Sunday, February 26, 2012

One A Week Reviews #8: Libestraum

I've seen Libestraum on offer for 20 years now and always meant to watch it. I had heard it was something of a meditative mystery featuring the last screen appearance of Kim Novak and had the excellent pedigree of being directed by Mike Figgis. Also, it starred Bill Pullman along with two lead actors, Kevin Anderson and Pamela Gidley, who never really "happened," even though they kept getting the opportunities.

Turns out, I wasn't missing much.

It's fitting that a film named after a piece of music should open with a shot of a piano. In flashback, a man and woman are having a tryst only to be interrupted and shot. Thirty years later, we join Nick (Anderson) as he travels to visit his birth mother (Novak), who lives in the Nursing Home of Dramatic Lighting. She is dying, but as she'd given him up for adoption, this is the first time he's met her. He also wants to study the rare cast-iron-frame building that shooting happened in, now about to be torn down by Bill Pullman's character, Paul Kessler. Paul and Nick are old pals, though their relationship is stiff, awkward, and nearly ended by a work-site accident. Was it fate, or somehow caused by the ominous arrival of a mysterious man in a limousine?
The brush with death leads Paul to invite Nick to his birthday party for wife, Jane (Gidley), and their illicit attraction leads to a relationship that parallels that of the couple in the opening of the film. Their attraction doesn't exactly spark; if anything, it seems more predetermined by Nick (and Figgis) than any chemistry. Anderson barely seems awake at times, much less lustful, and he spends more of the film bobbing along with events than he does making proactive choices. Nick and Jane grow closer, bonding over adoption and, probably, a loathing of Paul's outbursts. They build an affair and intertwine with the question from the past of how the couple in the opening wound up getting shot.

The tone of this film is ominous in the David Lynch style. Disjointed pacing, odd characterizations (Catherine Hicks' Mary is all actor's ticks) and most of Figgis' choices (the work-site accident which is as built up like a Final Destination movie, a character's on-screen super-piss, some arty BS with mannequins) almost cause laughs instead of intrigue. Every scene is under-lit and given an air of ominous portent. There are lighting and score choices that also make one think Figgis is invoking Lynch. Encouraging artificial outbursts from these hothouse-flower characters, most of whom speak in non sequiturs, also encourages comparisons.  There's something resembling a mystery... hell, there's something resembling a story-line here, but this is a genuine case of style over substance.

Anderson and Pullman are a weird mix of stiff and over-the-top. Gidley acquits herself as well as anyone could with the unrealistic material, and plays "naturalism" instead of "operatic peaks." The main attraction of Libestraum is Kim Novak. In her late fifties here, she has looks that conquer unflattering lighting and make-up. She's probably still glorious to behold now in her late seventies. I had always found her stiff (Bell, Book, and Candle, The Legend of Lylah Clare, Madeline in Vertigo), but occasionally fascinating (Judy in Vertigo). After seeing her here, even once dropping the C-bomb, I have to revisit my opinion. Even when encouraged to the same fever pitch as the other actors, this product of the studio system plays the closest thing to a "real person" in this over-baked flick. In fact, this is one of the few rare films that moved me to curse it (out loud, no less) when it ended.

(Perhaps of note: evidently Mike Figgis and Kim Novak butted heads on this film regarding acting and interpretation and a big chunk of her role was excised from the final film. History and opinion seem to have proven Novak right. There's also an excised scene available on the DVD as an extra, set in possibly the world's angriest brothel, that will have you howling out-loud at the atrociousness of it all. I recommend it more than the film.)

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