Beyond the Multiplex

A must-see film about a German transsexual and her much stranger brothers. Plus: Terrific films from France and Istanbul.

Published June 8, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

Get well soon, Bob! American film still needs you. This space, along with movie lovers across the universe, sends out good wishes to Robert Altman, who's been laid low with a bad case of flu and missed the New York interview engagements for the release of his odd and delightful film adaptation of Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion." While I don't think Altman is seriously ill, he's also 81 years old (a fact amazing in itself), and getting the flu is no joke.

I'm sorry I didn't get to chat with Altman this week, especially since I think "Prairie Home Companion" is his most enjoyable film in years. (Sorry, "Gosford Park" fans, but the whole English country-house thing bores me to distraction.) But the main thing we want from Mr. Bob is more years and more movies. I'm really not the biggest Altman exponent or fan; his work since the '80s has been miscellaneous in every sense of the word, and sometimes his loosey-goosey, improvisatory method produces films that look like they were more fun to make than to watch (e.g., "Ready to Wear," "Cookie's Fortune").

Then again, the guy who made "Nashville," "3 Women" and "Short Cuts" -- as well as, I don't know, "The Long Goodbye" and the "Tanner '88" TV series and the severely underrated "Popeye" -- has earned the right to experiment in whatever directions he wants. In his humanity, his eclecticism and his steadfast refusal to become predictable (or especially marketable), Altman is the greatest living example of integrity and independence among American directors. So bed rest, chicken soup and a truly awesome DVD library are indicated. He's supposed to get back to New York next week for a special screening of his rare early short films, and I plan to be there. (Look for Stephanie Zacharek's full review of "A Prairie Home Companion" tomorrow.)

With no Altman interview this week, we've got three little movies to root for, each of them demonstrating the immense range of possibilities world cinema has to offer -- and also the immense problems films like this face in reaching an American audience. Among them is a sprawling, ambitious German film, in the tradition of both R.W. Fassbinder and "American Beauty," that looks to me, on first viewing, like one of the movies of the year. There's also a hybrid Franco-American experiment so weird and audacious that it shouldn't work at all, but turns out, to my immense surprise, to be haunting and memorable. And then there's a musical travelogue of Istanbul, the Turkish city that spans Europe and Asia, that's full of delightful surprises.

"Agnes and His Brothers": One brother's a politician in family meltdown, and one's a demented perv. The normal one? He's a she
I get why Oskar Roehler's thrilling and disturbing family tragicomedy "Agnes and His Brothers" will find almost no theatrical audience outside its native Germany. Its protagonists are flawed and damaged people, driven by compulsions they don't understand and can't control. (Sometimes we don't want to see that at the movies, because, um ... you get the point.) Its tone is sometimes one of vulgar comedy, often satirical, usually angry, occasionally sad.

It's the kind of movie you need to talk about with friends after you see it, the way we used to do in the far-off, innocent and drug-addled 1970s, when I was a wee cappuccino-swilling tad. Nobody in the film ever mentions the distant cloud of historical guilt hanging over the nation, or the more recent hangover left behind by the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. I suspect that for German viewers those things are tangibly and painfully present, and that no one requires an explanation as to why, for example, Hans-Jörg (Moritz Bleibtreu), the sex-crazed librarian and one of the film's brothers, is obsessed with killing his father.

For the rest of us, "Agnes and His Brothers" fits into the tradition of films about comfortable Western bourgeois life in which things aren't quite right, in some unspecified way. German critics have compared this film to "American Beauty," and the points of similarity, when you add them up, are so glaring as to be clearly intentional. Roehler includes a scene where one character smells the abandoned clothes of another (who is feared to be dead), and his disgruntled suburban wife, Signe (Katja Riemann), bears a striking resemblance to Annette Bening's character in Sam Mendes' film.

"Agnes and His Brothers" also features a murder, a middle-aged man who spends his days ogling nubile girls, a homoerotic and/or gender-bending subplot, a kid who clandestinely videotapes the people around him, and a middle-class dad going through a spectacular breakdown. Despite all that, this film is very much its own inspired and deranged creation; it rearranges these "Teutonic Beauty" elements into a three-part family melodrama that owes a great deal to R.W. Fassbinder, the great West German director of the '70s.

Roehler mixes cheap sex humor, existential darkness, buffoonish satire and profound tenderness in almost classic proportions. Maybe this is too uneven to be a masterpiece (see also: Altman, Robert, career of), but it's somewhere close. Bleibtreu (the star of "Run Lola Run") provides a memorable turn as Hans-Jörg, the awkward, horndog EverySchlub tormented by an endless array of long-legged pulchritude, but he might only be the third-best actor in the cast. Roehler's great discovery here is Martin Weiss, who plays Agnes (formerly Martin), the transsexual woman who is by far the best adjusted of the three siblings in the story.

Agnes is a beautiful but sexually indeterminate creature; this isn't the near-perfect tranny character of Jaye Davidson in "The Crying Game" or the complicated reverse-drag of Felicity Huffman in "Transamerica," or even the in-your-face-and-in-between hero(ine) of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Agnes is sweeter and more ethereal than any of those, and if we never learn exactly how or why Martin became Agnes, we don't need to. We can see clearly that she was never quite a little boy and is not now an adult woman. Her story has elements of personal and romantic tragedy, but Agnes is also the only one of the three brothers (or whatever) fully capable of giving and receiving love.

The third brother, and at first the most ridiculous, is Werner (Herbert Knaup), a fast-rising government minister who's pursuing some wonky item of environmental legislation, while his wife (Riemann) ignores him and his teenage son films him taking a crap. (Admittedly he does so on the floor of his study, for reasons I won't try to explain.) Werner begins as a classic clown, the comically cuckolded husband sexually jealous of his own son, but Roehler and Knaup -- a big, wounded lion of a man -- manage a miraculous transformation, eventually rendering him as a prodigiously sympathetic figure of surprising emotional depth.

As I've already suggested, "Agnes and His Brothers" is clearly meant to capture something essential about the contradictions of 21st century German life, much as Fassbinder's work captured the psychologically and spiritually fractured nation of the postwar years. The rest of us can only make guesses about that, but we can still delight in this film as a grand, angry entertainment, absolutely free of the airless dreariness that affects too much European art cinema. Roehler may be overly ambitious in packing "Agnes and His Brothers" with plots, subplots, coincidences, acts of violence, old lovers from the past, porn actresses with hearts of gold and who knows what else, but I say bring it on. See this one, whenever and wherever you can.

"Agnes and His Brothers" opens June 9 at the Quad Cinema in New York. Other cities, along with DVD release, should follow.

"Autumn": A French gangster film, made by an American in a Paris that never existed
Here's what the young American director Ra'up McGee, who has previously made three documentaries, tried to sell a series of producers, both in the United States and France: For his first narrative feature, he wanted to make a classic film noir, pretty much in the style of the early French New Wave. He would shoot in Paris, in French, with French actors and crew. Even though he didn't speak French and, to repeat myself, had never made a narrative feature film of any kind.

Surprise of surprises, nobody wanted to produce this movie. I wouldn't have either; to say that the project is foolhardy, arrogant and almost unbelievably pretentious feels like understating the case. OK, you know there's a punch line coming: McGee went ahead and made the movie himself, on his own dime or his own centime or whatever. He recruited a shockingly good French cast, including Laurent Lucas (of "With a Friend Like Harry...") and Irène Jacob (of "The Double Life of Véronique") as his central doomed couple, trying to escape the Parisian underworld with a mysterious stolen suitcase.

And after he had finished "Autumn," he got it into the 2004 Toronto Film Festival, one of the big international showcases for ambitious movies. And then ... well, then, nobody wanted to distribute it. McGee has been toting "Autumn" around the world for the past year and a half, finding no takers, and finally he's self-distributing it through Landmark Theatres' Truly Indie program, which gives outsider filmmakers a pay-as-you-go crack at national or regional distribution.

OK, now you know there's another punch line coming: "Autumn" is actually pretty damn good. It's a defiantly odd work, a movie-movie set more in the crime-film Paris of Jean-Pierre Melville or Jacques Becker or early Godard than in the real 21st century city. This fictional city is a haunted, romantic universe, where the guys are rugged, wear long coats and smoke Gauloises, and the girls put up with being slapped around (until they shoot you in the back). If that sounds like your cup of bitter, nicotine-scented absinthe, don't miss it.

Erin Harvey's cinematography is sensational; somehow his images split the difference between the mythical Paris that McGee's script tries to capture and the real one. Lucas and Jacob are great as the central guy-and-doll, deeply in love but also destined to betray each other. Veteran French actor Michel Aumont is even better as a sinister crime boss, and Dinara Droukarova nearly steals the whole picture as a gamine, ballerina-esque and utterly ruthless hit woman. No reasonable person would ever have told McGee this movie was a good idea, but now that it exists, in all its film-geek gravity and majesty, I'm grateful he was so bullheaded. I don't know if the Truly Indie model can really turn an off-the-radar picture like this into a hit, but we're about to find out.

"Autumn" opens June 9 at the Quad Cinema in New York and the Westside Pavillion in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.

"Crossing the Bridge": From rock to rap to a louche chanteuse and the Elvis of Turkish music, all in one city (and on two continents)
Turkey is much on the minds of Europeans lately, as the source of many immigrants, the first majority-Muslim nation to seek admission to the European Union, and the literal gateway to Asia and the Islamic/Arab worlds. In that context, Fatih Akim's film "Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul" comes as a joyous revelation. Akim follows Alexander Hacke, bass player in the veteran German avant-rock band Einstürzende Neubaten, on his explorations of the Turkish city's many musical subcultures, and finds an almost unbelievably vibrant array of East-West hybrids.

At first, Hacke gravitates toward Istanbul's underground rock scene, where bands like the Replikas, Duman and Baba Zula combine post-grunge punk (or psychedelia, or noisy art-metal) with distinctive local flavors. But the journey of "Crossing the Bridge" is much longer and more hallucinatory than that. Hacke convinces Orhan Gencebay, an Elvis-like figure in Turkish pop who never plays in public, to perform an "unplugged" set for Akim's camera.

We meet an English-speaking Canadian woman who has apparently become one of Turkey's leading singers of traditional music. We hear Kurdish and Romany (i.e., Gypsy) music, both formerly banned by the nationalist government. We see performances by 86-year-old Müzeyyen Senar, a bawdy chanteuse in a blue beaded gown (and now an almost-forgotten legend) and by Sezen Aksu, Turkey's greatest female pop singer -- somewhere between Edith Piaf and Celine Dion, it seems -- who's revered by traditionalists and hip-hop fans alike.

On that front, Hacke's strangest and most endearing voyage is to the "East Coast" of Istanbul, on the Asian side of the Bosporus, where he finds the city's working-class rap subculture. Some of these kids are idiots trying to perform gangsta rap in pseudo-black English, but others are trying, in total sincerity, to create a politically conscious music that will reflect both the modern reality of their lives and the traditional, family-bound culture behind them. Whatever you think you know about Turkey, "Crossing the Bridge" will change your mind. With a dynamite album of music from the film in simultaneous release, I smell a "Buena Vista"-style crossover hit.

"Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul" opens June 9 at the Angelika Film Center in New York, June 16 in Chicago, June 30 in Los Angeles and Washington, July 14 in San Francisco, July 28 in Seattle and Aug. 4 in Denver and Portland, Ore., with other cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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