The Russian film director Anna Melikyan has made an interesting confession about her widely acclaimed Mermaid (Rusalka), winner of the Independent Camera Prize at Karlovy Vary 2008. “I started thinking up the whole story backwards — from the death of my central character”, she said three months earlier in a Q&A session at Sofia Film Fest. “How would you have had your story finished without the mermaid’s death in a street car accident?” It occurred to me at the time. How indeed?
From time immemorial death has been humans’ best friend in creating art. Starting with the Greek tragedy’s approach to mortality in dramatic forms, surviving the Middle Ages’ total fascination with it, then the Renaissance rejection of it — the Grim Reaper has always been respected. Whatever film characters do, whatever their motives, relationships, thoughts and feelings — death comes suddenly and puts an end to trouble (both the screenwriter’s and viewer’s). As if it has nothing to do with the philosophy of existence anymore. Turned into a fortuitous circumstance, switch-off key, technical device — death is no longer able to develop catharsis.
Genres where all is fair in dying, like the Danish crime thriller Terribly Happy (Frygtelig Lykkelig), awarded with this year’s Cristal Karlovy Vary Globe, deal with human mortality according to the rules of the chosen formula. Death is not meant to purify but to resolve the intrigue. The macabre joke in this Danish claustrophobic film is masterly but, at the same time, predictable. A policeman arrives in a small country village as a kind of professional exile while three of the locals need him to make up a foursome. The only way to keep the guy locked up in town is to connect him to the death of a woman he has fallen for. Her accidental suffocation is yet another step in a trap that paradoxically (the film is an honestly declared game) will give the leading character the status of Happy Joe instead of a victim.
n the politically tainted German drama Dr. Alemán though, the young German doctor working in a Colombian hospital is attracted to a local woman only to find her killed by a dramatic cliché. The plot is partly based on real-life experience in Colombia and instead of making it an advantage, the script adds a melodramatic final twist. A young Colombian boy, befriended by the European newcomer, is killed out of revenge in the local gang war. His death comes as a moment of truth for the doctor, as a natural climax of the story but it is indeed a pity that the film-makers did not find it significant enough to develop a cathartic end. On the contrary — they keep pushing the banal love story. Our hero’s love interest is killed in a ridiculous closing episode, spoiling the overall message of the film.
Films that still insist on the importance of ordinary people’s mundane dramas tend to exaggerate the minutiae of the Big Brother TV style, simultaneously underestimating the importance of the way their conflicts should be resolved. In the Croatian movie Behind the Glass (Iza stakla) — in the Official Karlovy Vary competition — a middle-aged architect must choose between his long-term mistress and his wife, pregnant with their second child. How will it end, what is its morality? Can you guess what happens? Among all possible solutions the film chooses to kill the mistress in a sudden car accident on the street in front of her home. Just like that! Without this unexpected death the finale remains hidden somewhere in the unforeseeable future. Instead of revelation, this ridiculous death reveals the main problem of the film — it does not have a vision, it does not have a message.
In such films — all the more often acknowledged recently on festival screens — the interpersonal relations do not have sufficient energy to fulfill their dramatic purpose. In other words, without death invited into the film story to give an end to some storylines, these films could hardly ever end.
Death is great fun in The Investigator (A nyomozo), the first film of the young Hungarian director Attila Gigor. It is packed with corpses and shot with imaginative dark humor. Memento mori becomes memento mockery. Corpse after corpse go to the assistant pathologist Tibor, who has a Buster Keaton face, a Gene Hackman body and two crystal blue eyes, one Paul Newman’s and the other Vinnie Jones’s. Tibor is a mix of the Coldblooded Cosmo by Wallace Wolodarsky, the naïve Barry of Punch-Drunk Love by Paul Thomas Anderson and Vinnie Jones’ Sphinx from Gone in Sixty Seconds by Dominic Sena. The film freely and organically combines all the dark, wise and funny sides of several genres — crime, comedy, thriller and even melodrama. On top of everything else, Frankenstein from the pathology department is a tender soul, who will kill, investigate and finally devote himself to his sweetheart.
As it often happens in life, cliché always finds its niche and vindicates its right to exist. In the American movie The Guitar, a young woman learns that she has incurable cancer, will die in a month and loses her job and boyfriend. She decides to fulfill as much of her longings as possible, and finally buys the guitar of her childhood dreams. In the end when she is told that the cancer had disappeared (Elvis is alive!) dreams come true and she starts playing the guitar professionally in a band. You will wait and pray for a car behind the corner and some street accident. To no avail…