Gold Into Dross
Friday, August 26, 2005
Bruno Bettelheim titled his famous study of fairy tales "The Uses of Enchantment." Given what they do to the form, the makers of "The Brothers Grimm" should have called theirs "The Abuses of Enchantment."
The director is ex-Monty Pythoner Terry Gilliam, whose films typically (and "The Brothers Grimm" is nothing if not typical) are jammed with stuff and all but empty of drama. That was true of his best film, "Brazil," and his most successful film, "Time Bandits," and most of his mediocrities such as "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Twelve Monkeys." "The Fisher King"? Don't get me started.
His frame is very busy: Every nook and cranny is filled; everything is studiously characterized, the whole thing thrumming with life. It's as if there's been a coup on the set: The art director has replaced the director. Yes, it looks terrific, yet it remains essentially inert. You keep waiting for something to happen, and after a while your mind wanders from the hollow frenzy up there with all its filigrees and fretwork.
That wrongheaded approach seems particularly misplaced in a work that means to celebrate two of the founders of the Western literary tradition, the German brothers Jakob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) Grimm. The brothers, though you wouldn't learn it here, spent much of the early part of their lives writing down the folk tales and legends of rural Germany, thus providing the world with one of its most enduring treasures, that sturdy form of narrative that begins most humans' enchantments with the very idea of story, the fairy tale. Their motive, however, was profoundly nationalistic: They were doing the spadework for Otto von Bismarck, finding and identifying a common culture for all the duchies and principalities and Graustarkias and Ruritanias that preceded the unification of the 1870s.
Gilliam could care less about all that. Instead, his spin is caustically modern; the plot it uses as armature wasn't borrowed from the Grimm boys at all, or from German history or from dark musings on that plasma-red cesspool that was European politics for a thousand years, but from a somewhat more spurious source of modern mythology: "Ghostbusters."
Like the Murray crew of jovial cynics, the Grimms are first seen as charlatans who travel about the countryside to sites where semi-hysterical supernaturalism grips the peasantry. There they leverage the peasants out of a few kopeks or rubles or pfennigs (or whatever!) by performing fraudulent exorcisms assisted by a secret crew of stage technicians who plant spooky thingamajigs that the boys (Will is played by Matt Damon, Jake by a barely conscious, hardly recognizable Heath Ledger) theatrically banish. It's a nice ruse until a village in the Black Forest actually begins to suffer disturbing supernatural events.
The villagers send for the Grimms? No, that would make too much sense. Instead, Gilliam and his writer Ehren Kruger add a whole extraneous other level of bureaucracy to the film that helps to accomplish nothing except to make the story murkier still and bury the motives more deeply. He capitalizes on the fact that in the year of the film, roughly 1813, the French had occupied Germany (Napoleon had not yet met his Waterloo at, er, Waterloo) and so it's a French general (old Gilliam hand Jonathan Pryce, star of "Brazil") and his Italian factotum (Peter Stormare; remember how good he was in "Fargo" when he kept his yap shut?) who are the prime movers. In practical terms, it gives Pryce a chance to show off an impenetrable French accent, and Stormare to show off an even more impenetrable Italian one. In story terms, it makes Jake and Will modernist characters: They're reluctant heroes dragooned into dangerous service against their wills, who nevertheless find a way to triumph. But such a concept of antiheroic heroism didn't exist early in the 19th century: They would have been branded cowards and quickly executed.
It soon turns out that the village -- or at least the very dark woods outside it -- is indeed haunted by a particularly cruel demon, who has begun disappearing girl-children for nefarious purposes. But the boys have no moral reaction to that; they simply, being characters out of time formed by modernist conceits like existentialism, want to survive and profit. They are required to be heroic. Again, what purpose does this serve except to slow the movie down, clot it with extraneous spoutings and mutterings ?
The conceit that follows is extremely poorly thought out, again putting on display the non-linear Gilliam's substandard grip of narrative principles. It's not that the Grimms encounter their own famous stories in prototype and that we see the beginning of an opus and a tradition. No, again, that would make too much sense. What they encounter are fragments, symbols, icons, loose change even, from the work, but not coherently unified into a single vision of the supernatural. It all adds up to an artificial fairy-tale situation that has no place in myth, no antecedent in psychology, not much meaning and even less resonance.
We see the red hood of the little girl pursued by wolves; but then that blows away and we never see it again. We see Gretel, separated from Hansel, the birds having devoured her trail of crumbs, taken mysteriously; we see the tower from which Rapunzel hung her hair or in which Sleeping Beauty slept, but we don't see either Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty. In short, someone didn't do his homework; the original stories haven't been cobbled together into a meaningful pattern, and their odd and random fragments have no emotional weight.
They also have no psychological weight. Bettelheim believed that fairy tales were Freudian myths and that they reflected anxieties of the child as he struggled to comprehend a baffling world; they were then therapeutic, pedagogical and necessary. Gilliam only dimly understands this (Neil Jordan's "Company of Wolves," of which this film may remind some viewers, was much better at plumbing the hidden erotic meanings of a particular story). Gilliam's take is fraudian, not Freudian.
And finally, and quite simply, it's wrong. Gilliam and Kruger appear to have no idea who the Grimms were or what they did. They weren't writers, making stuff up, their imaginations stimulated by certain images, as this movie seems to think. They were folklorists who traveled about collecting stories from the oral tradition that had been handed down, generation to generation, over the millennia. That was their genius, that was their labor, that was their contribution.
The ur-story here that Will and Jake ultimately encounter is a meltdown of tales into a kind of alphabet soup, or a mother of all fairy tales, but it's really not very good, not nearly as lasting or resonant as the real thing: It's something about a sleeping beauty (a queen, though, not a princess) who demands of the mirror on the wall that she be the fairest of them all, except of course she looks like a corpse on a particularly bad day. The mirror then shows her Monica Bellucci, and who wouldn't prefer to look like Monica Bellucci rather than a corpse? It seems she's got some conspiracy going with a huntsman (the hero of "Little Red Riding Hood," remember, here converted into an all-purpose villain and werewolf), which involves absconding with village virgins to restore her outside-the-mirror beauty. Agh! It's completely arbitrary; it has no precedent or antecedent in the classical canon. It would have been much better if Gilliam and Kruger or whoever was making the decisions (rumors persist that Miramax/Dimension honchos Harvey and Bob Weinstein had an undue influence on the production) had selected not images from a batch of stories but the dramatic structure of one or two of the more famous ones; that's why they've lasted, that's why they're famous. It's not an accident that a thousand years after its creation children are still thrilling to "Sleeping Beauty" or "Little Red Riding Hood" or "Hansel and Gretel."
Into this miasma bumble the two German boys, under French and Italian stewardship and accompanied for some reason by the wondrous British actress Lena Headey (great in "Aberdeen" a few years back) doing her own kind of wolf-girl impersonation. It feels as if too much attention by far was paid to the overall physical production and not nearly enough to the tensions and the structure of the story.
Then there are the performances, or rather, then there aren't the performances. Ledger's is awful; he hardly registers. He should have been replaced by someone who did. Damon does a game impersonation of a British schoolboy as an early-19th-century German folklorist and proves that even at the advanced age of 34, he'd have made a pretty good Harry Potter. Unfortunately, no one seems to have told him that his movie wasn't "Harry Potter and the Python of Monty." Headey isn't given enough to do, Bellucci's contribution is far more an appearance than a performance; no one else makes much of an impression.
Gilliam does two things well: mud and trees. We have a sense of a monochrome world built upon a slick, insubstantial, gloppy skin of gooey slipperiness. Someone get this guy a movie set in the mud bath of all times, World War I; he'd be a natural. The trees, the rocks, the stones of his natural world are again the most expressive things in this world. They have a personality and a level of menace his story and performers never begin to achieve.
The Brothers Grimm (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for innuendo of violence to children and mild fighting sequences.