August 2011

Arts & Letters

After life

By Louis Nowra
Wim Wenders’ ‘Pina’ and Alain Corneau’s ‘Love Crime’

It was a hot night in Adelaide in 1982 and I was sitting in a ramshackle town hall about to watch a dance piece, Kontakthof, created by a German choreographer I had barely heard of, Pina Bausch. The hall was so stifling that people were fanning themselves with their programs. A few minutes into the show I forgot the heat and the rough seats. At the end I couldn’t move for some time. I was dazed, elated, awed and moved as never before.

Kontakthof seemed a simple idea: a group of men and women meet in a community hall where the sexes endeavour to seduce each other. The men and women try to connect but lack the necessary language, both verbal and non-verbal. At times it was excruciating to watch as women were manhandled by groping men, some women succumbing to the aggressive male energy. It was a unique combination of dance, scattered dialogue and kitschy pop song, which achieved the heights of poetry without being precious or sentimental.

Over the years I saw several other Bausch pieces and her creative signature was always there: the vibrant and explosive physicality of the bodies; the differences in male and female sexuality; the gorgeous patterns of group movement; the dismantling of the eroticism of such dances as the tango, so that they decay into indecipherable gestures; and a pervasive sense of melancholia that seems to offer a vision of humanity as only able to be saved by the primal act of dancing. Her sets were often pared down to just the necessary elements – soil, water, or simply a scattering of chairs – making them hermetic sites of emotional breathlessness.

In a way she developed a cult. From 1973 Bausch directed a dance theatre based in the bland industrial city of Wuppertal in western Germany, where there were no distractions. She attracted performers who were tired of dancing in unadventurous groups or those who had been kicked out of companies. She liked rebels and riff-raff from across the world, and they in turn loved her.

German film director Wim Wenders was a later convert to Pina Bausch’s genius. He and the choreographer often discussed how her pieces could be filmed in a way that would convey their emotional power while being as visually exciting as they were on stage. Sadly Bausch died in 2009, aged 68, before Wenders commenced filming Pina (in limited release from 18 August), a tribute to her four best works: Le Sacre du Printemps, Café Müller, Kontakthof and Vollmond.

Wenders started making films in the 1970s when German film had begun a renaissance, led by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, but he did not share the concern of those film-makers with the state of German culture or Teutonic mysticism. As the title of his 1977 film The American Friend indicates, he was drawn towards American culture and its potency to German sensibilities such as his own. Two delightful films followed: Paris, Texas (1984), which used a marriage breakdown to explore the fragility of the American dream, and the enchanting fairytale Wings of Desire (1987).

Since then he has directed several less impressive dramatic features (most recently Palermo Shooting, 2008), in which he seems to have no urgent need to tell a story. Despite occasional visual pleasures, they seem eviscerated of real emotion, as if he and his actors are adopting poses, unable to find depth in the stories. Where he has begun to flourish is in documentary-making – he explored Cuban music in Buena Vista Social Club (1999) and American blues in The Soul of a Man (2003).

With Pina, Wenders experiments with a potential solution to the problem of portraying dance on screen by shooting in 3-D. This enables the audience to experience something of the physicality of dancers on stage. Rather than telling a straight biography of Bausch, though, we get only a few slivers of her talking or directing. He includes some clips of acolytes extolling her – a technique that seems to undermine Wenders’ stated aim of telling us about Bausch through extracts of her four major works.

The documentary has no narrative drive so we have little idea of what Wenders is trying to say about Bausch. But his most perplexing decision was to stage sections of the four pieces in the streets and quarries of Wuppertal city. The fluid and gorgeous group stroll in Kontakthof – where the dancers move their hands in a gesture as if they are caught between clapping, then washing them obsessively or catching an insect between their palms – has in the theatre a disturbing, mesmerising effect, but in the streets the gestures merely seem weird and pretentious. By opening out the pieces Wenders drains them of their claustrophobic power, and the uterine universe Bausch created onstage is dissipated. For all its 3-D marvels, the film finally doesn’t do her work justice.

Pina Bausch was never to see her tribute film; French director Alain Corneau died at age 67, just two weeks after his film Love Crime (in limited release) premiered in France. Originally a musician, he became a director of thrillers, many starring Gérard Depardieu. They lacked the intensity of Jean-Pierre Melville’s austere thrillers, however, and his best film – the entrancing and gentle All the Mornings of the World (1991), about a seventeenth-century composer and viola player – was outside his usual genre.

His last film returns to the thriller, centring on two women in the highest echelons of the corporate world. Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is mentor to her younger assistant Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier). Scott Thomas plays her character as a headmistress giving her favourite student a dressing down for a speck of dust on her collar, while Sagnier has a nice line in amoral charm.

The story becomes ludicrous and unbelievable towards the end, but if you have seen the 1950s classic All About Eve you’ll know that although the older woman seems an expert in psychological games, it’s the supposedly innocent younger woman who is more Machiavellian in coveting her boss’s job. Some of their scenes together have a feline charm, and the score by jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders adds to the film. But Corneau distances us from what is happening with his languid cutting and polished-but-chilly camera style.

Love Crime is a desultory conclusion to a good, if not great, director’s career, which began in the 1970s, as did Wenders’. Like the German director, Corneau’s latest effort doesn’t reach the heights of his earlier, more innocent work – for instance, the Yves Montand vehicles Police Python 357 (1976), The Menace (1977) and Choice of Arms (1981). But then it’s rare for an artist to go out on top after such a long career. Wenders still has time.  

Louis Nowra
Louis Nowra is an author, screenwriter and playwright. His books include Ice and The Twelfth of Never, and he is co-winner of the 2009 NSW Premier’s Script Writing Award for First Australians.

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