by Roderick Conway Morris

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'Burn After Reading' and 'Jerichow'

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 28 August 2008
Venice Film Festival
John Malkovich in the Coen brothers'
'Burn After Reading'



Burn After Reading Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen (U.S.)

To give away the ingenious twists of the whacky plot of 'Burn After Reading' would be a crime against cinema-going humanity.

The opening out-of-competition film of the Venice Film Festival (which continues until Sept. 6), it received an enthusiastic reception at the press showings and premiere on Wednesday.

It is the first spy movie the Coens have essayed - save for an amateur movie they made long ago but which cannot be shown because they do not have the rights to the book it is based on - and the first time they have recruited Brad Pitt and John Malkovich, both of whom have said they have been eager to work with the brothers for years. The Coens have brought out the comic potential in both of them.

The overall trajectory of the film is perhaps less linear than in a typical Coen production - with a larger number of principal characters as well as the usual rich array of more minor ones - and more intricate, interweaving plot lines. As always the narrative is subtly supported by meticulous but unobtrusive attention to settings, design and costume.

The trigger of the action is the demotion of a CIA analyst, Osbourne Cox (Malkovich), at the agency's Langley, Virginia, headquarters on account of his 'drinking problem.' He was never a security risk before, but he rapidly becomes one, when he storms off to spend more time with his old friends in the spirits cabinet and to write his memoirs. His ferocious doctor wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), chatelaine of a perfect Georgetown house in Washington, is not amused by this turn of events, although she is already consoling herself with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a federal marshall, married to a successful children's book writer (Elizabeth Marvel).

Meanwhile, in another part of town at the Hardbodies Fitness Center, a trio of employees are living out their obscure and humdrum lives: the gormless trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), Ted, the gym manager (Richard Jenkins, an old Coen trouper) and an office drone, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand, also Mrs. Joel Coen, a Coen muse ever since their first hit 'Blood Simple' and an Oscar winner for her role as Marge Gunderson in 'Fargo').

When a CD-ROM containing a draft of Cox's memoirs is accidentally left in a locker at the gym, the lives of these harmless drudges become fatally entangled with the political, financial and sexual affairs of the bed-hopping Georgetown elite.

The Coens have described this production as the last part of their 'idiot trilogy' devoted to George Clooney, the previous two being 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' and 'Intolerable Cruelty' (screened in Venice in 2003). Clooney is lustily convincing as Pfarrer, who, to quote Hildy Johnson in 'His Girl Friday,' is 'quite charming in a loathsome kind of way.' Pfarrer has a certain amount in common with Everett in 'O Brother,' but is a much more dangerous and darker character - if being dark is compatible with being this daft.

Swinton is tremendous as a woman who has everything and is almost permanently enraged - a state of mind reflected in her lurid copper-colored coiffure that could only have been achieved with the use of toxic dyes and fixatives.

Pitt is a treat in his ill-fitting clothes, giant white sneakers and bouffant with a silly peroxide streak, with his boyish behavior and mass of irritating mannerisms. The only scene in which he encounters Clooney face to face is unexpected and explosive. McDormand, at her chameleon-like best, is gripping as an awesomely determined nonentity hoping to remake herself through cosmetic surgery.

The octogenarian Roderick Jaynes, the Coens's mythical joint alter ego, has again been enticed out of retirement in Hove on the south coast of England and has once again done an excellent job on the editing. And while this fast-paced drama is primarily intended simply to be funny, it is also mercilessly satirizes some modern obsessions and the doubtful abilities of those entrusted to run state institutions. The denouement is amusingly, if frighteningly, plausible.

Jerichow Directed by Christian Petzold (Germany)

The first film to be shown in competition was Christian Petzold's 'Jerichow,' set in the wooded coastal flatlands of northeastern Germany. Reminiscent of James M. Cain's noir classic 'The Postman Always Rings Twice,' this claustrophobic, slow burn of a story draws the viewer into a compelling and increasingly tense situation, riddled with unspoken and unresolved psychological conflicts.

Thomas (Benno Fürmann), a German soldier returning from war (in Afghanistan) into a society that has little idea as to how to respond to a phenomenon unseen for many decades in Germany, arrives in the region of his birth to claim the semi-derelict house left to him by his dead mother. It soon emerges that he has been dishonorably discharged for reasons that remain unclear.

The economy of the region seems almost terminally depressed. Yet Thomas encounters a Turkish immigrant, Ali (Hilmi Sözer), who against all the odds has built up a successful chain of local snack bars, and is married to an attractive young German, Laura (Nina Hoss). When Ali loses his license for drunk driving, he hires Thomas as a driver. He also welcomes him into his home, sowing the seeds for a love triangle that will surely have a violent conclusion.

Despite the fact that this drama unfolds on what seems like the outer, almost unseen, fringes of Germany society, it raises some key issues. In a devastating moment of self-revelation, Ali concludes that he is 'living in a country that doesn't want him, with a wife that he has bought.'

The performances of all three protagonists are strong, but Sözer's is outstanding in revealing the complexities of Ali's personality. And this nuanced interpretation makes the character a genuinely tragic figure.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024