2005Director: Denis Tanovic
Cast: Emmanuelle Béart, Karin Viard, Marie Gillain
enis Tanovic is a blunt guy. At the intro preceding an AFI Film Festival screening of his new Hell, the Bosnian filmmaker convivially introduced it as “my first French film.” Tanovic then scoffed, before a brittle audience of polite lemmings, “and probably my last.” Normally such a remark could be interpreted as the stuff of sarcastic ingratiation, but the director’s register couldn’t have been any gruffer. His jokey threat to strangle absconding patrons—“I’ve been in war, I know how to kill,”—was more overtly amiable, but the laughter to follow was still of a distinctly anxious variety. Kidding or not, dude was pissed.
I can’t blame him; the suggestion that Tanovic’s fingerprints have been erased from the production isn’t without grounds. His first feature, No Man’s Land, was a conceptually austere anti-war allegory shot with deliberate, barren flatness; it was a carton of acid just undiluted enough, (and serendipitously relevant enough, c. 9/11), to pull off an unexpected win—against everyone’s favorite doe-eyed Parisienne, no less—of 2001’s foreign-film Oscar. Hell is in many ways just the opposite, an intricately plotted European Art Movie replete with supple camera movement and expressively chiaroscuro compositions. Where No Man’s Land attenuates to absurdity, Hell convolutes to incredulity.
It may be time to bring up the other auteur of Hell, Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose preference for philosophical complexity over narrative fluidity may be to blame for the film’s unconvincingly thorny narrative. But as much as Kieslowski nuts would feign regard for his posthumous Afterlife Trilogy alongside The Decalogue, Three Colors, and etc., the new series—now two-thirds complete, with Tom Tykwer’s Heaven and now Hell in the can—doggedly begs comparison to the works of Michaelangelo Antonioni. The two films brim with Antonioni’s particular brand of isolated wanderers: Heaven lacquers a pair of star-crossed terrorist lovers in delusional bliss, whereas Hell injects the ostensibly contented lives of three sisters with achingly specific torment. In both cases, isolation is the result of emotional counter-intuition.
The sisters are united by a fanatical mixture of love and distrust for the men of their, ahem, “affections.” Sophie (Emmanuelle Béart) suspects her chic photographer husband of shagging a model; Céline (Karin Viard) lusts single-mindedly after a geriatric philosophy professor; and Anne (Marie Gillain) is left to tend for mute Mom, and glean what’s been ailing everyone from a strange, vaguely satanic man. All three performers radiate hidden depths, especially Béart, who, with this film, takes the peculiar honor of taking the lead role in two movies with the exact same goddamn title within the span of just over a decade. But, ever the ironist, bare psychological realism isn’t enough for Tanovic. He opts to gives Béart her crowning paroxysm at precisely the wrong moment, just before her suspicions are temporarily flummoxed, and makes Viard’s obsessive love the butt of a humiliating gag. But Tanovic isn’t cruel; he’s merely judgmental. These occasional stabs at humor don’t tend to lighten the mood, but rather emphasize the inglorious magnitude of the sisters’ desperation. All the while, there’s a fair deal of verisimilitude; just don’t expect cut-and-dry empathy.
You almost wish the sisters’ pain remained a mystery, because the impetus lurking beneath it is rather crushingly banal. The film intends to subvert the myth of Medea, or rather, to suggest the definition of an emotionally strong woman has transformed over the centuries, from vengeful to reserved. But the machinations of the screenplay by Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Kieslowski’s longtime partner, are just as simplistic as Euripides’ by-the-Sophoclean-numbers tragedy, with an off-hand dash of last-minute salvation as revisionist commentary; and perhaps the recent multitude of righteously ass-kicking females (see: Kill Bill, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) somewhat mars the credibility of Piesiewicz's thesis.
But no matter. As a study of how unresolved familial trauma fuels everyday enmity, Hell incinerates. Too cool for straight melodrama, Tanovic can take heart that his signature bellicosity has been preserved, regardless of where he’s been getting his argent. His characters may be boundlessly effusive, yet his caustic observation of their travails is anything but.