2006Director: Valeska Grisebach
Cast: Andreas Müller, Ilka Welz, Anett Dornbusch
friend recently griped to me that his dad refuses to watch films depicting female adultery. Based on my initial assumption that he sought to stymie memories of heartbreak, I figured that this was a reasonable, if excessive, means of ensuring closure. (For similar reasons, a veteran might abstain from checking out Flags of Our Fathers.) For some, cinema can be a direct gateway to evoking the intensity of experience. To me, experience is an asymptote, and cinema is the curve approaching infinity, or the encompassment of everything, as it gets closer to reality. But I can still attest that wounds ought to be healed, no matter what happens to open them back up.
As it turns out, however, my friend’s dad chose to avoid such films not on psychological but moral grounds: It was not the memory of adultery but rather the mere concept of it that angered him. This action and its depiction went hand-in-hand; to depict the immoral is to contemplate it, thus depiction is sin. It’s not just that this belief system runs counter to mine. It’s destructive enough to suggest that film-going might be a war between those drawn to find the roots of sorrow and those eager to alleviate it.
Imagine yourself a bricklayer, cementing a new layer of bricks each day and gradually realizing that every night, the new layer disappears and you’re left with as many layers as the previous morning. Now imagine that you notice your trowel is missing. You flash back to several days earlier, when the brick removal began, and realize that your toolbox had been broken into, and lo and behold, a trowel from your own set has been used to take apart the bricks. This is an apposite, if admittedly convoluted, analogy, but here’s the kicker: my friend’s dad is the bricklayer, and I’m the asshole who stole his trowel.
The important part is knowing that the same tool persists for both the bricklayer and the thief; that two people can approach one medium with such disparate ends is galling. I enjoy contemplating heartbreak because although it is just as distressing for me as it is for the next guy, what’s more heartbreaking is the loss of truth, or the absence of validity in the perspective of the Other. This is tragic, perhaps, in the sense that the love of truth is more persistent than the love of any one person. But still I insist on destroying my moral comfort zone for the sake of understanding, even with the knowledge that the next day someone will use the same tool—cinema, in my case—to rebuild it anew.
Valeska Grisebach is not a bricklayer. Her new film, Longing, approaches male adultery from a man’s perspective, but is imbued with the moral considerations of the hearts he foolishly breaks, not so much condoning or berating him as pleading “Why?” every step of the way. Markus (Andreas Müller), a metalworker and fireman living in an enclosed, mostly rural community, is at once a fantasy guy and an embodiment of the many frustrations presented thereby, a big, solemn, loving man inhibited by his apprehension to express emotion; this is a woman’s film about a man in the same way My Life to Live was a man’s film about a woman, made with an intense and slightly baffled curiosity toward its subject. Ella (Ilka Welz) is a good wife: eloquent (she references Romeo and Juliet in discussing a lovers’ suicide pact), beautiful, passionate in the sack. But Markus has a penchant for doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. His pact with Rose (Anett Dornbusch) is initially a booze-inflected affair following a night of hard drinking with doleful undertones at a party with fellow firemen getting smashed and ruminating on the fragility of life, decidedly in that order. Conflicted between guilt over Rose and love for Ella, Markus tells the latter he loves her in a grudging, passionless tone. Grisebach understands him enough to know that it is for guilt, and not lack of affection, that he should show her insufficient love, but makes her response—mystified and desperately oblivious—wholly justified. His boyish, confused look says everything—that is, that he can say nothing.
Ella and Rose’s characterizations are wrought with the knowledge that lovers so often transcend a simple hierarchy of names, and though our hearts’ desire for security makes choice inevitable, our discriminating minds will find intense attraction in things that are ostensibly opposites—all the more impressive because it is made by a woman who can’t be the best of both worlds. Rose, on the surface, is the more shy of the two, but she uses that shyness, in the form of a slightly seductive and slightly desperate smile, to lure Markus. Afraid the affair will amount to nothing, Rose expresses her fears in the most counterintuitive of ways: the more complacent she looks in Markus’ arms, the more fervently to him she reaches out. She answers to the message that Grisebach’s abrupt editing style—coasting from the languor of post-coital bodies to the bustle of the workday in an instant—embodie: “Tomorrow everything will seem like a dream.” With her insistent, irrational happiness, Rose attempts to give Markus something he’ll be afraid to lose.
Ella’s emotional fragility is arguably just as intense as Rose’s, but unlike Rose, Ella can’t mold it into seduction; the same feeling is as private and humiliating for Ella as it is invigorating for Rose. Instead of expressing herself emotionally, Ella insists on making observations with the intent of improvement—she has the guts to tell Markus he’s a “different man by day and night,” though not to cry in front of him. Alternating between observational intelligence and apologizing for her inner torment—the self-satisfied smile she adopts when managing to stop crying is revealing—Ella is perhaps a closer analogue to Grisebach herself than Rose. The only problem is that these observations are absorbed by Markus like a sponge: He listens, but his shame keeps him from responding. Ella is a tragic figure, representative of the futility of trying to make neutral observations. It’s just guesswork, but perhaps Grisebach made this film in an attempt to locate a pragmatic stance toward relationships, somewhere between Ella’s cold intellectualism and Rose’s heated enthusiasm.
But what’s most striking about Grisebach is not what she finds, but how she goes about finding it. Her editing strategy is something akin to Cassavetes adapted for the pathologically shy and inexpressive. She specializes in lengthy, digressive sequences fueled by pop music (e.g., Robbie Williams’ “Feel,” the Numa Numa Dance song, O-Zone’s “Dragostea Din Tea”) in which she’ll either relentlessly peel away at a single character’s defenses or ping-pong between two as one waits for the other to give a sign. This method arguably suspends the viewer in uncertainty more than it provides meaning—but I like the effect. It’s like digging for sparsely distributed flakes of gold. Grisebach keeps us searching, but what we find is precious enough to reward the effort. Whether the viewer will follow her lead is a matter of sensibility.
Longing is awaiting US distribution.