No wonder Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust – cranky, wild and visionary – won last year’s Venice Golden Lion. It comes roaring into view, shaking its glorious mane, and by the end has proved that the best way to honour a great original may be to eat it alive.
Goethe’s Faust still is alive, of course, or was until Sokurov devoured it. A Russian director filming in German transposes the story to Goethe's time – though the archaic town on a promontory, first seen in a giddying aerial shot, looks deceptively medieval – and, concentrating on Faust Part 1, presents the doctor protagonist as an antic authorial alter ego, seeking fame and lucre through destructive self-assertion. That way the director of Moloch, Taurus and The Sun, Sokurov’s sombre inquisitional portraits of Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito, can call Faust the fourth part of a “tetralogy on the nature of power” (his words) and present its Goethe-inspired hero, in part at least, as a real historical figure.
Mephistopheles becomes a moneylender named Muller. Played by Anton Adasinsky he is still surreal and satanic, quaffing a tonic called “hemlock”, displaying (in a bathhouse scene) rear-placed genitals, and carrying on as a real-deal demon trading in the world, the flesh and the devil. The second of those commodities is the beautiful, virginal Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), Goethe’s Gretchen turned baby-complexioned jailbait. As Faust the wild-haired, stubble-jowelled Johannes Zeiler looks like Ralph Fiennes after several nights on the town and delivers the dialogue (post-dubbed in the Sokurov style and accompanied by a nearly non-stop murmur of off-world music) as if in his rampage through existence thoughts great and guilty, transgressive and transcendental, snag and tear his soul like barbed wire.
It’s a rude, lewd take on a classic, and irresistible. Goethe believed that earthly life was a mirror image, finite and partial, of eternal truth, so Sokurov starts the film – stunningly – with a giant mirror suspended in the skies. Forever after, the action looks like some fugitive, glittering, mercurial reflection of reality. The story scampers on; we pant in its wake. Early scenes in Faust’s laboratory-surgery are a bustle of macabre and farcical science and pseudoscience – watch for the birth of the homunculus (Goethe got to that imagined thunderclap before Mary Shelley) – while later sequences transport hints of the metaphysical Faust Part 2 through forests and up mountainsides, as if inspired by some time-travelling Caspar David Friedrich.
If the film were any madder it would be locked up. If it were any less mad, it would be down there with Moloch, Taurus and co. as the work of a gifted Russian who never seemed likely, quite, to escape the arthouse gulag. He has escaped now. Go and see; don’t wait for the DVD. Experience Faust while it is still viewable – and still in free-range captivity – on the large screen.
You can’t move for vampires these days. Immigration control being understaffed in Hollywood and fellow fantasylands, no one has yet put up a sign saying “Sorry, we’re full, go somewhere else.” Johnny Depp dons the fangs in Dark Shadows. Sadly Tim Burton’s horror spoof, inspired by a 1960s teleseries, skips straight past “X” for spinechilling and goes on to “Zzz” for somniferous. Barely a moment rouses us from slumbrous recognition of the old mock-gothic tropes. Mouldering chateau, batty family, ancestral curse; ice queens or vice queens played by movie divae moving in on maturity (Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter). The bloodsucking antihero himself is performed by Depp as a conflation of all the eerie-innocent roles (seven to date) he has undertaken for director Burton. A bit of Ed Wood, a touch of Ed Scissorhands; a flicker of Sleepy Hollow, a twitch of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory …
Turned into a vampire and buried alive in 1750, this amiable demon returns to his Maine mansion in 1972 and duels longwindedly with descendant Pfeiffer, her errant brood and “live-in psychiatrist” Bonham Carter. I laughed once, when a Depp spooked by the uncomprehended novelty of a television variety show circles the set chanting “Free yourself, tiny songstress!” There is a gravity-defying sex scene set to entertainingly demented rock music. Otherwise it is business as usual in the increasingly depleted world of pastiche horror.
Say this for Mel Gibson if you say nothing else. He seldom comes up short in the matter of novelty or surprise. A film star who should have been buried, years ago, by bad publicity is as resilient as a settecento vampire. He is all over How I Spent My Summer Vacation as star, co-writer and co-producer. This headlong action thriller full of gaudy energy, set in some midnight-matinee version of Mexico, makes Tarantino and Rodriguez look amateurs. Gibson’s escaping bank robber crashes through the US/Mexico border wall and fetches up in an anarchic jail where the inmates carry guns, trade drugs and try to avoid being organ-harvested by evil rich men for the transplant trade.
The plot thickens to the density of Semtex, then explodes. There is a horribly funny breakout sequence, in which Gibson ventures north to execute hired punishment on two Mr Bigs by pretending to be Clint Eastwood. (No, really.) The final scenes are manic yet spellbinding: a De Palma-ish action delirium in which climaxes meet like converging trains. Through everything there is Gibson himself: unreconstructed, unreconstructable, a force of conscienceless energy, the “id” we cannot do without in a modern movie world increasingly chained to the trinitarian superego of political correctness. Say no evil, hear no evil, watch no evil …
All in Good Time has virtue dripping from every pore. Ayub Khan-Din’s source play Rafta, Rafta won laughter, laughter and a glow of moral approbation at the National Theatre. The film sparingly acknowledges Khan’s own source – Bill Naughton’s same-title-as-the-movie 1963 play (which itself begat a 1966 Boulting Brothers screen adaptation, The Family Way) about wedding night impotence and the ensuing spread of domestic pother – and loudly dins at us the new-look immigrant Indianness as if banging a gong. Subtlety was never the strong suit of director Nigel Cole (Saving Grace, Calendar Girls). The cast, largely straight from the stage, project their dialogue as if no one has told them to stop playing to the gallery and start playing to the multiplex.
Jeff, Who Lives At Home is a squandering of space, time and actor/part-time screenwriter Jason Segel, last seen revivifying the Muppets. Live-at-home momma’s boy Segel breaks out to join brother Ed Hangover Helms in a road movie-ish plot that runs into, or over, Pat’s unfaithful girlfriend and their working mum Susan Sarandon on the way to – what exactly? The film-making Duplass brothers seem to have no clear idea. They must have hoped the mumblecore dialogue, errant story and blurred attempts at charm would “be their own thing”. They are: persistent, tireless and annoying.