Monday, January 24, 2011

The Tourist (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

An innocent abroad
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Tourist has such a vile reputation one wants to walk into it wearing a body condom--acoording to its many detractors, it lacks sizzle, it lacks fizzle, it lacks chemistry, heat, spice, humor, thrills, chills, spills, so on and so forth. It's derivative; it borrows its best (or at least most obvious) elements from Hitchcock, particularly North by Northwest and from Stanley Donen's Charade, among others. Its plotting is dumb, its actors lifeless, its twists nonsensical.
So what did I watch anyway? Angelina Jolie plays Elise Clifton-Ward, a mysterious beauty who boards a Venice-bound train and is required to find a decoy, a patsy meant to throw off all the heavy-duty armed-to-the-teeth with mikes and lenses Interpol and Scotland Yard agents tailing her. At the spur of the moment, she elects to choose...Frank Tupelo, an American math teacher from Wisconsin. Johnny Depp is doing the average Everyman persona he does every other picture (Nick of Time, Donnie Brasco, The Ninth Gate), and truth to tell there's something reductive and inward-looking about him that lends itself towards making him seem so commonplace timid (as opposed to his sashaying, half-sober Captain Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies). Straight off Elise reveals herself to be something of a manipulator, a fairly ruthless one--yet in the guise of Angelina Jolie, all glorious cheekbones and lips to die for, one might understand an ordinary schoolteacher's impulse to walk into the trap eyes wide shut. Stepping off a cliff is not the smartest way to go, but boy, is the view spectacular. Wouldn't a public school educator from Wisconsin be tempted, even for a moment perhaps?
I can see people and critics alike being disappointed in the film--Hitchcock is a tough bar to beat, and North by Northwest is about the most perfect chase movie ever made. Donen's Charade isn't on that high level I think, but it does have Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and--God bless Depp--he isn't Grant, not by a long shot (though Jolie does have the kind of wattage that approaches Hepburn's, albeit with an altogether different flavor). All that said, I can appreciate what Donnersmarck is trying to do: a thriller, but not an obvious one; a romance with a touch more ambiguity; a chase that tumbles through the intricacies not of mere plot twists, but of character development. If Donnersmarck tamps down the heat factor of two very charismatic stars, that may be because he wants to show us gentler currents and eddies taking place between two recognizably human beings, the kind of dynamic found between two unlikely people falling in love despite themselves, and despite one of the lovers' explicitly callous brief ("pick a chump, any chump"). Doonersmarck's is a subtler, gentler approach, and what is revealed here isn't the metoric rise of an Everyman turning Superman--inspired by a daemonic muse--but of a remarkable man revealing even more remarkably commonplace emotions, a--dare we say it?--sweeter, more approachable form of love.
We see this time and time again: extraordinary situations where the people reveal themselves to be more human than the genre usually demands. A rooftoop chase sequence that has all the suspense and realistic vulnerability of a Roman Polanski film (Polanski being the default master of suspense generated by second-floor railings and the odd loose terra-cotta tile). Later, though one cannot visit Venice without running through its picturesque canals in high-speed boats, here the twist is that the boats are dragged down by various cables, hauling various weights--a visual metaphor for what the film is trying to do.
And, of course, the theme of surveillance, of acting as silent voyeur to the object of one's desire, an inescapable theme in Donnersmarck's best-known work The Lives of Others, about an introverted surveillance expert who wiretaps a famous dissident writer. Donnersmarck in this production seems to revel in what Western intelligence agencies with their larger budgets have to offer--video cameras, gun microphones, sophisticated chemical processes that can restore a burnt message back to coherence--all in the service of his overall motif: a human soul under close observation, by a not unsympathetic observer.
The film is such a throwback it's actually something of a revelation--a thriller without loud explosions, a comedy with more wit than crude humor, a romance with more tenderness than outright sexuality. No blatant CGI, no gigantic action setpieces, no loud beat-heavy music score. If people can't appreciate something entirely different from what they're used to, something pitched at a softer, lighter tone than anything they've enjoyed recently, then...what hope is there for anything else as soft or light, as subtle and unobstrusive?
First published in Businessworld, 1.13.11

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