Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review: Kafka (1991)

This type of project has failed before. Hammett, also about a famous writer embroiled in a real mystery that somehow mirrors his fictional work, was an incredible misfire in all respects. Seriously, watch that fucking thing some time, try to comprehend its plot underneath all that inept directing and editing. Jesus. And that had two acclaimed directors working on it! How do you fuck that up?!

Oh, but not this, though. Sorry. This movie is awesome.

Lem Dobbs’s script reads like a test run for his later work, Dark City. It’s all about the ill-equipped Individual against a sinister, enslaving System perpetrating a bafflingly large experiment against The People. Unlike John Murdoch, Franz Kafka spends most of the movie ambivalent to the plot, skirting authoritarian and revolutionary alike and wanting nothing more than to be left alone. Much of the film’s action is Kafka suddenly involved in a chase, or an investigation he wants no part of, or as subject to an expository meeting. It is perhaps twenty minutes before the end of the film when he decides to man up and affect something.

Stylistically, the gulf between Kafka and Sex, Lies and Videotape is vast. Filmed in black & white (mostly) in Prague, Soderbergh creates an oppressive mood with dark alleyways that mirror the corridors of bureaucratic offices, and I suspect more than once directly referencing Orson Welles’s The Trial. Where Sex, Lies had a gritty, voyeuristic feel, this is like being trapped in an expressionist painting, shadows so sharp they'll cut ya.

If you didn’t love Jeremy Irons before (what’s wrong with you?), at least love him here. His standing performance alone carries the film beautifully, but his narration cracks with a strain that indicates a body supporting a monsterous, infinitely ancient world kept at bay from the mind. Plus I would totally be gay for that deep-ass voice of his.

It’s an incredibly smart story with incredibly smart casting and directing, the absolute ideal Second Project. Of Soderbergh’s, it’s the only one that vilifies a strong government rather than a strong corporation, and champions an individual for his own benefit and not one for the promise of social gain. It's also one of his best films.


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