. Of course there's hardly anyone here, unlike just a few minutes ago when people flocked to hear Jennifer Lopez discuss her film "Bordertown". Every single question is an insult to the director. Depardieu is brazenly asked twice about his father, as if he owed his acting career to his father's success and influence.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as his fabulous acting in "Don't Touch the Axe" amply proves. When the financing for the larger project fell through, Rivette went looking for a smaller production for the same actors. The result was a chamber piece, based very closely on Honore de Balzac's "La Duchesse de Langeais." The story originally bore the title "Ne touchez pas la hache" before it was incorporated into Balzac's "La Comedie humaine." In it, Balzac tells the story of a love affair that passes rapidly from flirt to catastrophe."

Montriveau, a hero in Napoleon's army, (Depardieu) meets the Duchesse de Langeais (Balibar), who belongs to the cream of Parisian society. She is married, but her husband never appears. Montriveau comes back to Paris full of exotic stories of the desert, and seduces the duchess with his lore. They come closer, but what at first glance looks like a reasonably uncomplicated love affair soon turns into a game of love and passion that transgresses every rule known to Parisian society. Very quickly, however, society is left out of things altogether. Instead of a love affair, Montriveau and the duchess become caught up in a war: a battle for love. Sharp words clash like swords, siege is laid, the two dig trenches and lie in ambush, retreat and attack, they show no mercy and toss counsel to the wind. The battle is fought in boudoirs, hallways and sofas, in front of doors and inside salons. No blood flows, and yet no less than life and happiness are at stake.

The film is utterly concentrated on its main characters. Everything becomes a question of timing. Every gesture counts, every last glance has weight, the trembling of Balibar's upper lip is an expression of inner turmoil and Depardieu's brooding heralds untold disasters. Rivette's cameraman William Lubtschansky transforms words and movement into installations of light and darkness, which seem to freeze periodically like paintings. Fires crackle incessantly in the salons' fireplaces, yet their calming effect is misleading. The passing of time is shown with titles, and Balzac's words accompany the development of events. Rivette dramatises nothing, he observes Balibar and Depardieu using words that are sharper than foils and rapiers, and watches them – merciless as Balzac – as they hope and suffer, fear and fight.

There could be no greater a clash than between this exquisitely wrought tale and the film which preceded it, Gregory Nava's human rights pornography "Bordertown". Programming the one before the other is sheer barbarity, and yet standard festival fare. That's no reproach, after all it can hardly be avoided. But it must be said.

Ekkehard Knörer

"Don't Touch the Axe". Director: Jacques Rivette. With Jeanne Balibar, Guillaume Depardieu, Bulle Ogier, Michel Piccoli. France / Italy 2006, 137 Minutes (Competition)

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