Liebestraum (Mike Figgis, 1991)

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Liebestraum (Mike Figgis, 1991)

#1 Post by colinr0380 » Mon Sep 15, 2008 8:16 am

I debated about whether to put this in the Underrated section but I'm not sure that it is underrated so much as almost forgotten! Spoilers follow.

Anyway I was inspired to dig out Liebestraum again following our discussions on Yi Yi and the way it equates people from different time periods together (similarly to Three Colours: Red) to create the suggestion of the way the world re-presents opportunities over time. Individuals may be prevented from fulfilling their opportunity, miss their moment or lose their lives, causing tragic endings, but the world as a whole feels like it is experimenting with different combinations of people over different times to see if the outcome changes. For invidiuals it can seem a cruel act of fate or a terrible tragedy (or alternatively the greatest stroke of luck in their lives!) but for the wider universe it is just another experiment in the combination of circumstance.

I think Liebestraum is a beautifully poetic version of this theme, with a past shooting of an adulterous couple being connected to the present through the relationship of a writer on architecture and a developer's wife. Nick has come to the town where the past shooting occured to visit his dying mother (Kim Novak) in the hospital and then on going back to his hotel runs into his developer friend Paul who is preparing to demolish the old, abandoned building where the previous shootings occured to put up a shopping mall in its place. Following an invitation to his friend's party where Nick meets Paul's wife Jane and they discover a shared fascination with the history held within the walls of old buildings (and also a brothel digression with the local police chief after having accepted a lift back into town!), he decides to write something on the building, with his friend's blessing and his wife taking the pictures for his piece.

The plot is relatively simple, with it being obvious that Novak is going to be significantly connected to the past shooting. What makes the film so hypnotically powerful is the dreamy slowness with which the events move along, as if the story is less about our architect hero visiting his mother and more told through the perspective of the mother herself, with the rhythm of the film dictated through her final days.

The film is tightly structured at first, with each day beginning with our hero taking a taxi visit to the hospital, then visiting the crumbling building which he can look out of his hotel room to see each evening. It doesn't take long for this simple routine to be broken apart though, either through Jane driving Nick to the hospital herself in a early moment of connection between them, to Nick's late night visits to the abandoned building and his eventual return to his hotel room to find that it has been gutted and he has been moved into the room next door, a room through which he heard a couple making love the previous night but when he asks about them he is told the whole floor has been empty apart from him. Then when he and Jane make love the next night there is a brilliant panning shot through the wall into the abandoned room and back, as if to suggest that their lovemaking were the sounds Nick had heard earlier.

It is a ghostly film in many ways, with echoes of actions past and to come surrounding the characters, perhaps best seen in the seven minute brothel sequence which at first seems an unnecessary digression (it was apparently edited from US prints) but which introduces the idea of illicit sex and the lusts underlying the seemingly wholesome town. That scene, with the impassive women (equated with a Mona Lisa hanging behind them) being shown off to Nick by the madame, is hypnotically intense, Lynchian almost.

There are a couple of dream sequences which could also be considered Lynch-like, with imagery such as a red room, but strangely the film that sprang to mind the most when seeing the imagery of empty wheelchairs and disfigurement that took place in the past but imagined through the dreams of someone who was not present to witness the original events was Audition. Both films are expressing subconscious fears barely understood by their dreamers. Nick trying to push his way through the mannequins and away from the mysterious man, sending them crashing to the floor before he falls and knocks himself unconscious was also extremely powerful.

There is a supremely satisfying coming together of the various elements in the final scene at the hospital in which Novak's past killing is combined with Jane in the corridor outside encountering the brain damaged and wheelchair bound woman Novak shot all those years ago. When she tries to escape and reach Nick and enters Novak's room Jane sends her into a frenzy as she sees a young couple reenacting past indiscretions, though this time with the wife as the adulterer rather than the husband (it also uncomfortably equates Nick, her long abandoned son, with the philandering husband she killed back then).

This scene and the final one, in which Nick and Jane make love in the abandoned building while Novak breathes her last in the hospital (attended by a nurse/nun who acts as her guardian angel) and Paul watches from the shadows yet leaves them without shooting them beautifully ties together past and present acts with the possibility of not having to go down the same route. The full performance of Liebestraum over the end credits by the girl (trainee?) who had been playing the piano in the brothel sequence earlier and who had been cut off angrily by the madame for her playing being "too depressing" is both melancholy and triumphant.

It is a magnificent film, and I say this as someone ambivalent about Figgis as a whole. I still have not seen Leaving Las Vegas yet but enjoyed Miss Julie and Timecode very much even while feeling they were leaning a little too much towards technique and away from emotional involvement. Compared to that, Liebestraum is a film I've returned to again and again over the years and find myself constantly thinking about. Here's the trailer, though the necessary compression of plot and the trailer hyperbole does give the film a faintly absurd air of action and immediate payoff when the linkages emerge only slowly in the story.

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John Cope
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#2 Post by John Cope » Tue Sep 23, 2008 7:44 pm

Glad to find this post. As I've noted elsewhere Liebestraum is one of my own favorite films and a great formative influence upon me in the way I approach and seek to receive filmic narrative. So let me add a couple observations to Colin's fine and appreciated assessment.

What left the greatest impact for me and continues to resonate these many years later is the attention paid to the rhythms and nuances of this picture, as Colin alluded to, all established and sustained in the best possible cinematic sense. It is truly one of the best lit films I have ever seen and what makes it that much better is the fact that Figgis's cinematographic eye is not compelled by a purely extraneous sense of show-offy technique; it's not shallow or exploitative aesthetics as eye grabbing gasp inducers for their own sakes. Of course I shelve this film with the similarly attentive jobs of my beloved Zalman King and I have to always anticipate that stuff being dismissed as superficial or fetishistic. The thing is, it is, but that's not all it is and it too is used to emphasize aspects of character or theme. This, by the way, is probably one of the main reasons for Liebestraum's neglect. It foregrounds its style and overall aesthetic approach as a means to an end. For whatever reason this is considered anathema now with the current numbing emphasis on supposed "reality" and the effort to eschew anything that could potentially be seen as too self-consciously stylized for fear of being seen, I guess, as fixated only on style, which is in itself a shallow criticism to make.

I have been a staunch apologist for Figgis for many years (though Cold Creek Manor finally proved too much for even me), but I would certainly concur that this film is far and away his greatest; one of the 90's true masterpieces, though you have to be open to what it is doing for it to work.

For one thing, many I have shown the film to just hate the Kevin Anderson performance, seeing it as false and supremely affected. For me, that performance is one of this film's great glories because, once again, it absolutely is affected or mannered but not in some self-conscious way; he inhabits this persona. His character's attitude is wonderfully consistent throughout and that's part of what makes it succeed. It feels like a fully lived in role I mean and this is something I always love. The rest of the cast is great (especially Pullman in a role of great sublimated complexity) but Anderson has to be note perfect and he is; it's just that many do not like the note he's hitting (once again more anti-ZK style derision).

Liebestraum is a movie of mood and texture primacy that's for sure but it's also a movie of finely tuned, extraordinarily resonant moments if not even single shots as befits a narrative of almost pure associative technique (my favorite kind). I cannot possibly emphasize enough or do proper justice to Figgis's mastery of light and color here. The fact that he has never really returned to this style of immersion in excessive style is really a shame given what an eye he has for composition and suggestive detail. Allow me to list a handful of favorites with hopes these won't be seen as too spoiler-ish (this, by the way, is my tribute to Film Comment's old "Moments Out of Time" end-of-year wrap up feature, something this forum should consider instituting as well):

-The foreground close-up of the man's hands at the beginning, placing a needle on a record with barely controlled trembling, in anticipation of what is to come

-Nick seen from behind staggering through the pools of light in the hospital hallway, encumbered by his baggage and a different kind of anticipatory tension

-Nick's soft spoken assertions of authority in the head doctor's office

-Nick's dreams

-the falling N and the uncertainty of ultimate agency

-"You on TV or what?" "What?"

-the very 9 1/2 Weeks style first meeting between Nick and Jane--all hesitation and effacement

-Supposedly "quite the dancer" Nick's transfixed immobility on the dancefloor with Mary Parker

-Ricker's extended urination, topped off with a wave to people in the distance and Nick's vaguely hazy indifference to the whole thing, followed by...

-"You like it....I LOVE IT!"

-the tight closeups on the girls at the brothel, none in the least intimidated by Nick's presence, all instead (over)powerfully present

-Paul's outbursts of rage (prescient awareness?) in the restaurant as all is still and contained around him, evidencing an inability to unsettle or disrupt the flow of things or their surfaces, including that of the seemingly unflappable Nick, posed as always as if for a fashion ad in gorgeous filtered light

-Paul's barely controllable threats to Nick even as he throws him together with his wife as though this is unavoidable, out of his hands

-the close-up of Jane in Nick's bathroom mirror, obscured through flecks of prominent water spots

-"You got a front door key!"

-the clamorous din of the workmen fading out, muffled as though under glass, finally silenced

-another posed moment of deep, reactive emotion co-existent with affectation or artifice: Nick covering his face with his hands upon sight of the photo of Munsen

-Nick and Jane stepping off the elevator and kissing in the full glare of one of Figgis's Oliver Stone-esque white spotlights

-Jane's final slow fall onto Nick through bars of light and shadow, ambiguously unclear, life force spent either way

In respect to the brothel scene, it may be of interest to note that the nurses who attend Nick's mother are played by these same actresses from that scene. In the published script Figgis says:
The scene in the whore-house, as scripted--although it functions, in a sense, like a one-act play and can be lifted, as it has been, completely out of the film--had an enormously important role to play psychologically, for the leading character, Nick. His experience with these prostitutes--which had to do with the smell of women, the taste of women, and the establishing of his character in terms of how he behaved in the situation--was not at all like something out of Tom Jones. In other words, it was not a rollicking yarn where a 'real man' would go in and roger those prostitutes and come out and say: I managed to fuck ten of them, how did you do? Nick was very submissive and intimidated by these strong women, who also confronted him with the flip-side of the coin of how men would like women to behave, which is as demure rape victims. No, these were women who came forward and said: What would you like? They were very aggressive. And I thought it set a tone in the film which was sort of outrageous, from which the character then had to live through the rest of the film, and go through a sort of romance, and deal with his mother, and ultimately come to terms with an image which had already occurred in that scene. But at the preview the audience was horrified by the scene. They were so offended and uncomfortable, and made so hostile by having to watch this scene, that it was impossible to watch the rest of the film. It turned into a complete circus, with people shouting and leaving. There was this incredible aggression coming from the audience.

For my own part, I can't imagine the film without that sequence as it is so inextricably tied into everything else and it's all so carefully presented, so well done. Anyway, certainly if you see the film make sure it's one of the cuts that contains the scene (the US DVD inexcusably keeps it set aside as a "deleted scene", which is pretty funny as the original MGM VHS did not, nor did the laserdisc; definitely go region 2 here).

And finally a couple points of contention for those who have seen it. Colin, I think the girl playing the piano over the end credits is actually Alicia Roanne Witt who appears earlier in the film in the hotel lobby and in Nick's dream. She looks a lot like the apparently blind girl from the brothel, which I don't doubt is intentional, but that's a separate actress. Speculation has also been circulating amongst fans for awhile now that, in fact
Nick and Jane are finally meant to be understood as siblings.

I don't know if I buy that reading but the overall oblique nature of everything makes such an idea conceivable and the possibility does add that much more of an unnerving aspect to things. Still, the movie has more than enough going on without that.

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