Friday, May 31, 2013

Michael Kohlhaas

Arnaud des Pallieres’ take on Heinrich von Kleist’s novella, Michael Kohlhaas, has all the makings of a riveting, party-crashing entry into the Cannes Film Festival’s In Competition banner, what with its focus on adventure and righteous vengeance. Disappointing it is, then, that while it features Mads Mikkelsen in as game a mode as ever, and the landscapes are sumptuously shot, the soporific narrative pulse has kept this oddly forgettable film clear of festival discussion pretty much altogether, which many could argue is even worse than it being an alright flop.

The story begins as the titular character (Mikkelsen), a merchant, is forced by a local Baron (Swann Arlaud) to relinquish two of his prized horses as collateral on the way to the market due to him not having the proper documentation. When Kohlhaas returns to discover that the steeds are of ill health and Cesar (David Bennent), the man he left behind to tend for them, has been attacked by the Baron’s guard dogs, he seeks reparations from the courts. However, given the Baron’s social stature, Kohlhaas loses the case immediately. Devastatingly, his wife, Judith (Delphine Chuillot), also winds up murdered while travelling to plea the case, and so Michael teams up with the local social outcasts to launch an attack against the Baron and his army.

Though audiences are likely to be enticed by the jaunty, Robin Hood-esque premise, Pallieres’ film is a shockingly airless, ponderous affair, more interested in tritely philosophical, faux-poetic diatribes than in crafting an experience that is either exciting or viscerally engaging. By the director’s own admission, his film smacks of Herzog’s Aguirre, though can’t muster even a morsel of the same seat-of-your-pants invention, while Mikkelsen, if a fine Herzog stand-in, is distinguished by little more than his remarkable coiffure and designer stubble.

Even when the band of merry men eventually lead an assault on the Baron’s castle, Pallieres’ sloppily unfussed action direction denies the audience much fun, made further problematic by appalling, often incomprehensible editing, overseen by the director himself alongside Sandie Bompar. In the end, it’s clear where Pallieres’ interests largely lie, in building a believable time capsule into centuries past, which he has admittedly done well thanks to Jeanne Lapoire’s razor-sharp cinematography (she also lensed the festival’s A Castle in Italy) and Yan Arlaud’s punchy production design. Essentially, it is strong in the way that almost all costume dramas are, though evidently thinks itself capable of coasting on those merits alone.

The interminable nature of the picture is such that viewers may well have run out of steam long before the finale of the piece, at which point it becomes clear that the trio of internationally regarded actors starring in the picture – Mikkelsen, Bruno Ganz and Denis Lavant – have been thoroughly under-utilised. Only in the film’s final scene does Pallieres manage to rustle up any truly soul-stirring imagery, specifically a closing image that is hauntingly poetic in spite of almost everything that precedes it.

Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 novella ‘Michael Kohlhaas’ is one that remains both remarkably readable and remarkably relevant. The story concerns a sixteenth-century merchant resorting to fanatical and violent extremes in his quest to obtain justice after a wealthy noble openly and illegally humiliates him by stealing two of his horses. It’s related in an extraordinarily modern-feeling matter-of-fact style and deals with themes that still preoccupy us today.

Unfortunately, Arnaud de Pallieres’s film succeeds neither as a decent adaptation of the book nor as a rewarding movie in its own right. Transplanting the action from Germany to the Cevennes and almost exclusively using exterior locations was an unwise move, and though Pallieres has spoken of his desire to make a kind of western, the changes simply highlight the way he has stripped down the original narrative. This paring back only serves to make the precise legal and logistical details of Kohlhaas’s mission less comprehensible than in the novella.

An old-fashioned, Robin Hood-style revenge tale that favors self-serious storytelling over action and suspense, Arnaud des Pallieres’ Michael Kohlhaas provides a few quick thrills and some beautifully photographed landscapes, but never really convinces as an intellectual’s swords-and-horses period piece -- even when it’s the formidable Mads Mikkelsen who’s holding the sword. Following a Cannes competition premiere, this pristinely crafted Franco-German co-production should see additional fest and Euro art-house slots, but will have a hard time riding far overseas.

Based on Heinrich von Kleist’s novella, this is actually the second screen adaptation following a 1969 version by Volker Schlondorff, which also played in competition at Cannes. The original text, written in 1811, was based on the true story of a 16th-century German merchant who, after a local baron seized his horses, sought redress in the public courts before launching a private terror war, until he was eventually captured and executed.

Des Pallieres and co-writer Christelle Berthevas up the ante on both the book and the historical record by inserting additional incidents and characters, in particular a loving wife, Judith (Delphine Chuillot), and daughter, Lisbeth (Melusine Mayance, excellent), who in many ways become the raison d’etre for Kohlhaas’ rebellion, especially after Judith is slaughtered when she brings her husband’s case to the ruling Princess of Angouleme (Roxanne Duran).

After his wife’s death, Kohlhaas takes up arms with a group of merry men -- including a Sancho Panza-like character played by Sergi Lopez -- launching a crossbow attack on the castle of the local baron (Swann Arlaud), in what’s definitely the film’s only major action sequence. When the nobleman escapes, the band pursues him across the countryside to a nearby convent, wreaking havoc along the way and earning the wrath of the princess’ men.

Justice and vengeance become entwined in “Michael Kohlhaas,” Arnaud des Pallieres’ stolid treatment of Heinrich von Kleist’s influential novella about a 16th-century horse merchant whose mistreatment by those in power leads to an unholy uprising. Kleist’s direct language and straightforward storytelling are nowhere in evidence in Pallieres’ narratively challenged adaptation, featuring a French-speaking Mads Mikkelsen in one of his least impressive characterizations. Though the Cannes competition berth will generate a certain interest, there’s unlikely to be much horse trading on this title, even among fest programmers.

In 1969, when Volker Schlondorff made his “Michael Kohlhaas,” he added newsreel footage on the European release prints showing student protests around the world. The device served to make direct parallels between the novella’s themes and the unrest of ’68, highlighting the continued vitality of a tale featuring a morally upright figure resisting the corrupting influences of power. Kleist himself, a determinedly political author writing in 1808, used the based-on-fact case to draw comparisons with Napoleon’s thirst for dominance. Oddly given the richness of the theme, helmer Pallieres seems more inspired by landscape than by history or any contemporary resemblances.

In contrast to Kleist’s initially cheery protag, Mikkelsen’s Kohlhaas looks calmly superior from the get-go. He’s surprised to find a toll gate placed on his usual path to the horse market; the local Baron (Swann Arlaud, appearing both feral and hung over) has ordered his Manager (Christian Chaussex) to demand a passport. The Baron wouldn’t mind Kohlhaas’ horses either, and the Manager (clearly evil, given the actor’s scarred face and malicious grimace) demands the merchant leave behind two fine steeds as a guarantee since he doesn’t have papers.

In town, Kohlhaas learns that the passport requirement was made up, and also discovers that Cesar (David Bennent), the groomsman he left behind to take care of the collateral horses, was deliberately savaged by the Baron’s guard dogs. In addition, the two steeds have been mistreated and are at a shadow of their former strength. Kohlhaas seeks justice from the courts, but because the Baron’s influence is strong, the judges rule in his favor. While on her way to petition Marguerite, Princess d’Angouleme (Roxane Duran), for support, Kohlhaas’ wife, Judith (Delphine Chuillot), is brutally murdered.

Distraught over his beloved wife’s killing and furious that his rights have been trampled on, Kohlhaas repairs to the forest, where he gathers aggrieved men and does battle with the Baron and his henchmen. He’s joined by society’s detritus, including a one-armed man (Sergi Lopez) arriving like Sancho Panza (and speaking Catalan) on a donkey, and a giant (Guillaume Delaunay) who seemingly wandered in from a casting call for Little John in “Robin Hood.” As this band of un-merry men wage a bloody insurrection, a reformist theologian (Denis Lavant) tries to convince the devout Kohlhaas that his grievances are best left to God’s judgment.

Arnaud Des Pallière’s “Michael Kohlhaas” in the official selection at the Cannes Film Festival stars Mads Mikkelsen as the 16th legendary character who turns vigilante after a series of horrible grievances.

The Danish actor, as in the popular Hannibal TV series, has a calm and effective way of dealing with a series of violent acts committed by the Baron and his servants in the area.

The film was shot in the breathtaking Cévennes mountains in France.

Kohlhaas is a successful landowner who raises horses. One day his servant is beaten and his horses are stolen to pay a toll tax, replaced by nags who are dirty and injured. His appeal for justice is rejected and he is told to cease his protest or he will be imprisoned. When his wife offers to go to the Princess of the province to plead his cause, she is returned home by carriage with a fatal injury.

At this point, Kohlhaas take revenges on the Baron and kills the culprits that have been cruel to his animals and slaughtered his wife. The corruption at the time is crude and purposeless.

“The Theologist” (Denis Lavant) tries to intervene as a peacemaker and asks Kohlhaas to lay down his arms, and his servants will receive amnesty. In the 19th century novella by Heinrich von Kleist, Martin Luther asked Kohlhaas to give up.

In addition to Mikkelsen there are outstanding actors such as Bruno Ganz – “The Governor”, and Sergi Lopez as an armless man. This kind of talent cannot do much when the script and the pace of the film is cumbersome, but for those who love this story by Heinrich von Kleist it probably doesn’t matter how it was made.

As for Mikkelsen fans, Mads Mikkelsen commands the screen in almost everything he does. Last year, he won the best actor award at Cannes for Jagten (The Hunt) by Thomas Vinterberg, Vinterberg was this year's President of Un Certain Regard.

Mads Mikkelsen has one of the most expressive faces in cinema today. Emotional, challenging, demanding and domineering, and this is before he ever bats an eye, furrows his brow or says a word. For these reasons I was able to stay with Michael Kohlhaas for the better part of an hour, but then it began to wear on me, though not in a way that had me giving up on it.

It's not that the narrative is slow, in fact it's rather lyrical, but director Arnaud des Pallieres is overly patient, lingering from one scene to the next. Many, if not most, scenes could be chopped down by 10-15 seconds, making room for more story. While des Pallieres is committed to the story of his title character, he forgets to show us more of his actions after a lovely set up, all leading to an emotional conclusion, that would have hit a lot harder had he not seemed so disinterested in his second act.

Set in the 16th century in the Cévennes, Mikkelsen plays the film's title character, a horse dealer known for the quality of his stock. He lives with his wife Judith (Delphine Chuillot) and daughter Lisbeth (Melusien Mayance) and his life is a simple and happy one. However, when wronged by a local Baron, Michael Kohlhass' sense of justice kicks into overdrive.

After three attempts with the corrupt court system, Kohlhaas allows Judith to go to the Princess (Roxane Duran) to beg for justice. She comes home beaten and bleeding. Shortly thereafter she dies.

A man of God, Kohlhaas knows his next move is one God would look down on, telling the small army he's raised, "I pray the Lord will never forgive me as we forgive the young Baron." The search for political justice has failed Kohlhaas and he believes his only resort is justice through violence. The film aims to follow that journey.

The first hour or so is spent establishing Kohlhaas as a man of honor and righteousness. He loves his wife and daughter, cares for his animals and lives a prosperous life without harming anyone. When the young Baron (a strong but mostly quiet performance from Swann Arlaud) takes two of his strongest horses as collateral for allowing him to use his bridge there's a moment where Kohlhaas' strength in character and honor is on display as the Baron aims a gun at him from a distance and Kohlhaas doesn't budge, integrity intact. If anything, his honor characterizes him more than anything around him and it's why when the Baron fails to return his horses he is unable to forgive him, more so than even the death of his wife or even the fate of his stolen horses.

I can understand des Pallieres' interest in such a man. The film is based on the 1811 German novella by Heinrich von Kleist, adapted by des Pallieres with Christelle Berthevas for the screen. But in the adaptation, the patience and care with which the first hour establishes Kohlhaas as a character is forgotten in the second act where he seeks retribution against those that have wronged him and those that stand in his way.

Here is a handsomely-made and admirably high-minded revenge movie, set in 16th century France, that paints its world in glowing, vivid colours, but is rather too much in love with its leading man, Mads Mikkelsen, to achieve the epic grandeur it is aiming at. It is directed by Arnaud des Pallières, making his first visit to the Cannes competition with his fourth feature, and is adapted from the novella by Heinrich von Kleist, with the action transposed from Reformation-era Saxony to the mountainous Cévennes region of France.

Des Pallières' film follows the original fairly closely: Mikkelsen plays a horse trader who is badly treated by a local baron; his attempt to gain legal redress over two illegally-held horses and a beating of his servant is thwarted by the baron's influence at court. After his wife is killed, and fanatically attached to the principle of justice, Kolhaas takes up arms and gradually amasses a rebel army that threatens the state; only then are his grievances addressed.

Mikkelsen cuts quite a dash in the role of a wronged man filled to the brim with noble suffering; his razor-sharp cheekbones are almost as lethal a weapon as the giant sword he slings on his back. And des Pallières has a fine eye for the rough-hewn physicality of the period; the clanking metal of the weaponry, the squeaking wooden axles of the carts, the ragged homespun fabric of the clothing. He also comes up with some rather brilliantly staged sequences: a raid on a baronial fortress by Kolhaas and his crossbowmen; a curious visit by youthful princess Marguerite that catches hunky Mads in the bath; an intriguing scene where Kolhaas is criticised by a charismatic clergyman played by Denis Lavant.

But for a story that seeks to remind us of the harshness of pre-modern life, the whole is very emotionally soft-focus: after his impossibly idyllic lifestyle is interrupted, Mikkelsen's performance is essentially a single-note affair: intense burning nobility. The pace, however, struggles to rise above ponderousness, and the film is not helped eitherby abrupt time jumps in the narrative that leave the viewer floundering for no particular reason; they're a baffling formal device in what is essentially a western reconfigured around the Wars of Religion. By sticking to his source, des Pallières ensures his film has substance, and he adds plenty of visual style. But it remains at a plod, when it should canter.

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