Capone's Art-House Round-Up with VENUS IN FUR, DINOSAUR 13, and THE GERMAN DOCTOR!!!
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
VENUS IN FUR
Based on the Tony Award-winning play by David Ives (which in turn was taken from the novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch), VENUS IN FUR is an exhilarating two-person drama about sexual politics, defying expectations, role reversal, and maybe even a little bit about acting. And it should come as no surprise that this dance comes courtesy of director Roman Polanski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ives.
The great actor Mathieu Amalric plays playwright/director Thomas, who is at the end of a frustrating day in the theater, auditioning women to play the lead female character in latest play, an adaptation of von Sacher-Masoch's story about a woman who agrees to become the sexual slave of the male lead. As he's packing up for the day, into the theater walks Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's real-life wife), a slightly older actress than he's been seeing all day, who begs him to let her try out for the role. Her rough-around-the-edges ways do not bode well for her chances of getting the part, but Thomas allows her to read one passage, and suddenly the working-class accent and brash mannerisms disappear, and she turns into the sophisticated woman from his prose.
Before long, the two begin going through the whole play, but as they get deeper and deeper into the roles, the lines between the characters and the performers becomes blurred. Between readings, Vanda grills Thomas about why he chose this play and whether the male character's proclivities for sexual deviance mirror his own. Almost without realizing it, the pair meld into their characters and the tension (sexual and otherwise) builds to the point where it becomes clear that Vanda's original pushy, ill-mannered self was as much a put on as the character she's playing—maybe more so. Not surprisingly, Thomas' interest in Vanda transitions from mild amusement to utter fascination, bordering on obsession. As a result, the power in the relationship slowly begins to shift, and he becomes her psychological captive.
VENUS IN FUR is a wonderful acting exercise, and is easily the finest work that Seigner has ever done. She moves from frazzled to smoldering to delicate to terrifying, all in one scene sometimes. And I don't think it's an accident that Amalric's hairstyle, clothes and overall demeanor is remarkably similar to that of Polanski (this is not the first time the filmmaker has had a "stand-in" in one of his movies), but it's also not especially significant.
The core of the film is the changing roles of women as objects of desire for men in power. In fact, the story can easily be seen as revenge for centuries of societal submission. It's thrilling to watch these fine actors at the top of their game do this dance, and the scenario gets even more dangerous as we get closer to seeing where they land when all is said and done.
For Chicagoans, there's a certain amount of pride that comes with knowing that the fossilized dinosaur bones of the T-Rex known as Sue (an 80 percent complete specimen) are contained in the Field Museum of Natural History, which purchased them for more than $8 million. But after seeing the documentary DINOSAUR 13, we may question whether Sue is housed in the correct setting and why she isn't in the hands of the South Dakota team that discovered her, paid money to own the fossils, and meticulously recovered and preserved the remains.
Fear not, the Field Museum is not painted as the villain in this story. In fact, most of the parties involved are happy that Sue ended up in a proper natural history museum and not in some private collection, where it just as easily could have landed thanks to a 1997 Sotheby's auction, in which the land "owner" where the fossils were found sold Sue after already having sold it to the Black Hills Institute, whose members (including Sue namesake Susan Hendrickson) discovered the bones in the first place in 1990.
The interviews with the original Black Hills group, led by paleontologist Peter Larson, about that initial discovery are thrilling, and the looks on their faces as they tell of the meticulous dig are so full of hope and promise, you tend to forget what happened two years later when overly armed FBI agents stormed the Institute and took not just Sue but pretty much every fossil in the meticulously organized facility. What followed were custody battles for Sue, laughable courtroom accusations of thievery from government lands, money laundering (by the loosest definition imaginable), piracy, you name it. And when one layer of red tape is conquered, three more take its place in one of the most flagrant example of headline-grabbing bureaucratic nonsense you'll ever see documented.
Director Todd Douglas Miller chronicles the years-long battle with lawyers, museums, Native American tribes, the government, landowners, and even the reputation of some paleontologists as money-grubbing fossil sellers. The film is based on the book Rex Appeal by Larson and freelance journalist Kristen Donnan, who is now Larson's ex-wife, and while it would be fair to question her biases, the research and documentation seems to cover all of the bases of both the initial discovery and the mind-numbingly detailed courtroom/ownership issues through the final sale, which netted the original land owner (the land was actually be held in trust by the government) millions of tax-free dollars.
While I'm still not sure who legally owns Sue, I tend to see it as where she might have done the most good for a community. Chicago has certainly done a wonderful job providing a home for her, but the small town of Hill City, SD, could truly have benefitted from having her at the Black Hills Institute. The emotions still run high among the participants and the townspeople, but I suppose the day the government gets anything right on the first try is the day filmmakers will stop needing to make compelling films such as DINOSAUR 13.
THE GERMAN DOCTOR
Part family drama, part medical horror story, THE GERMAN DOCTOR is an odd yet fascinating duck indeed. Set in the Patagonia Mountains circa 1960, the film focuses on an Argentine family new to the region to restore and reopen a hotel in the snowy region that seems strangely populated by German expatriate, who still seem loyal to the Fatherland of 15-20 years before, which should (and will) clue you in to some degree about where this story is headed.
Into the family's life comes a doctor (Àlex Brendemühl) who latches onto them in fairly helpful ways, including financially when he insists that he be their first guest and pays them many months in advance. He takes a particular interest in the couple's 12-year-old daughter, Lilith (a fantastic Florencia Bado), which makes her father Enzo (Diego Peretti) slightly nervous. Lilith suffers from being too small for her age, and the doctor (clearly a researcher of some kind) offers up an aggressive form of treatment that he believes will help her grow. When the mother Eva (Natalia Oreiro) gives birth to twins later in the film, the doctor is indispensable to them, but it's clear that his interest in the newborns is more scientific than genuine concern.
THE GERMAN DOCTOR is filled with whispered conversations, and I don't think I'm even spoiling anything to say that the film's understory involves the search for Nazi war criminals. Anytime there's a TV on in a room, there's a story about how the Israelis have captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and whisked him away to Israel for trial. This news seems to make the doctor quite nervous and plans for him to be taken away are afoot.
The film never asks us to see the human behind the doctor—if you haven't figured out who he is by now, you need to bone up on your Nazi history—but at the same time, it does attempt to show a bit of the charisma he was known to have. Although it becomes clear early that any interest or kindness shown to this family was done strictly to get close to and experiment on these children.
Directed by Lucia Puenzo (who wrote the novel the film is based upon), THE GERMAN DOCTOR is an intriguing and tense little film that gets under your skin just enough to keep you captivated by its creepy story and disturbing titular character. The performances are across-the-board riveting, and one of my favorite elements about the movie is that I could never see where it was going (even if I did have the identity of the doctor figured out early on). If you're seeking out true alternative programming this weekend, this is your monster.
-- Steve Prokopy
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