In a Better World, or How to wring your hands on two continents

Remember the series of ER in which several of the earnest doctors – was it Carter and Kovacs and another whose name escapes me? – took themselves off to ‘war-torn Africa?’ There they could continue to grapple with urgent issues of life, death, and personal responsibility, clear of the fatty acids of their domestic lives. Africa is good like that. Big themes, big landscapes. Troubles back home in the developed world are made small by comparison.

Susanne Bier’s Oscar-winning drama, ‘In a Better World‘ tries to have the best of both: twinning a tranquil island in Denmark with a desert somewhere in Africa. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) has to deal with bullies on two continents, albeit on radically different scales. An evil warlord who delights in ripping open young women, but turns out to be nothing without his gang; and a boorish mechanic who just won’t be told. So, Anton’s son, Christian decides to deal with the mechanic himself – having previously sorted out a school bully using the time-honoured direct method. (Yes, it’s all about bullies.) But Christian’s increasing obsession with violence blinds him to its dangers.

The result is a slick, intelligent drama, with handsome photography and weighty themes, but not a single interesting image in almost two hours.

Still, it’s an slight improvement on her previous continent-straddling melodrama, ‘After The Wedding‘.

In a Better World‘ will be released in UK cinemas on August 19th.

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Johanna, or Film as Opera

‘Stop and ask yourself if this great idea of yours really is a movie, or is it maybe a TV series, a novel, a play? Or something you should keep between you and your psychoanalyst?’

You hear this advice a lot. Good advice, I suppose. Yet, in the list of alternatives, there is an omission: opera. It’s always TV series, novels, etc. Perhaps script readers and screenwriting pros don’t give opera a second thought, unless they’re dealing with middle-class homosexuals or a boxing sequence. Perhaps they figure an opera starts with the notes on the staves and not drama or dialogue. Perhaps so. But opera and film are not so far apart and sometimes they’re the same thing.

Kornél Mundruczó and Viktória Petrányi’s ‘Johanna’ (2005) was a contemporary classical opera conceived and produced for the cinema screen. An audacious enterprise, commercially – there’s no obvious audience out there – but, artistically, it made sense: the form suits the subject and the medium suits the form.

The fruit of a long-standing collaboration with young composer, Zsófia Tallér, who scored the majority of Mundruczó’s films, ‘Johanna‘ was essayed two years earlier as a short film, ‘Joan of Arc of the Night Bus,’ and as that title suggests, it’s an up-date of the Maid of Orleans story.

In this version, Joan (or Johanna), a heroine addict, offends the medical establishment by using, at God’s command, extremely unorthodox, para-medical methods to heal every seriously ill middle-aged male patient she can find. To put it bluntly, she fucks them back to health. (A strictly heterosexual treatment, it seems. Women and children have to take their chances with traditional medicine.) A young doctor, infatuated with Johanna’s fragile beauty, becomes enraged with jealousy and leads the inquisition against her.

The film begins in realistic mode accompanying an ambulance on its way to a major traffic accident. We follow a doctor through the corridors of an underground hospital (the old asylum in Budapest), where the casualties are being treated. Until another doctor enters the ward and starts to sing: a gravelly baritone, declaring the end of the training exercise. The opera announces itself. Realism and its artifices undercut in the same coup de theatre.

From then on, the music doesn’t stop, except to pause for dramatic effect;  it’s supple, expressive, but tonally dark. (I wonder if the project was influenced by Bela Bartok’s brooding one-act masterpiece, ‘Duke Bluebeard’s Castle’ [1918].) The camera roams the windowless rooms and corridors filled with sickly greens, over-exposed whites, and what I can only describe as murky, diluted iodine. Shadowy and sepulchral. Unreal.

If Mundroczó’s goal was to achieve a synthesis of music and image, in a heightened register, he must have been quite satisfied. The argument of the highly symbolic narrative is less persuasive, if only because, as is typical of Saint Joan, our sympathies are never stretched beyond the beatific Johanna, despite the amorality of her activities. Here, the most interesting character would have been the lust-lorn doctor, in whom the idealism of medicine and the selfish demands of sexual attraction resolve themselves in self-deluded act of murder.

Johanna‘ is available on DVD in the UK.