Just Like in a Renoir Movie

in 37th Montreal World Film Festival

by Pierre-Simon Gutman

Sometimes, in a festival, a movie completely breaks through and manages to occupy your mind during the whole event. West, the FIPRESCI winner of this year Montreal FFM, is definitely such a film. Of course, there were other good pictures in this year’s edition. Life Feels Good, the big palmares winner, is obviously one, and so is Ask This of Rikkyu, the Japanese movie about a tea master and his conception of life. But West stood apart, and is also a reminder of the strength of the modern German cinema. This resurgence remains one of the underrated movie phenomena of the last years. Between pictures like Ping Pong and film makers like Christian Hochlauser, German motion picture industry has given signs of a new possible golden age, after its heyday in the seventies. All it is waiting is the right movie in the right festival to break through and give this wave the momentum it deserves. Despite all of its qualities, West (Westen) probably isn’t this movie: not radical enough as a proposition, it is simply an excellent piece of movie making, which of course is quite great already.

At the heart of the picture is a mystery, the disappearance (in Germany in the late seventies) of a man, father to the heroine’s s child, who just goes missing. The event triggers her need for a change and to go to the west, leaving behind the world of communist Germany for what must be the freedom of the R.D.A. Of course, thing are not that simple, and the ghost of the missing man haunts her as Americans spies and ambassadors try to understand what happened by interrogating her. West is not a movie about resolutions, it is more a work on things unsaid, regrets and questions that will have to stay unanswered. Its main action is in the camp where the lead character and her child stay while awaiting to be fully accepted in the west. This setting evokes modern day images of immigrants without papers rather than the communist past. But West is not a movie about political vindications. It is filled with ambiguities and, maybe because of this, with life.

In some ways, and despite the huge baggage this comparison can bring, West reminds of Jean Renoir, in the way both film makers demonstrate sensitivity to all points of view in a given situation. There are no secondary characters in West, no villains and no heroes either, no certitudes. Every character is imbued with his or her own motivations, his or her own personal opacity and suffering. Just like in a Renoir movie, the directing is a discreetly virtuoso, by putting the actors front and center while not forgetting (like some movies today) to think of every plan, instead of just piling up close ups. Shchwolow’s eye is precise, acute, doesn’t show off but focuses on finding the right length or frame, for every protagonist of the plot. The result, in the end, is of course the feeling that each character has his or her own life, existing outside the movie but still inhabiting it. There are no violent deaths at the closing of West, no dramatic gestures or a resolution. All the characters live on with the past that burdens them, and move on as best as they can into the future. This is probably one of the best things we can expect, or learn, from cinema nowadays.

Edited by Christina Stojanova