Cannes 2017: Valeska Grisebach’s Western

On Film / The Daily — May 20, 2017

“Custody of a white horse is one of several bones of contention between Bulgarian locals and visiting German laborers in Valeska Grisebach’s Western, a dispute that takes on the most classic symbolic dimension of the traditional oater,” begins Guy Lodge in Variety. “Does he who rides the white horse also get to be the good guy? That’s one of several oblique ways in which the eponymous genre improbably bleeds into this quietly involving culture-clash drama, down to its lone-wolf protagonist (Meinhard Neumann): a strong, mostly silent stranger whose incursions into the Bulgarian community set masculine tensions flaring on both sides. A welcome return for writer-helmer Grisebach, ending the too-long hiatus that followed 2006’s heart-piercing Longing, Western lacks that film’s emotional force, but it’s a sharp, expertly slow burn.”

“Much of the drama and the character-play emerge in the film’s use of language, as Meinhard and the Bulgarians master enough of each other’s tongues to communicate effectively, looks and hand gestures filling in the gaps,” writes Jonathan Romney for Screen. “A Komplizen Film production, with Maren Ade amongst the producers, the film explores German presence in Eastern Europe with a curiosity and seriousness akin to Toni Erdmann’s scrutiny of corporate dealings in Romania, but here looking at the theme on level of grassroots personal and community relations in an enclosed, traditional culture that is about to be transformed, somewhat aggressively, by the outsiders.”

“Whether the residents and the interlopers will resort to violence or learn to trust each other is the driving question of the film,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at RogerEbert.com, “and the answer, never simple, varies whether the matter at hand is money, the men's attitude toward the village's women, or who has the right to control the water supply. The film's implicit subject is not just xenophobia but, in what's become a theme at Cannes in recent years, the state of the European Union, and particularly its struggles to reconcile between richer and poorer countries. The future Western proposes is less bleak than you might expect.”

“The film, which was shot without a traditional screenplay, doesn’t quite follow a regular introduction-conflict-resolution template, and it thus takes a while for audiences to find their bearings amid this group of hard-working, uncouth but not necessarily unfriendly men,” writes Boyd van Hoeij for the Hollywood Reporter. “Western never quite comes together in the way that Longing did, where the titular emotion gave that film its laser-sharp focus.”

Western is so far a high point in this festival” for Mónica Delgado at desistfilm and, writing for Cineuropa, where you’ll find a video interview with Grisebach, Fabien Lemercier finds the film “imbued with intelligence and a fantastic, creeping charm.” Kelsey Moore has a few questions for Grisebach at Women and Hollywood.

Updates, 5/21: Reviewing this “powerful, deeply human and intricately political drama” in the Notebook, Daniel Kasman suggests that “the brilliant complicating factor is the combination of the filmmaker’s impeccable ability to cast enthralling non-professional actors and direct them into being. Her characters are able to say and live more in silence than most movie characters do through entire pictures. . . . This organic individual charisma and chemistry unites with Grisebach’s as-it-goes storytelling, creating the sense that this ‘western’ scenario was discovered rather than created.”

“It’s little surprise that to find the actor, Meinhard Neumann, Grisebach auditioned over 600 people,” notes Giovanni Marchini Camia, writing for Sight & Sound. “In addition to delivering a performance of extraordinary aptitude and range (something that is true of the entire cast), he also possesses an indelible, intensely emotive face. Much like Pedro Costa’s Ventura, he epitomises that quality unique to non-professional actors which renders them such assets in filmic explorations of the human spirit.”

Jessica Ellicott interviews Grisebach for 4:3.

Update, 5/24: For Film Comment, Jordan Cronk talks with Grisebach about “the film’s protracted genesis, the pressing influence of an increasingly corporatized Europe, and the search for a present-day equivalent of the iconic Western male.”

Updates, 5/28: “The western is in a way a very conservative genre, a very male genre,” Grisebach tells Notebook editor Daniel Kasman, “but at the same time a very modern genre because it deals with all these questions of society—how you like your kind of society, do you want to have empathy or do you prefer the rise of the strongest?”

Western: on the one hand, the word carries geopolitical weight and a cultural hegemony that the cinema is dominated by,” writes Jake Howell at the Film Stage. “On the other hand, of course, Western implies a cinematic reference—a genre, in and of itself. A genre, to be clear, with tropes galore that are just as problematic as the industry that propagates them. In titling her film as such, however, Valeska Grisebach’s contemplative, brilliant film sparks a dialogue on all of these components, prompting us to think critically on their intersections.”

Update, 5/30: “Maybe Western was left out of the main competition because it was deemed too ‘small,’” suggests BFI programmer Geoff Andrew. “But it was considerably more rewarding than many of the ‘bigger’ films on view, and perhaps [Cannes artistic director Thierry] Frémaux and Co. should have taken a gamble as they did with last year’s Toni Erdmann (on which Grisebach was a script consultant). This year, after all, they had a jury that actually understood and welcomed intelligent, relevant, original and adventurous filmmaking. And Western is undoubtedly all of those things.”

Update, 7/4: For Dennis Lim, looking back on Cannes in the new issue of Film Comment, Western is “the closest this festival came to a major work . . . Western never belabors its genre connections. Instead it recognizes the Western as a template for eternal conflicts, a sly awareness that enriches the film instead of fencing it in.”

James Lattimer talks with Grisebach for Cinema Scope. She calls her film “more of a dance with the Western—a reflection upon it—a marker placed at the start that merely encapsulates particular themes.”

Update, 8/21: For Michael Sicinski, “Grisebach has brilliantly identified a continual human problem—the need to belong, to ‘be down,’ to be the one good guy who is accepted despite the sins of your own kind—and removed it from the classic ‘Cowboys and Indians’ template where, it should be said, it has become offensively simplistic, mixed up with overtones of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ myth. In Western, the question is not so much one of white privilege—all parties in the equation here are white—as it is one of East vs. West and the economic power that comes along with it.”

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