Promise and Pitfall
by Alexey Gusev
Gregory Kirchhoff’s Dusky Paradise is a simple film, in the good sense of the word, which is quite rare for a début film. It is true that almost half of all débuts are simple, but this is because they are shallow and hollow; theirs is the simplicity not of the heart, but of the mind; as simple as the ABC (but without a D, and without even an attempt at an E). Then there are débuts from the other half, which are simple since they are sincere and ingenuous; simple in their “I confess”-intention (which is the same as “I can’t be silent”); simple as the first “I love you”, “I want you” or “I’ll kill you”; a simplicity that is not even of the mind, but of the hormones. Fortunately, however, in art two halves rarely amount to a whole. Dusky Paradise therefore belongs to that third kind of simplicity – it is simple because it is clear and pellucid. And as limpid as the air in the vicinity of the Mediterranean villa, where its action takes place. And as transparent as all three characters who are part of the action. And, what is most important, the film’s découpage is as brilliant as the sun above that villa.
Kirchhoff’s film however is not so utopian as one could imagine after this rapturous description. It is neither so perfect, and nor is it so plain; moreover, these two last points complement each other. The main character, Jacob, the master of the villa, inherited from his deceased parents, is a calm young man without malevolent features or gloomy secrets; he however aims at nothing, and feels nothing. In the beginning of the film he is just a level-headed person with no dark sides to his nature, but – well, with no light ones either. Or rather, his nature is totally bland. And when asked “What are you to do?”, his response is “Nothing really. I eat, I drink, I sleep”. The way his character is introduced, is strongly remindful of the personages from the experimental European films from the 1970s (the ones made in the “roman nouveau” tradition, for example): a kind of a man (not as cold as a Trintignant but not as warm as a Piccoli or as a Mastroianni), who becomes a litmus test for the world around him, and a mouthpiece of the author. A man who is always an object and never the subject of an action or a vision. Of course, the two other characters are more specific and will teach Jacob how to connect and interact. Matteo, the aged neighbor, who is wise and vital, will teach him the art of friendship, and Zoey, the young English tourist, tender and nice, will teach him the art of love. And both lessons will be quite successful.
Yet the transparent style of the film is a congener to Jacob in the starting point, not in the resulting one; since it does not change very much (except at the brief turning-points of Jacob’s crises). In other words, after perfectly describing the main character in the beginning of the film, the style does not follow his changes, and Jacob’s screen presence remains more organic in his inert and undifferentiated initial state than after he undergoes his transformations and becomes a man. And even though it could be said that there are no serious gaps between Jacob’s character and the film style towards the end of film (which is, perhaps, true), it would mean only that his newly-discovered friendship and love are as neutral, common, and non-specific as his initial state. To make the long story short, his transformations follow the established patterns since such a stylistic perfection just cannot make space for specificities. And while the acting is highly nuanced (all three performers are just impeccable), it seems they are portraying stock characters, who – like in D. W. Griffith’s works – could be reduced to the generic types of the Friend, the Sweetheart – and the Man.
Yet all of this is not a defect at all! That is, it could have been one, if the style were cold and passionless. But it is sensitive and reactive, and its very perfection is rooted not in the author’s arrogance but in his concern. The primary paradox of Dusky Paradise could be summarized as a “methodical ode to freedom.” While this phrase could grasp adequately the intention of the filmmaker – well, the genre of an “impetuous ode to freedom” is much more frequent in modern cinema – it is nothing but a tautology and, as such, worth nothing. Just as “methodical odes to paranoia,” which are very frequent as well and amount to almost the same. This paradox is very well-known from the history of cinema, and maybe I should have started this review by citing Ernst Lubitsch. This could have also explained why the young German director needed the languor of Mediterranean landscape that is so stimulating for Jacob’s “dolce far niente”, Matteo’s joy of life and Zoey’s caring playfulness. But in such a case the review would have been too short – and useless. Indeed, Lubitsch’s name is essential, but neglected by modern cinema practice since it is really hard to achieve his level of stylistic transparency.
Gregory Kirchhoff took a very good first step on a very good path that is full of pitfalls. The gap between a character, undergoing a change, and a style, which remains unchanged, is only the first of them. Dusky Paradise is quite good as a film, but even better as a promise.
Edited by Christina Stojanova
© FIPRESCI 2016