NYFF 2017: Valeska Grisebach’s Western

On Film / The Daily — Sep 30, 2017

“Nine years in the making, Western draws its title from [Valeska] Grisebach’s generic source inspiration, the American Western,” wrote Michael J. Anderson in a dispatch back to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art a couple of weeks ago. “Noted for her prior two features, Be My Star (2001) and masterpiece Longing (2006), which each maintained an exceptional naturalism in their use non-professional performances and sensitive location photography (that was especially queued into the properties of late day and early evening light in Longing’s case), Western maintains these characteristics, while grafting the syntax, and in some instances even the semantics of the genre.”

“The setting here is a construction site in rural Bulgaria where German workers, all male, are building a hydroelectric plant,” writes the New York TimesManohla Dargis. “It isn’t long before the bored, isolated workers are behaving badly—they harass female swimmers, hoist the German flag—pushing against locals who push back. One German (Meinhard Neumann, a long drink of water), however, increasingly stands apart in a story that can feel as familiar as a John Ford movie, if one attuned to dislocation and discontent in contemporary Europe. Ms. Grisebach has a feel for mood, place and real, lived-in faces.”

“Neumann, who suggests a Teutonic Sam Elliott, leads the excellent cast of nonprofessional actors in a movie that intelligently examines sclerotic machismo and the hegemonic creep of one wealthy nation over a poorer one,” writes Melissa Anderson for 4Columns.

Writing for Slant, Carson Lund suggests that the “scenes detailing Meinhard’s attempts to connect with these people whose language he barely understands are the humanistic apex of Western—as much for the areas of connection found between the disparate groups as for the recognition that certain subjects and points of view cannot be broached or translated. . . . The director, who shoots almost exclusively in medium-to-long focal lengths, as if observing her action rather than staging it, excels at documenting these rifts in communication, which play out in telling, ‘stolen’ close-ups that go unsupported by any musical score.”

“Despite the presence of a few dominant symbols—a white horse being the most conspicuous—Western primarily plays out in the domain of the empirical,” writes Bradley Warren at the Playlist. “That is to say that the film feels like the sum of its surfaces; the vistas and male bodies that fill the frame simply are, not serving as stand-ins for grander ideas. Grisebach sticks to her guns and refuses any kind of expository or emotional outbursts, even when Meinhard’s resistance to psychological scrutiny makes for a frustrating tack. If the film never descends to melodrama, it also rarely builds to any grace notes.”

“This is a movie of plain, quotidian surfaces (as ostensibly unadorned as that title) beneath which flows an unfathomable undercurrent of existential confusion,” finds Keith Uhlich. “Grisebach is asking us to consider these characters as people who are simultaneously with and without home countries. Rooted in various kinds of rootlessness, they know where they're from, but not where they belong.”

“This is obviously a film by a woman largely about men,” finds Steve Erickson at Gay City News, “and critic Michael Sicinski, on Twitter, compared it to Claire Denis’s classic Beau Travail, adding ‘but prose, not poetry.’ It’s true that there are no obvious peak moments, such as Denis Lavant’s inept but incredibly expressive dancing at the end of Beau Travail, but Western goes deep in a way that’s not immediately apparent, lifting imagery such as horses from its titular genre.”

Earlier this week, Andrew Chan, writing here in Current, noted that, when he saw Western in Toronto, it “struck me immediately as a masterpiece.” And he draws parallels to Delmer Daves’s Jubal (1956), “sometimes billed as an ‘adult western’ and an adaptation of Othello. But like Grisebach’s film, it simply takes the notion of a geographic frontier at the genre’s core and explores its slippery meaning for those who live at the perpetually blurred borders.”

Cineuropa’s posted a video interview with Grisebach (7’56”).

Western premiered in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes and screens this afternoon and tomorrow evening (October 1) as part of the Main Slate of this year’s New York Film Festival.

Update, 10/2: At Reverse Shot, Daniel Witkin notes that Grisebach was part of Maren Ade’s crew on Toni Erdmann (2016); the IMDb lists her as a script consultant. “Western is in many ways of a piece with Ade’s film; both deal with Germany’s economic relationships with its European neighbors, and both bring genre elements into an unassailably seamless naturalism that’s not nearly as offhand as it appears. The general premise of Grisebach’s film recalls the extended scene in Ade’s where the protagonists briefly take leave of monochromatic Bucharest and visit the verdant Romanian countryside, where we see firsthand the results of their corporate machinations. Despite a fine turn from Vlad Ivanov, it’s the weakest scene in that otherwise exquisite and hilarious film, handling the interactions between the locals and interlopers relatively clumsily and almost reprovingly spelling out the film’s themes. By contrast, Grisebach is keen to let her characters’ relationships develop organically rather than use them to act out the workings of the globalized economy, building toward something more intimate and indeterminate.”

Update, 10/3: At In Review Online, Zach Lewis suggests that “Meinhard is a bit like the new, centrist Germany: nice, understanding, willing to smack down any compatriots who become a bit too aggressive, but simply not radical enough to be truly helpful. Like Germany’s adherence to the austerity that has doomed the Balkans to poverty, Meinhard never quite emerges as a true hero. Grisebach’s Brechtian touch merely renders him an observer with limited power, simple action, and no room for sentiment. Meinhard’s journey is one from passivity to mild assimilation in the Balkans; it features a horse companion, chauvinists, and other Western signifiers, skirting the borders of the Western genre, without fully committing.”

Update, 10/14: “Moment to moment, Western plays less like economic allegory and more as the story of a stoic man unsure of his place in the world,” writes Soheil Rezayazdi for Filmmaker. “Late in the film, a Bulgarian local asks Meinhard ‘What are you searching for here?’ He no longer has an answer. Western ends with an allusion to the final scene of Beau Travail, but where Claire Denis offered cathartic release on the dance floor, Grisebach gives us no such closure. Her lead doesn’t get to take center stage in a foreign land.”

Update, 10/16: For Reverse Shot, Matthew Eng talks with Grisebach “about deconstructing the western in a polyglot European milieu, collaborating with nonprofessional actors, and the benefits of leaving oneself open to surprises during filming.”

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