Friday, September 12, 2014

TIFF ’14: Le beau danger

Like most writers, Romanian novelist Norman Manea’s fiction is often highly autobiographical. Considering he survived both the Holocaust and the Ceauşescu regime’s persecution, how could it not be? Since 1986, Manea has lived in a state of sort of, but not really, self-imposed exile, teaching at Bard College, but still writing in his native Romanian. René Frölke employs Manea’s own words to tell his life story, in a distinctively elliptical and suggestive fashion, throughout Le beau danger (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

It might seem strange that a film about Manea takes its title from a brief essay by Michel Foucault, but it is worth remembering in the 1980s the French post-structuralist theorist became a fairly consistent critic of Soviet Communism and a supporter of Solidarity. Regardless, his argument language serves as a movable refuge is certainly apt in Manea’s case. Rather than a traditional parade of dates and archival photos, viewers will read significant extracts of his work (in English translation) that give a vivid feeling for his early years. The selections from his story “We Might Have Been Four” are particularly evocative—pastoral in tone and setting, but marked by an ominous atmosphere and mounting sense of alienation.

In many ways, LBD is a study in contrasts, starting with Manea himself. Unlike Kosinski and Nabokov, Manea never ceased writing in Romanian, despite his residency in the bucolic Hudson River region. Given his age and accomplishments, he could easily get away with playing the curmudgeon card, yet Manea appears to be quite a gracious good sport when Frölke follows him at European book festivals and at various media appearances and master classes.

Frölke has a keen eye for intriguing visuals, often using grainy 16mm for eerie effect. The use of simple ambient sound is also quite canny. At times, he might linger on some pedestrian imagery a bit too long, but many scenes are tightly packed with power and meaning—especially a sequence in a Romanian Jewish cemetery. Although no words are spoken, the significance of the 1942 and 1943 dates of death are inescapable.

LBD is an elegantly crafted film, but there is a reason why TIFF programmed it as a Wavelength selection. Essentially, that is the track for films that might confuse people. However, those who have sufficient patience will take a great deal from Manea’s words and his pessimistically humanistic outlook. It would be nice to see this film get a theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives and aesthetically similar theaters. It will only appeal to select audience, but they ought to have a chance to see it. Recommended for highly literate viewers, Le beau danger screens again on Sunday (9/14) as part of this year’s TIFF.