Sunday, July 9, 2017

Liebestraum (1991)

Writer about architecture Nick Kaminsky (Kevin Anderson) comes to a small-ish town to see his dying mother Lillian (Kim Novak). Nick didn’t grow up with his parents. His father died before he was born and his mother spent most of her life in psychiatric hospitals (and Nick apparently never bothered to visit), so Nick really doesn’t know her at all.

While he’s wandering the town, Nick encounters an old university friend of his. Architect Paul Kessler (Bill Pullman) is there to tear down an old steel-framed hotel and put up a shopping mall (which in a Mike Figgis film usually seems to be something meant to make a character automatically suspect and unsympathetic). They apparently weren’t very close back when, but when Nick pushes Paul out of the way of a falling bit of the hotel, Paul is appropriately thankful. Why, he even invites Nick to the birthday party of his wife Jane (Pamela Gidley). Nick and Jane very obviously fall in (at the very least) instant lust when they meet, though lust is perhaps a harmless word for something that is rather obviously obsessive on both sides and will turn out to be completely out of control of the two.

Nick and Jane both feel drawn to the old hotel, too, and might just be fated to repeat something terrible that happened there when their parent generation was about their age.

Liebestraum (named after the Liszt composition whose title translates as “Lovedream”) is something like an erotic thriller that may or may not be about literal ghosts, but its ideas of eroticism as well as of love and lust have little to do with Cinemax style erotic thrillers. The film sits smack dab in the middle of the most interesting part of its director Mike Figgis’s career, before his films became a bit too precious for me to appreciate. This one very much works with the same motives from Hitchcock movies Brian De Palma is also most fascinated by, but gives them a rather more artsy treatment. Kim Novak’s role here is certainly meant to remind the audience of Vertigo, even though Figgis’s view of women and the concept of obsession really isn’t too close to Hitchcock. I believe the man, at least at this point in his career, was a bit of a Romantic (in the literary sense of the word, therefore the capital letter), and less of a creep than Hitch. In any case, Liebestraum’s treatment of the intersection(s) of love, lust, obsession and fate through the shadows of the past (the pasts we know created us and the one’s we don’t know but that still made us too) is very much one all Figgis’s own.

At its best, the film’s deliberate slowness, the nearly affectless performances by Anderson and Gidley that might be a bit too distanced and stylized for some tastes but that actually make sense if you watch closely, and its ambiguous story about the ghosts of the past very literally taking control of the present leads to a dreamy state in a viewer that mirrors the way its protagonists find themselves in the grip of feelings they can neither understand nor control and which may very well lead them into a fated doom.

Of course, if one is in the wrong mood for this sort of thing, words like “pretentious” might come to mind too. I don’t think that’s a failing of the film, though, but rather an inescapable outcome when we as an audience are confronted with something that has very specific sensibilities that just might not fit into those of a given viewer or just a given viewer in this specific moment. But then, the idea a film could or should be for everyone and for every single day in everyone’s life has always been rather preposterous.

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