Archive | Book Matters

‘Wetlands’: Disgusting, Feminist, Brilliant

Every once in a while, a film comes down the pike that elicits such a strong visceral reaction that at first it’s hard to determine whether it’s any good. I’m not talking about those slash-and-gash horror films that have become as ubiquitous (and arguably as American) as apple pie. I’m talking about the likes of “Blue Velvet” – films that dive into the darkest corners of the human psyche, and emerge with artfully embroidered insights about the intersection of sexuality, violence, and neuroses. I’m talking about “Wetlands,” the adaptation of the eponymous, best-selling German novel.

The book was enough of a shock, especially since it’s authored by well-known European TV presenter Charlotte Roche. Written solely from the perspective of eighteen-year-old Helen as she malingers in the proctological ward of a hospital, it is a reverie of bodily fluids and sexual and drug misadventures. It is also the first book I have ever encountered that I could not read while eating. The film, directed and adapted for the screen by David Wnendt, is both more and less disquieting: Like the book, it is rooted in Helen’s hospital room but it, uh, fleshes out her musings with powerful imagery (some of which is impossible to erase from the mind’s eye), a waggish wit, and supporting characters like Corinna (Marlen Kruse), her malleable best friend.

Make no mistake, though: This story is entirely Helen’s, and there has never been a character like her in the history of film or literature. Raised by the kind of mother whose worst fear is being caught with dirty underwear, Helen (Carla Juri) rebels by languishing – drowning, even – in the sea of her own body: tasting, sniffing, prodding, and generally relishing her various secretions, excretions, odors, and sexual organs (which comprise a larger category for her than it might for others). As she says, “I turned myself into a living hygiene experiment.” Continue Reading →

‘The Notebook’: Brothers Grim, No Gosling

As a reviewer, it is my responsibility to judge a film on its own merits, even if I’m disinclined to its genre. I admit it, though: When faced with the prospect of yet another film about the Holocaust, it’s hard to suppress a groan. It’s not that I’m immune to the unspeakable horrors of that chapter in human history; if anything, as the descendant of Polish Jews, I’m especially sensitive to them. But sitting through films on the topic has become miserable, especially because, well, there are just so many of them. Fair or not, at this point I expect a Holocaust movie to shed new insight in order to legitimize its existence.

The good news is that “The Notebook,” adapted from Agota Kristof’s 1986 bestseller Le Grand Cahier, does. It also, it should be noted, is about as far we’re ever going to get from the 2004 Ryan Gosling-Rachel McAdams weepie that shares its name. Set in 1944 Hungary, this “Notebook” frames the evil revealed by the region’s Nazi Occupation as the most treacherous of fairy tales: one that realizes our childhood fear that there really are no trustworthy grownups. Continue Reading →

‘The Two Faces of January’ Are Skin-Deep

As much as it’s possible to write good-looking novels, Patricia Highsmith wrote good-looking novels. Cast against opulent European and American backdrops, many of them featured sly-eyed predators prowling the finest relics of Western Civilization: the finest autos, meals, wines, garments, jewels, music, and paintings – not to mention the finest fatted calves of old money. It’s not that Highsmith favored style over substance; it’s that the substance of her books was style itself, as well as how much larceny was committed in its good name.

Highsmith’s most famous sly-eyed predator, Ripley, hatched such elegant schemes that it was impossible not to root for him, though he had no loyalties of his own. It’s a small wonder that many films have been adapted from the Ripliad (as the Ripley series is called), or that the most well-received of them, Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” is one of the most good-looking films of the last two decades.

“The Two Faces of January,” the latest adaptation of a Highsmith novel, is also quite good-looking. As it begins, two affluent American tourists, the good-looking Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and his good-looking, younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), are wandering through the sun-bleached glory of 1962 Athens when they encounter good-looking American Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who agrees to be their tour guide. This being a Highsmith adaptation, we learn soon enough that all is not what it seems. Chester and Colette are on the run, if idly – his latest stock-market scam has soured just enough to make laying low advisable – and Rydal is the kind of louche drifter who pockets two drachmas every time he makes change. The minuet the three dance together, in which Chester bemusedly observes Rydal’s small-potato swindles while the younger man bats his lashes at Colette, is still awfully good-looking. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy