The middlebrow is the most perplexing of brows. Call something “highbrow”, and you gold-plate it. You elevate it to the realm of scholars and connoisseurs. The “lowbrow” may sound dismissive, but, at least, it suggests there’s pleasure to be had, even if it’s the guilty kind. The “middlebrow”, then, is the outlier. It’s dull, generic, carefully tasteful, stuffy, it takes no risks — it’s the kind of thing that usually wins an Oscar for Best Picture. During the first half-hour of Vadim Perelman’s Persian Lessons — the film is set in France, in 1942 — I was resigned to an hour-and-a-half more of solid middlebrow-dom.
It’s a good premise. Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a Jewish man from Antwerp, is about to be gunned down with the other Jews in his van. But he has just been arm-twisted into exchanging half a sandwich for a Farsi book, and with this in hand, he decides to pose as a Persian named Reza. He’s hauled off to a concentration camp, to teach the language to Koch (Lars Eidinger), the officer in charge of the camp’s kitchen. The narration is in your face, the “here’s what you should feel at this point” score smooths over any semblance of a rough edge, and Biscayart looks so perpetually stricken that he seems to be advertising his guilt in every shot. Much later, when the other Jews have been packed off from the camp, presumably to their death, Gilles — who receives special protection from Koch — returns to find a child’s doll on the ground. The movie is that blatant.
But slowly, I began to warm up to the proceedings. (Is there such a thing as a good middlebrow movie? Then this is it.) The plot is inspired by real events, but the plotting is inspired by historical fiction. There are no great highs or lows, but the melodramatic twists in story and characters (with a pair of Italian brothers, or around Nazi-camp gossip and politics) keep piling up satisfactorily. Gilles keeps inventing “Farsi” words to teach Koch, but as the number of words keeps increasing, how will he remember them all? Especially when Koch is the epitome of German efficiency, keeping written notes of every word?
The relationship between student and master makes the movie. After a point, Koch begins to treat Gilles as a friend, and we’re left with the feeling that he prefers “Reza” to his own compatriots. He isn’t like the other Germans. He likes nature. He likes to cook. He likes poetry. (In a hilarious scene, he reads out a “Farsi” poem he’s written.) He’s also disillusioned with the SS. He joined the party a decade earlier, seduced by the smart uniforms, but one gets the feeling he didn’t bargain for what followed. He isn’t a barbarian, but the film doesn’t let him off the hook. “I am not a murderer,” he tells Gilles, who replies, “No, you only fed the murderers.” As we know all too well now, silence is a form of complicity.
Every war, every industrial crime, every epidemic of disease is its own ghastly creature, arising out of extraordinarily specific social, biological, political circumstances — but in the two hours allotted to them on screen, they often become a generic blur. The trick is to look at the macro through the micro (for the big plot arcs are rarely different), which is something Andrew Levitas never quite manages in Minamata, which is based on the book of the same name by Aileen Mioko Smith and American war photographer Eugene Smith. (They are portrayed on screen by Minami Hinase and Johnny Depp, aged with makeup).
Just a look at the plot summary is enough: “The film follows Smith’s 1971 journey to the Japanese fishing village of Minamata to bear witness to the devastation of its townspeople by mercury poisoning caused by the Chisso corporation, with dark assistance from the Japanese government and the Yakuza. He ultimately paid with his life, but the images Smith smuggled out of Japan are amongst the most important ever taken and are considered by many to have birthed the modern environmental movement.” It sounds so important, so rooted in a particular time and place — so why does the film feel so bland?
Because the characters are all clichés. Maybe Smith was really an abrasive man who behaved like a spoilt rock star, but when we see him on screen, we seem to have seen his type a thousand times earlier. Everything and everyone, here, is a type. Change the names and places and you could easily use this screenplay for a drama about Union Carbide and Bhopal. Do I sound callous? But I just wanted the film to care more. I wanted it to be more alert to, say, the parents whose daughter is a victim. The father says, “It takes us five hours to feed her.” There’s a pause. He adds, as though searching for a silver lining, “It’s brought us closer as a family.” Just taking us through this man’s life would have brought us closer to whatever happened at Minamata. Keep it small. The big picture will emerge by itself.
Stumbling back after a colleague’s 60th birthday party, Inés (Érica Rivas) tells the man beside her, “I am recovering from a difficult situation.” This may be the understatement of the Berlinale. She’s been haunted by a strange dream since childhood. Something traumatic happens when she’s vacationing with her boyfriend. She’s losing her voice (though the doctor says her vocal cords are fine) — and that’s a problem because she’s a dubbing artist for horror films, and she also sings in a choir in Buenos Aires. And her friend at the recording studio has apparently disappeared. Inés may be responsible for this — but only if you believe that a real flesh-and-blood person can vanish in a woman’s dream.
Natalia Meta’s The Intruder (inspired by a cult horror novel by Argentine writer CE Feiling) uses a psycho-sexual framework to get at a basic question: Who are we, really? Inés needs to be liberated — from her clingy boyfriend, from her mother, from even the stewardess who (apparently) offers unsolicited romantic advice on a flight. But in marrying its lofty feminist goals to lurid B-movie tropes, the film ends up going around in circles. There’s too much tease, and not enough of a satisfying payoff. But I did enjoy the last scene, which suggests that gender duality may actually be a thing. Why should being a woman prevent you from also being a man?