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Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life

Posted by martinteller on March 20, 2013

Jakob (Mark Rylance) enters the Institute Benjamenta, a school for butlers and servants.  The institute is run by Herr Benjamenta (Gottfried John) and classes are taught by his sister Lisa (Alice Krige).  Classes are designed to dehumanize and humiliate the pupils… repetitive, monotonous lessons that instill a sense of subservience.  Jakob makes waves on his first day, complaining about the living quarters.  He gets assigned his own room.  Lisa is drawn to him, as is her brother.

I do not hesitate to say this film is an aesthetic masterpiece.  In the past week, I’ve had the good fortune of watching (and re-watching) many visually sumptuous movies, and I’m running out of ways to say “eye candy”.  The images on display here are simply breathtaking.  Warm light, deep levels of rich detail, shallow focus creating hazy visions, astonishing composition and odd set design.  It’s one of those cases where I wanted to screenshot the entire movie.  Such graceful camerawork and lighting, the whole thing is just… magical.  And it’s a delight for the ears as well, with a lovely score and precise, heightened sound design

The black & image imagery, feeling of timelessness, and surrealism bring to mind both Eraserhead and Guy Maddin.  Except the Brothers Quay seem to lack the humor of either of those sources.  They present bizarre scenes and scenarios, but it’s all a bit too joyless and leaden.  As entrancing as the atmosphere of the film is, after about an hour you’re ready for something else to latch onto.  The premise is very intriguing but the themes that are built early on start floating away and the film becomes a string of events that, while poetic and moody, don’t convey much of anything.  Dream logic and fairy tale allegories are interesting, but they’re not anchored to anything that meaningful.

The three leads all speak in a heavily accented English and do a whole lot of whispering, which makes much the dialogue difficult to comprehend.  I may have had a greater appreciation for the film’s content — what there is of it — if I could more consistently understand what was being said.  However, the performances seemed pretty solid and faithful to the aesthetic.  I always like watching John (a Fassbinder regular)… and he’s got one of the best noses in cinema.

My prior experience with the Quay brothers is limited to a couple of dimly-recalled stop-motion animated shorts that used to air back in the day of MTV’s “Liquid Television.”  This movie has inspired me to check out their other work, I’m certain there are treasures to be found.  I’m including their other feature (The PianoTuner of Earthquakes) in this, though I expect far better results from their shorts, which is generally a better medium for this type of surrealism.  I would also like to read the Robert Walser novel on which this is based, and see if I can return to it with a fresh perspective.  I’m rating this movie quite highly because I truly was intoxicated by the beautiful sound and images.  But I only recommend it for those with a lot of patience.  If this movie grabbed me more on either an emotional or an intellectual level, it would be top 100 material for sure.  Rating: Very Good (84)


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