Nov 17, 2009

Review Post 55: The White Ribbon / The Girlfriend Experience

DIR: Michael Haneke
CAST: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaußner, Leonard Proxauf,
Rainer Bock, Susanne Lothar, Leoni Benesch

Michael Haneke’s cinema is deliberately, often explicitly, challenging. The White Ribbon lacks the extremes of films like Funny Games and The Piano Teacher but, like its director’s previous work, it is an uneasy experience.

The White Ribbon often seems like a set of contradictions. It is a film about violence, physical and psychic; but that violence is almost never shown. It is a mystery, a whodunit; but we never find out any answers, and the answers never seem to matter. It begins by saying it wants to clarify things, but then spends two and a half hours obfuscating. This is a film that could easily have dealt in explicit shock (imagine the same material in the hands of, say, Gaspar Noe), but what Haneke does instead is create an undertone; an atmosphere of impending doom and of utter dread that begins as an almost imperceptible background note, but grows with every passing frame to a crescendo. This makes The White Ribbon a deeply haunting, troubling film; the unease all the more deeply felt because you can’t find any reason or any culprit for the events that precipitate it.

The film deals with strange violent events in a highly religious German village in 1913 and 14. What it seems to suggest is that these events, which range from the tripping of a horse, leading the local doctor (Bock) to break his arm to the vicious attack on a local disabled child, are a manifestation of the abuse that everyone in the village seems to mete out. Though there is nothing explicit shown it is clear that abuse runs deep. The pastor (Klaußner) humiliates his ‘sinful’ elder children by making them wear ribbons to remind them they must be pure, deprives his family of food when the children misbehave and even ties his son’s hands to the bed frame so that he can’t masturbate, and in the most appalling scene the Doctor dispassionately details to his Midwife and lover (Lothar) how she now disgusts him. Some have read the violent events and the cycle of abuse as a suggestion of the incipient fascism that would come to fruition 20 years later. Personally, I think I’ll have to see the film at least once more to decide what I think Haneke is saying with it, but it is a rich enough film that I’m looking forward to doing just that.

Technically The White Ribbon is flawless. Haneke and DP Christian Berger shoot in stunningly crisp black and white. It’s Haneke’s first non-colour film, but he demonstrates a total mastery of both black and white and of his frames. The light in the film is beautiful, with stark whites and deep blacks dominant, in a story comprised almost entirely of shades of grey. The photography calls to mind directors like Bergman, Murnau and perhaps especially Carl Dreyer. Each shot is a beautifully composed tableau, a perfectly stark image, often painterly in its beauty. Even some of the more disturbing images, like that of a gruesomely (and symbolically) killed bird, are as startling in their beauty as their shock value. Another thing that really makes the film appear somewhat out of its time is the casting. Haneke’s casting department deserves some sort of award, not only for finding such a capable group of actors, especially among the many children who play pivotal roles, but for finding actors whose faces seem to fit the period. Haneke has said that this was a painstaking process, and that he saw 7000 candidates for the children’s roles, weeding out the modern faces. It’s stood him in good stead, as The White Ribbon is very convincingly set in its early 20th century period.

The children are uniformly excellent. In one especially strong scene the Doctor’s daughter (Maria-Victoria Dragus) tells her adorable young brother about death, both of them giving supremely natural performances. Also impressive is Leonard Proxauf, in perhaps the most important juvenile role, as the pastor’s eldest son. There’s a powerful, barely repressed, simmering rage behind his eyes in a few scenes (which lends a little credence to the idea of at least this character being an incipient fascist). It’s an effective and rather chilling piece of work. The adult cast is also excellent. The only lighter moments come from a little romance between the school teacher (Friedel) and his young fiancé (Benesch, a beautiful young actress who seems lit from within), but even these scenes sometimes have an undertone of darkness, as in a deeply uncomfortable carriage ride late in the film. Friedel does well as a man who seems something of an outsider looking in at this slowly imploding community, and as the only possible point of identification for us. Burghart Klaußner is chilling as the film’s biggest hypocrite - a man who preaches against and punishes sin, yet sins himself and ignores news of bigger sins when it is brought to him - but he’s best in the one moment when his severe mask seems to slip, letting us see for one brief moment that he does have emotions. Best of all are a pair of barnstorming performances from Ranier Bock and Haneke regular Susanne Lothar as the doctor and the midwife. That devastating scene in which he tells her how he is disgusted by her is astounding cinema, the kind of thing that burns itself into your brain and remains there long after the credits roll.

The White Ribbon is certainly an austere film, and there are audiences who will find it distancing because of that. Many will also find it frustrating, because of Haneke’s total refusal to answer the many questions his film throws up. It’s not a film for the casual cinemagoer, it demands your attention, it demands reflection and, frankly, it also demands repeat viewings. The White Ribbon is not an easy film, but it is a great film, the work of a man who has not only made a storming return to form (after the curious, pointless, Funny Games US) but who is working at the height of his powers, it’s a sight that should be seen. Twice.

DIR: Steven Soderbergh
CAST: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos,
Glenn Kenny

If Che; a two part, four hour plus epic, years in the planning, was a five course dinner then The Girlfriend Experience represents a palette cleanser for Steven Soderbergh; a quick shoot, with largely improvised dialogue, and a lot of non-actors, and an eventual runtime of just 74 minutes.

The film centres on ‘Chelsea’ (Grey), a high class, very high priced, call girl who specialises in ‘girlfriend experiences’. Rather than turning a simple trick she is paid to spend time with clients; go to movies and dinner, talk, listen to their problems and, yes, to have sex with them. For many of the men it seems that being with Chelsea is as much about companionship as it is sex. Soderbergh began shooting the very week that the US economy crashed, and these concerns also weave their way through the film, impacting on ‘Chelsea’s’ clients as well as on her real life as Christine Brown and her relationship with boyfriend Chris (Santos).

My problem with the film was that, in dealing so closely and personally with ‘Chelsea’s’ life it should have felt rather intimate and observed, but for me Soderbergh’s own photography and editing undermined that. There’s a veneer to the film, a rather self-conscious artsy feel that strives to be off the cuff, but feels extremely designed and artificial. You could read this as clever, as reflective of the dual realities of Christine’s life. I don’t buy that. Most galling for me was Soderbergh’s very consciously metaphorical use of focus, I felt especially battered over the head by it in a bar scene, which has Grey and Santos out of focus as they talk, but snaps Grey into sharp focus when Santos leaves the frame. I get it Steve, but it’s not as clever a device as you think. The non-linear editing was also a problem for me, because it was another thing that seemed just to shout “you’re watching a movie”. Another issue is that, even at just 74 minutes, the film feels baggy. There’s a lot of very dull, time marking, stuff about Chris trying to maximise his earning potential as a personal trainer, stuff about which I really don’t care. What saves The Girlfriend Experience, somewhat surprisingly, is its star Sasha Grey. I’m not a big porn watcher. Of course I’ve seen some, but the only porn films I’ve seen all the way through are so-called classics Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas. I hadn’t seen any of Grey’s work prior to The Girlfriend Experience.

Let’s say this for starters; this girl is wasted on porn. Now obviously I’m making a judgement call here, but I’m guessing that Face Invaders 4 (charming) doesn’t call for much in the way of characterisation, which is a shame because in The Girlfriend Experience Grey demonstrates an ability to create a very convincing, multi-dimensional character. Christine and ‘Chelsea’ are very different personalities, and Grey draws that distinction impressively. What is particularly striking is the fact that she creates each persona so convincingly that we are never sure whether Chelsea is a mask that Christine puts on, or vice versa. It’s a complex piece of acting and Grey disappears into it completely.

While the film as a whole doesn’t quite work, some individual scenes are excellent. All of the scenes in which ‘Chelsea’ is interacting with her clients are nicely done, with the actors playing the johns (many of whom, apparently, are based on real people) all doing good work and Grey impressing with her ability to show how ‘Chelsea’ adapts her persona to each individual client. The film’s most striking moment is a scene featuring film critic Glenn Kenny as a blogger called ‘The Erotic Conniseur’ who, in return for a freebie, says he can give ‘Chelsea’ a review that will increase both her client base and her price. Kenny and Grey are both brilliant, in a scene that is skin-crawlingly unpleasant, sad, scary and also hilariously funny. In the film’s most memorable line the blogger tells Christine he’s planning to take a group of escorts to Dubai, which is “great, because it sounds like white slavery, but it isn’t”.

The Girlfriend Experience is ultimately an interesting failure. It’s hard to care about the characters, and the narrative is so choppy that it is difficult to get wrapped up in it, but it is worth seeing because, in Sasha Grey, it heralds the arrival of an impressive actress who I really hope we’ll get to see in more mainstream films.

Q and A

After the screening of The Girlfriend Experience Sasha Grey did a 30-minute Q and A session. Without her heels she would have been tiny (in them she was still perhaps a touch under my 5’ 7”) and she looked so petite that she seemed almost fragile (a notion that seemed ridiculous after she spoke). Still just 21, she looks even younger and is delicately beautiful, more so than on screen, in person.

I’ve been to a lot of Q and A sessions, but I’ve seldom seen a person who seemed smarter, more confident or more engaged than Sasha Grey. There were some stupid questions, even some that bordered on insulting, but she fielded all of them with good grace and gave full, thoughtful answers, always trying to engage the questioner personally. Most of the questions centered not on The Girlfriend Experience, but on her porn career and how she was going to combine it with a burgeoning mainstream career (she said that she's not putting up any boundaries). An interesting question asked whether she was interested in higher production value, more cinematic, adult films. To this she answered that she's setting up her own production company (Greyscale, a good name) and that she wants to move into making adult films with more plot and better production values, if not huge budgets. My favourite question was perhaps the last. Are you a feminist? She said that she is, but that she could see both the positive and negative sides of that description, before ending on the note of "isn't every woman basically a feminist?"

After she left the stage I managed to grab a brief personal moment, just to shake her hand (I didn’t have anything to get signed) and say how much I had enjoyed her performance.


  1. I had the pleasure of interviewing Sasha Grey this afternoon. She's a thoroughly charming and engaging individual, who is remarkably level-headed and clear about her goals for someone so young. I also agree that she is even more beautiful in person, and I'm looking forward to seeing her in more non-porn roles.

  2. Dude, have you seen where that hand has been?

    I jest. Sasha Grey seems like an intelligent gal, certainly in comparison to her fellow...professionals.

    Whilst I'm not so keen on The Girlfriend Experience I can't wait to see The White Ribbon.