A Most Wanted Man
By Ian Brockway
Dutch master Anton Corbijn, (The American), a poet of images which are strikingly and invariably tinted in slate gray, got his start directing provocative videos for U2 and Nirvana. His trademarks of vast cement spaces, anything but vacant, have a watchful and pensive quality. Even his sterile rectangles have eyes.
We have these hypnotic qualities expressed again in “A Most Wanted Man,” Corbin’s latest thriller.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Gunther, the head of a covert anti-terrorist team, driven by turns with ambition and fear. Hoffman in his role is a kind of inflated jellyfish, pale and flaccid with a thousand eyes. In his incarnation of Gunther, he surfs the nether zone of Hamburg to catch what he can, eerily melting into the gray, seaweed browns, and turgid greens of the director’s palette.
A speck of silver, like a dangerous falling star, lights up his phone.
A young soiled man in a wet hoodie ( Grigoriy Dobrygin) has dragged himself along Hamburg’s banks supposedly seeking asylum as a Chechen.
Gunther is immediately on alert, his ashy white eyebrows rising in wait.
But he has other eyes on him.
Rival agent Mohr (a scary bureaucratic Rainer Bock) wants this grunge-dude before he contacts possible terror groups while Gunther wants to wait, having a chance to catch a bigger target, the soft-spoken and distinguished Professor Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi).
There is also a frosty agent Martha (Robin Wright) who puts some soft screws on Gunther under the guise of some acid civility.
Gunther’s existence becomes increasingly narrow and claustrophobic; he doesn’t know where to go or who to trust. He moves in a subterranean realm. Gunther removes himself from the mortal square, half octopus, half shark, a cigarette his only breathing tube.
Daniel Bruhl appears as a human marker behind a monochrome screen. A human pencil who eternally watches. There is also a formal and detached banker (perfectly, if predictably played by Willem Dafoe).
Rather then hit us with a slug and crunch as in the Bourne or Bond episodes, we are led as a camera in captivity within circular orbits where there is often little more than some half uttered phobias and squelched sighs as a solitary camera looks on, myopic and inhuman.
These are people who exist behind walls and borders and plastic. They are blanched and not quite normal. Anton Corbijn is at his best in capturing this enervating and snickering world, polarized against the sloshing soup of Hamburg’s canals, not to mention its generic and faceless buildings with angles as sharp as a shark, and shut windows that pose harsh accusals of no entrance.
“A Most Wanted Man” is terrific as a winding and visual garrote that subtlety seduces us with its snaky cinematography and then pulls us in by the neck, but symbolically and cinematically, the film can be seen as a final mirror of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the actor of a hundred faces, a thespian/spy who went to the underbelly of life to gather a wealth of dramatic intelligence and came up against an unpredictable and very personal double cross.
When his Gunther is left wheezing, overwhelmed and mortified from an unfortunate car, it is natural, perhaps, to think of Hoffman himself as the camera’s perspective is left nonchalant and cast aside to follow Gunther/Hoffman as he walks away, bereft, detached, and ultimately resigned in whatever awaits.
Bicycling with Moliere
Philippe Le Guay (The Women on the 6th Floor) delivers another hit with the light and ebullient “Bicycling with Moliere.” The film, co-written by actor Fabrice Luchini (who plays the irascible Serge), is an Odd Couple vignette about two men who know each other so well they oscillate between affection and bitterness with each other, not to mention resentment and ribaldry.
Smooth silver fox Gauthier (Lambert Wilson) wishes to take a sabbatical from TV acting, traveling to the picturesque French hideaway of Île de Ré to talk to his old friend Serge.
Gauthier presses him to help bring Moliere to life, by acting in “The Misanthope” as Philinte.
The difficult needle-like Serge wants no part of it.
Gauthier persuades his cantankerous friend to at least read the script. Serge reluctantly agrees, then demands that he play the main character Alceste instead of a “minor” role.
Gauthier proposes that they alternate the roles and Serge concedes.
Throughout the film, Serge throws sarcasm at the inflated and George Hamilton-like actor while he tries to hold his own, via a scarf around the neck. Gauthier gets into a violent fight with a taxi driver (Stéphan Wojtowicz) and feels out-done by Serge in his pursuit of the vivacious Francesca (Maya Sansa)
Gauthier’s egotistical pratfalls become more comical by the second.
This is a bon-vivant who is used to getting his way. Despite his celebrity role, he is no master thespian.
The tension, albeit of the tickling variety, is in watching the contrast: The debonair Gauthier against the baggy and turtle-like Serge who also makes an excellent Beckett character. He accuses his friend of becoming a vain sellout, while Gauthier counters that he has no relevance to the audience and no persona.
In matters of Cupid, the film overtly echoes “Jules and Jim” with its sheepish love triangle.
While the drama expressed is often in kid gloves, there is some loud and physical stuff here, with Gauthier being a self obsessed prick even though he does care for his friend.
While at first we think Serge the shy hermit, under the brash cuts of Gauthier, he becomes more and more enraged at the parading of his friend.
Serge becomes the better actor.
This is a swift and carbonated comedy that shows two affectionate rivals doing anything they can for their egos.
Each character in his own way is selfish, each is passionate.
The upper hand of poetry may well go to Serge, however. While the tanned and handsome Gauthier is dazzled by the stage lights of Alceste, Serge is left on a desolate beach to recite Moliere’s lines in a charmed, but wistful urgency.
Write Ian at email@example.com