Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Thin Line Between Life and Death

The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin, 2007)
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)

The Turkish German director Fatih Akin’s third feature, The Edge of Heaven has been given a badly mistranslated title for its UK release. The original German title ‘On The Other Side’ is more open to interpretation and therefore more effective. Yet the more emotive English title does emphasise the film’s interest in peril, danger and death. The film has a tripartite structure, reminiscent of the unjustly lauded Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (whose films have so far merely served to repeat themselves with diminishing returns). Also like Inarritu, Akin contrives to connect seemingly disparate lives, and in doing so portrays tensions, both political and personal, between Germany and Turkey. The film’s coincidences and contrivances might well seem implausible to less generous viewers, and appreciation of the film certainly requires a small suspension of disbelief.

This would be a significant problem if the film were only a meditation on the consequences of coincidences, but Akin has also crafted a picture which speaks volumes about human relationships, and the impact of globalisation and immigration on the lives of individuals. In spite of its rather forced plot strands, it is therefore a powerful and touching drama, and the required leap of faith is only a minor flaw in an otherwise successful work.

A major part of the film’s achievement is the naturalistic and convincing performances Akin draws from his excellent cast, many of whom are unknowns here in the UK. Only Hanna Schygulla is a recognisable veteran, and her presence here no doubt represents a homage to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, an acknowledged influence on Akin. Her performance here, which evolves as the film progresses, is one of quiet majesty and real humanity.

The palpable tragedies at the core of the film are foretold by some intertitles at the start of the film’s first two sections – the first of which is called Yeter’s Death, the second Lotte’s Death. The first section centres on the unconventional relationship between the elderly Ali and prostitute Yeter, who discover a kinship through their shared experience as Turkish immigrants. Ali pays Yeter to live and sleep exclusively with him, an offer Yeter accepts at least in part through fear of a pair of threatening Islamic stalkers. Yet, after suffering a major heart attack, Ali quickly becomes self-centred, dominating and controlling, a side hitherto hidden by his endearingly frisky exterior. Accidentally killing Yeter in a rash moment of violence, he finds himself incarcerated as Yeter’s body is flown back to Turkey.

Ali’s bemused son Nejat occupies a unique position among the characters in this film in that he is a Turkish immigrant in Germany who has achieved a laudable position – a professor of German literature. He might be expected therefore to have some sort of superiority over the oppressed characters of Yeter and Ayten, voluntarily embracing prostitution and activism respectively. Yet his stately compassion represents the picture’s moral yardstick, and he is to assume a more significant role in the film’s closing stages.

The second section of the film focuses on Yeter’s estranged daughter, Ayten (played with convincing audacity and gusto by the unfathomably beautiful Nurgel Yesilcay), a political activist in Turkey in danger of incarceration for terrorist activity. Fearing persecution, she enters Germany illegally, and quickly strikes a bond with disillusioned student Lotte, who clearly yearns for some form of escape from the mundanities of her comfortable life. Unthinkingly, she offers Ayten board and lodging in her mother’s house, and the two begin an intense love affair whilst searching in vain for Yeter, who mislead Ayten into believing she could be found working in a shoe shop. Lotte’s mother Susanne (played by the aforementioned Schygulla), initially dismayed and struggling to understand the subservience of all personal concerns to political protest, generously and compassionately funds Ayten’s legal defence.

Although the political argument between Ayten and Susanne seems somewhat staged, this section of the film has significant points to make about Turkey and its contradictory politics. Ayten’s application for asylum is refused not because of her commitment to political violence, but rather because as a country poised to join the European Union, Turkey could not possibly be guilty of persecuting or repressing political opposition. Similarly, Susanne tries reasoning with Ayten that membership of the EU will suddenly bring the universal human rights that Ayten hungers after. Akin highlights the fundamental naivety of these positions.

On deportation back to Turkey, Ayten is held in prison, and threatened with a lengthy jail term. Overwhelmed by her emotions and burgeoning beliefs, Lotte abandons her studies in Germany (and her suffering mother), and heads to Istanbul to find and rescue Ayten, finally believing she has meaning in her life. Ironically, she finds a room for rent with Nejat, who has purchased a German bookshop in Istanbul and hopes to find Ayten and fund her education as some form of recompense for the actions of his father, although Lotte remains unaware of this, with grim irony. Lotte proves surprisingly resourceful in spite of her naivety and inexperience and the result is a painful and inevitable tragedy that encapsulates the essential vulnerability of the lives depicted in this film.

The final section of the film might reasonably be expected to tie the remaining loose plot strands together in a neat conclusion, and initially this seems to be the objective, with Nejat now entrenched in his German bookshop in Turkey, perhaps resigned to never finding Ayten. Lotte’s mother heads to Turkey after hearing the news of her daughter’s death, and locates Nejat in order to stay in the room her daughter had rented. They form a touching bond of friendship, perhaps even Platonic love, and their conversation about sacrifice is particularly moving, prompting Nejat to seek out his father, now also deported back to Turkey having been released from prison. The film concludes on a satisfyingly ambiguous note, with Nejat waiting for Ali’s fishing boat to come back to shore as the tide gets choppier. We are left wondering whether he will in fact return. Rather than join up all the dots, Nejat has not, even by the film’s final image, discovered that Lotte’s mother is supporting Ayten.

The film reflects on the poignancy and irony of near misses and devastating tragedies, but also highlights the vulnerability and mixed feelings of displaced people with an insight, humanity and compassion that never veers into sentiment. These are big ideas for a director with still burgeoning talent, and ‘The Edge of Heaven’ is an assured film that lacks the relentless severity of ‘Head On’. For a film touched with tragedy and doom, it’s also surprisingly light and life affirming.

Julian Schnabel’s ‘The Diving Bell and The Butterfly’ also touches on the fragility and vulnerability of human life, albeit in a surprisingly tender and ultimately positive way. So far, Schnabel’s directorial career has been somewhat self-aggrandising, empathising with tortured artists (effective to a degree in his cinematic reworking of Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir ‘Before Night Falls’, but somewhat superficial in the tedious ‘Basquiat’ biopic). ‘The Diving Bell and The Butterfly’, however, is a different picture altogether, intelligently crafted and deeply affecting.

Jean-Dominique Bauby was at the tender age of 44 and at the height of success as editor of fashion magazine Elle, when cruelly struck down by a major stroke. On awakening from a coma, he found himself the victim of ‘locked-in syndrome’, fully conscious with little damage to his brain, yet unable to move or even communicate.

This remarkable film charts the gradual process of his self-discovery. Helped by a speech therapist who rearranges the alphabet in order of frequency of use, he learns to communicate only by blinking his left eye – once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’. In an almost unfathomable triumph of resilience, he manages to dictate an entire account of his experience in this way, to a publicist who becomes almost a lover, albeit with little physical contact.

The most impressive aspect of this film is the way it so effortlessly combines the fluency and insight of Bauby’s articulate and lucid prose with a cinematic language that is both original and effective. The audience frequently sees scenes from within Bauby’s ‘locked-in’ mind, behind the curtain of his one functioning eyelid. It’s a masterful device that allows us a vivid and sensory vicarious experience of Bauby’s frustration and an understanding of his journey from powerlessness to empowerment.

Whilst the film is occasionally distressing, it is tempered by a streak of black humour (one of Bauby’s most effective mechanisms for coping with his lack of mobility) and ultimately serves as a celebration of the ultimate triumph of human consciousness. Bauby finds more than solace in the wild flights of fancy of his imagination, and his dreams and fantasies are significant factors in the film’s emotional clarity. On his hospital balcony overlooking the coast and an imposing lighthouse, Bauby can indulge his imagination to its fullest potential.

As well as emphasising the brilliance of human consciousness and intellect, the film also seems to be a paen to the beauty and generosity of women. In spite of his apparent rejection of his family life, Bauby’s spirit is partially sustained by the continued support of his wife Celine, played with sympathy and compassion by Emmanuel Seigner. She even enables him to have a telephone ‘conversation’ with another lover, a painful and magnanimous gesture.

As a man worshipped for his handsomeness and success, Bauby was clearly something of a womaniser, and its striking that he had planned to write a book about female revenge. In a sense, this could have been the theme of ‘The Diving Bell…’, given that the beautiful women that surround him all have their mobility and speech, of which he has been cruelly deprived. Yet it is not so schematic, instead celebrating the kindness and companionship of these women (his physiotherapist, speech therapist and publicist are all female), all of whom help him to realise that he is still a strong and complete person. It achieves this in a way that is entirely positive and without misogyny, testament to the sensitivity and insight of both Bauby’s source material and Schnabel’s direction. Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood are particularly careful to capture Bauby’s regrets and moral failings as well as his positive memories.

Carefully paced and structured, the film ends before it begins, with the fateful accident itself. The relative banality of Bauby’s final memory before entering the coma is striking: ‘I had time for one final thought – we’ll have to cancel the theatre, although we’re probably too late already – and then I slipped into sleep.’ It’s just one of many painful ironies within the film – Bauby’s gifting of an aeroplane seat to someone who then ended up hijacked and taken hostage in Beirut and Bauby’s sudden realisation of common ground with his infirm father being two other obvious examples.

Watching this film immediately after ‘The Edge of Heaven’, I was struck by some intriguing parallels between the two pictures. There are two remarkable scenes in ‘The Diving Bell…’ involving Bauby and his 92 year old father. The first comes in a memory from immediately before the accident, in which a begrudging Papinou (played marvellously by the legendary Max Von Sydow) submits to being shaved by his son. The second comes with a conversation over the telephone, Papinou too infirm to visit Bauby in hospital, in which they attempt to communicate, Bauby’s blinking interpreted by a ‘translator’. Papinou’s transparent grief echoed the similar breakdown of Lotte’s mother in the Istanbul hotel in ‘The Edge of Heaven’, whilst the realisation that father and son are similarly encased also shared a powerful resonance with the acceptance of common ground between Lotte’s mother and Nejat. Both pictures are compassionate and humanist in tone and capture a combination of fragility and resilience that is somehow uplifting in the face of tragedy.

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